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Riding the wave

Clinton Green: The Necks

The Necks The Necks
photo Tim Williams
Describing The Necks as ‘an improvising band’ is plainly accurate, but does not tell the whole story of what this unique trio has developed over their 25-year-plus history. Chris Abrahams (piano), Lloyd Swanton (double bass) and Tony Buck (drums/percussion) have distilled a particular improvisatory practice uniquely their own. The Necks go onstage with no pre-conceived plans, yet the result is instantly recognisable as the music of The Necks. There are no solos per se; they work together as a single unit, serving a music that takes on a life and energy of its own. The compositional choices the trio makes have an aura of inevitability. In the world of The Necks, the will of the individual bows to the requirements of the music.

Playing for the first time in the pristine acoustic environment of the Melbourne Recital Centre, it was obvious to the packed house from the beginning that this was going to be an ideal sonic setting to revel in all the minute musical textures that The Necks conjured into life. For Buck in particular, each muted scrape of a drum skin or cymbal was afforded its own clear place in the hall’s broad acoustic. His textural elements are critical to the band’s studio recordings, but many of his subtler gestures have been lost in the bombastic PAs of venues frequented on previous tours.

The first set was a study of classic ‘Neckisms.’ Abrahams began with lush runs down the grand piano, before settling into a repetitive two-note figure, high on the keyboard and mostly only a semitone apart. The figure rose and fell away again in tempo and intensity, altering ever-so-slightly in each bar. Swanton and Buck followed his lead, adding depth and colour, Swanton alternating between pizzicato and arco, and Buck somehow mirroring Abrahams’ pitch intervals with drum and cymbal. Already they had created a familiar Necks motif of rich, slowly evolving music that had the character of waves washing in and out on the shore.

Each of their hour-long sets featured dark, vaguely discordant middle episodes, whose richness shone again in the hall’s acoustics. Many have written that The Necks sound like more than just three people, and often during these middle parts I wondered where a particular sound was coming from. Inevitably, Buck was the culprit. He is that rare combination of an endlessly inventive musician with an accomplished technique that makes musical imagination a reality. Whether he’s grinding a hand cymbal into his snare drum, rolling bells on the ground underfoot, or creating thunderous exclamations with a handbell on his floor tom, Buck’s contribution to The Necks’ sound world is enormous.

Abrahams often leads The Necks into another mood. This was beautifully demonstrated at the conclusion of the dirge-like middle episode of the second set. We had been revelling for around 10 minutes in the rich subterranean frequencies Swanton and Buck had created when Abrahams shifted from bass notes to a sequence of bright chords at the piano’s high end. Of course, his band mates followed and the ecstasy was palpable in the hall as the music’s mood swung from darkness to joy. Few of Abrahams’ piano phrases are technically complex; like Buck and Swanton, his priorities are texture and mood. His genius is an unfailing awareness of when the change must come, and impeccable timing and poise in making it happen.

American band, Swans, had played the previous month at The Necks’ former Melbourne haunt, the Corner Hotel. Swans ostensibly play ‘songs,’ yet improvisation is a big part of their performances and manifests in not dissimilar ways to The Necks. The songs serve as relatively simple yet elastic structures the musicians use to build almost unbearable tensions that—through repetitive crashing slabs of guitar/bass/drum volume and crescendos that seem to go forever—are rarely resolved. Frontman Michael Gira presides, reading the tension and directing the band appropriately; one part conductor, one part crazed preacher.

Swans and The Necks are continents apart in aesthetics and aggression, but both approach texture and improvisation like surfers. It is foolish to think the ocean can be influenced; instead they read the waters, watch for rips and ride waves of monolithic sound, achieving something both beautiful and terrifying.

The Necks, Melbourne Recital Centre, 12 Feb; Swans, Corner Hotel, Melbourne, 20 January

RealTime issue #126 April-May 2015 pg. 42

© Clinton Green; for permission to reproduce apply to [email protected]

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