The Necks. Pic: Rob Sferco.

Music, Reviews

The Necks review (Union House, Adelaide)

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In the house of the Adelaide Fringe there are many mansions. Venues spring up all over the CBD each with distinctive programs and loyal audiences. In the East End, The Garden of Unearthly Delights at Rundle Park and Gluttony at the adjacent Rymill Park attract huge crowds for the four weeks of Fringe activity. The Holden Street Theatres at Hindmarsh have a first-rate program, curated by director Martha Lott, many of them freshly-imported headliners from last year’s Edinburgh Fringe.

And at Adelaide Uni, for a second year running, RCC (no longer known as the Royal Croquet Club) has benignly commandeered the campus for a rich range of events, programmed by former Adelaide Festival director, David Sefton.

Over four festivals Sefton hosted outstanding contemporary music with residencies from John Zorn and Gavin Bryars, performances by Kronos Quartet, Laurie Anderson and Van Dyke Parks,  post-rock musicians such as The National and Godspeed You ! Black Emperor and many others in the Unsound Adelaide programs.

With a total lack of fanfare the musicians take up their instruments. No greetings, no introductions, they settle into the meditative positions they hold for the entire evening.

To last year’s RCC he brought Pussy Riot and the Ziporyn Ambient Orchestra and this time his program features Stereolab, Lydia Lunch Retrovirus, A tribute to the Lost Songs of the Triffids singer David McComb, a recital of Steve Reich’s Music for 18 Musicians and a one-night only performance from The Necks.

Formed in 1987, The Necks have gained an extraordinary reputation not only in this country but enjoy a devoted following in Europe and North America as leading exponents in ambient improvised performance. Dissolving the boundaries between jazz, electronica and minimalist chamber music The Necks are as distinctive as they are unique. 

Over more than twenty albums, this trio – featuring Chris Abrahams on piano and Hammond organ, Tony Buck on drums and percussion and Lloyd Swanton on electric and double bass – has explored a variety of musical territories. From their debut CD Sex to their haunting soundtrack to the grimly brilliant film, The Boys in 1998, the catchy beats of Drive By in 2003 to current studio work such as last year’s Three, The Necks have established  and sustained a remarkable output for their ubiquitous Fish of Milk label.

On stage in the makeshift space in Union House the group prepares to play to a capacity crowd braced for a night of original sounds and maximum invention. With a total lack of fanfare the musicians take up their instruments. No greetings, no introductions, they settle into the meditative positions they hold for the entire evening.

Abrahams begins with small slow chords on the piano, trickling, lightly-syncopated repetitions. Swanton, head bowed, holds his double bass as the piano lightly explores its motif. Almost imperceptibly, Buck brushes the cymbals. It is tiny and tentative and the audience is drawn in like moths to a very pale flame. 

It is tiny and tentative and the audience is drawn in like moths to a very pale flame. 

The music just appears as if conjured from the air. It is said The Necks begin with a blank page. It is perhaps a tabula rasa. Or raga more like, because their work invites comparison with the Indian carnatic improvisations of Ali Akhbar Khan, the violinist L. Subramaniam and so many others seen and heard on the WOMAD circuit and in Indian festivals. 

The players begin to develop motifs and modal loops. Abrahams’ mellow harmonic chords now joined by Swanton’s sweeping bowed bass lines which then turn into a repeated plucked pulsing bass. Buck is mixing a soft bell sound with his cymbal brushes. The sound is soothing, intriguing and is quietly gathering. We are at the 16 minute mark and this music morphs and changes, ebbs and flows, in small incremental steps.

The musicians are entirely absorbed in their playing, looking down into their work. Abrahams, methodical and restrained at the acoustic piano, Swanton puttering and bowing the intricate and insistent bass line and Buck finding ways to scrape and agitate the drumhead while developing an insistent brush and timpani mallet rhythm that begins to drive the composition past the 28 minute mark. Unlike so many bands, the players never exchange glances or visibly share ideas. There is neither a nod nor a wink. It is solemn and intensely concentrated. The audience leans in even further.

By 36 minutes the music is now a series of swells and disturbances. It is hard to know where these changes have come from. We are watching every step but these shifts elude detection. The music keeps becoming before our eyes but we catch each change too late . It is strange and engaging, like watching an eclipse and somehow blinking just as the celestial bodies move into unison.

The intensity gets greater and you start to feel unhinged. The insistence is disturbing.

The intensity gets greater and you start to feel unhinged. The insistence is disturbing. I find myself both enjoying the constant threading and looping and wanting it to ease up, to exhaust these repetitions and disperse. But it is 48 minutes now and there is a dervish-like twirl and rapture to the rhythmic piano thrumming its tattoo, the bass lines are coming up from the floorboards and the drumming rattles and beats in fast march time. At 52 minutes the music stops as suddenly as it began. The musicians briefly bow and leave the stage. Swanton announces a 20 minute break before the second set returns.

And the players resume a second time for 44 minutes, even more focused and inventive than before. Each musician is subsumed in the collective sound. No solos, no leads, no ego, no hi-jinx. There are other musicians who chart this territory. Can from Germany for instance, Brian Eno in his studio constructions. The long career of Keith Jarrett is a journey into melodic and harmonic labyrinths, some whimsical, some sublime and some perverse.

But there is something austere, Zen-like and instinctively apt about the way The Necks do things. They have discovered a music that is located somewhere between the head and the heart – and whichever way you turn, it is a fascinating place to visit.

The Necks played the University of Adelaide’s Union House on February 21, as part of Adelaide Fringe.

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