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Time Being; Harold Budd / The Necks

Time Being; Harold Budd / The Necks, AE Harris Building, Birmingham, 24/11/2011.

by Ian Mann

December 04, 2011


Ian Mann enjoys a unique double bill and takes a look at The Necks' latest album "Mindset".

Time Being; Harold Budd / The Necks, AE Harris Building, Birmingham, 24/11/2011.

This intriguing double bill was part of a short UK tour made under the “Time Being” title and featured the contrasting approaches to minimalism adopted by the American ambient composer Harold Budd and cult Australian improvising trio The Necks. Budd and The Necks share common ground through their collaborations with Brian Eno and both were keen to present their own unique approaches to musical performance on the same evening.

For this date tour promoters Sound and Music worked in collaboration with Birmingham Jazz and it was the latter’s Tony Dudley Evans who introduced the performances in the unusual setting of the AE Harris Building, a former industrial unit in Birmingham’s increasingly fashionable Jewellery Quarter. He explained that The Necks, who had previously played at the city’s CBSO Centre venue, had asked not to play in either a concert hall or a jazz club but had requested “somewhere unusual” and that the AE Harris Building, home to Birmingham theatre company Stan’s Café seemed to fit the bill .The utilitarian ambience plus the visuals of British artist Russell Mills complemented both acts perfectly and this was an evening of highly distinctive, thought provoking music.

I first became aware of Harold Budd in the 1980’s through his collaboration with the indie/ambient rock group Cocteau Twins “The Moon And The Melodies” but must confess that he’s rather dropped off my radar in the intervening years despite his extensive recorded activity over the course of the last two decades. Tonight Budd, playing piano, was joined by the Austrian born, Berlin based improvising musician Werner Dafeldecker who appeared on electronics and occasional double bass. They played a single unbroken piece that began with the drones, pulses and glitches generated by Dafeldecker’s table mounted collection of electronica with Budd eventually joining in with sparse piano chording. At times the sense of space and the way that Budd let notes just hang in the air reminded me of a particularly abstract ECM record. This was all about creating an atmosphere and as the music slowly began to evolve Mills’ visuals subtly matched the mood of the music with blocks of colour slowly and gradually changing hue, amorphous shapes forming and dissolving in a manner that reminded me of an animated Mark Rothko painting. Meanwhile Dafeldecker effected equally subtle treatments of Budd’s piano sound with a dash of echo here or looping and layering there. At one point Budd’s piano arpeggios almost mutated into the sound of church bells.

I should perhaps emphasise just how quiet this performance was, there were times when Dafeldecker’s contribution was almost entirely subliminal. Despite the fact that the audience, Wire readers all I should imagine, were concentrating very intently outside noises did become noticeable.
A very noisy camera shutter deployed by the professional photographer covering the gig was distracting but the sound of police sirens piercing the air of the Birmingham night almost seemed to become part of the performance.

Towards the end of the piece Dafeldecker took up his double bass to produce grainy arco sounds in the instrument’s extreme lower register. He also made something of a show of adjusting the instrument’s tuning pegs but as he had turned his back to the audience in order to face his amp it was difficult to see exactly what he was doing. In many ways the bass seemed to be rather superfluous and Dafeldecker’s playing of the instrument was totally eclipsed by Lloyd Swanton of The Necks later in the evening.

Eventually the two professorial figures on stage lapsed into silence with the audience giving them a rousing ovation. Budd, who was suffering with a cold, looked particularly satisfied with his night’s work as he gave his non verbal acknowledgement to the crowd. It had certainly been an absorbing and fascinating set, there had been moments where nothing much seemed to be happening and stasis almost appeared to be setting in, yet when I looked at my watch an hour had passed seemingly in the blink of an eye.
For me music of this nature is always best experienced live, I can’t say that I’d particularly wish to listen to this kind of music at home. For all this Budd had drawn me into his sound world on a temporary basis at least and it was an education to watch a legend of the ambient music genre at work.

When I informed my co-writer and hard core Necks fan Tim Owen that I was going to this double bill he observed “they will sound pretty lively after Harold Budd I would think”. No arguments there as the trio played one of their trademark hour long single piece improvisations, masterfully building up the tension as the set progressed.

