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The Necks

Bishopsgate Institute, London,  18/11/2011 (part of London Jazz Festival).

by Tim Owen

November 23, 2011


For its gradual foray into dark emotion, and for the contrasting glimpses of lyricism, this was an outstanding performance

This was the first of a two night stand for Australian trio The Necks at Bishopsgate Institute, in a series of concerts organised by north London Jazz venue The Vortex. The recent Necks album, Mindset, features relatively short tracks that are intended to facilitate release on vinyl, but their live show thankfully still saw the trio spinning their trademark performances out of repeating musical figures across each of the evening’s two hour-long sets.

The two sets were very different. The first built gradually from Tony Buck’s cymbal soundings and the soft minimal repetitions of pianist Chris Abrahams, with Lloyd Swanton plucking the barest accompaniment from his double bass. This long intro built to a sudden termination through a gradual crescendo, Abrahams condensing rapidly-fingered note clusters while Buck gradually worked through various hand-held percussion objects before graduating to the drums. Swanton’s switch to bowed bass underpinned a palpable darkening of mood. The resonating silence that followed the climax was enhanced by a pure tone emanating from Buck’s hand-held cymbal strikes, which he damped-down on the drum head. Abrahams increasingly assertive playing gave this piece its backbone. When he withheld its progression for too long I began to tire of the music’s apparent stasis, but something subtle in Buck’s playing suddenly snapped me right back to attention, and I was right back in the moment from then on. This reliance on the audience’s wakefulness and attentive patience is quite a dicey strategy for The Necks, and it’s really something that they can play to sizeable mixed audiences, and hold them in universally rapt attention. It was Buck’s rustle of shells and bells that veiled the ultimate diminution of the set’s forward momentum, and gave it closure.

The second set was dominated by swirling patterns of small, wooden percussion items and Swanton’s deep, rich bass bowing. After a brief intro Abrahams momentarily essayed a lovely fragment pregnant with melodic potential. This could have been sourced from, or worked up into a jazz standard, but in typical Necks style its potentiality was abandoned in favour of a return to trademark Necks austerity, and a new entropic swell of small sonic incidents to an emotive climax. The melodic idea was only revisited, briefly, once the trio had taken us gracefully through some darkly emotive musical passages. Remaining always within their chosen linearity, the trio combined and then re-combined their collective energies in sometimes surprisingly forceful and turbulent ways until Abrahams finally guided the set to its resolution. For its gradual foray into dark emotion, and for the contrasting glimpses of lyricism, this was an outstanding performance; perhaps the best piece I’ve yet heard The Necks play across a handful of live shows.

After the show, Tony Buck dropped into discussion the tantalising prospect of a future alliance between The Necks and Michael Gira’s SWANS. Apparently Gira contacted the Necks to suggest the collaboration, but the Necks’ touring schedule wouldn’t accommodate it. At first, this seems an unlikely proposition. Gira’s outfit still retains the often brutalist, postpunk intensity of its first manifestation, which seems quite at odds with the Necks restraint. But the DNA of its 2010 reincarnation also carries the imprint of Gira’s more melodic, songwriterly Angels of Light persona, and SWANS similarly like to lock into specific musical patterns for forensic examination. The current SWANS live experience is rawly emotive and immensely powerful, and it’s pretty exciting to conjecture how that aesthetic might be channelled if married to the Necks modus operandi. Let’s hope it happens.

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