It was the first time I’d seen the group and my first reaction was surprise at the way the group set up on stage. Pianist Chris Abrahams had his back to bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer/percussionist Tony Buck which to me seemed strange for an improvising group where cues are normally given by a glance, a nod of the head or the raising of an eyebrow. Perhaps they always do this-I’m sure seasoned Necks watchers like Tim or Lee Paterson could tell me- and I wondered if this was a signifier of the group’s commitment to the purity of sound itself, of letting the music make its own direction in a wholly democratic context where the pianist is emphatically NOT the leader.

Nevertheless it was Abrahams who began the piece with Swanton later adding his rich, cello like arco bass to the mix. Buck sat watching for a long time before adding mallet rumbles that sounded like distant thunder to the slowly gathering storm as once again the wail of sirens in the street outside intruded to add to the growing sense of foreboding already being generated by the three musicians.

Swanton put down the bow as the piece gathered intensity, his vigorous pizzicato technique also including dramatic flamenco style strumming. Meanwhile Buck continued to rumble, simultaneously adding the shimmering of cymbals to his attack as Abrahams piano patterns became increasingly hypnotic, interlocking with the rhythms of his two colleagues in almost Reichian fashion.

And still things continued to build with Buck adding the sound of bells, shells and shakers to the already fiendishly complex rhythms he was producing. Many of these small percussion items seemed to be operated by his feet- I was sat towards Abrahams’ side of the stage and it wasn’t always easy to see exactly what Buck was doing. Be that as it may it was still apparent that his technique was little short of phenomenal with his relentless left hand brush work particularly impressive. Buck rarely hits the drums in the conventional manner yet the range of sounds, rhythms and textures he produces is little short of astonishing with his bass drum patterns forming both a rhythmic and melodic component of The Necks’ extraordinary music. There also appeared to be an electronic element (though quite how this was generated wasn’t obvious) with ambient drone patterns being added to the furiously interconnecting rhythms. 

Eventually the steadily accreted patterns built to a crescendo bringing with it an incredible release of tension as the trio eased their audience down gradually with a gently lyrical coda. A the final notes died away the audience gave them a thunderous reception but the very nature of The Necks working methods precluded any possibility of encore. It’s a tribute to The Necks’ skill and perseverance that their music has accrued such a devoted cult following- this may be wholly improvised music but it doesn’t fit neatly into any kind of jazz, or indeed rock, category. Traditional virtues such as melody, and especially swing are almost totally absent and yet their music remains oddly compelling. Once again an hour seemed to flash by in a flash.

As A Necks newcomer I’ll admit that I initially found their new album “Mindset” (incredibly their 16th) a little difficult to get into but this live performance helped to bring it all together for me. Witnessing the group live demonstrated their superb individual techniques and single mindedness of vision. John Peel’s famous dictum about The Fall “always different, always the same” is also routinely applied to The Necks, basically because it’s so true. Many of the group’s albums are single pieces of music similar to tonight’s but “Mindset” bends the rules with two shorter pieces that clock in at just over the twenty minute mark and are clearly tailored to fit one side of a vinyl LP. My review copy is a CD but the album also appears in the currently resurgent vinyl format.

The first piece, “Rum Jungle” is The Necks at their most full on, the piece almost seems to be a fragment from an even larger work. The trio hit the ground running with rumbling piano patterns, pumping bass and Buck’s relentless percussive storm of drums, cymbals and shakers. Swanton’s bass adds snippets of melody with eerie keyboard effects also adding to the claustrophobic but compelling atmosphere. Elements of this piece bear a strong resemblance to the music we had heard this evening, Peel’s dictum again.

By contrast “Daylights” represents the trio at their most impressionistic with wispy, spectral keyboard patterns and scattered, almost ghostly percussion combining ethereally as The Necks set the controls for the outer reaches of the cosmos. Again it’s all about layering as Abrahams patiently introduces additional keyboard textures and Buck adds layers of shimmering, skittering cymbals with Swanton’s sparse, simple, almost subliminal bass motifs grounding it all. Much of the piece has an air of zen like calm, a very different feel from the restless and relentless “Rum Jungle” yet the components and methodology are much the same. The Necks have virtually invented a musical genre of their own of which “Mindset” reveals two very different yet unified aspects.     

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