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Concert Review/ The Necks

img  Tobias

I'm sure there are event spaces more ideally suited to a Necks concert, but when we enter the Bunker Ulmenwall barely five minutes before the concert is about to commence, I'm hard pressed to come up with one. Situated in an old army bunker, dressed up like a classic subway station and equipped with an inviting and unique architecture in which the pub part of the venue organically melts into the concert space and the musicians are sandwiched in between two audiences placed laterally of the podium, it is as hard to find (try telling your GPS to search for a place whose house number is „0“) as it is thrillingly cool. The Australians have played here a full three times prior to this gig, with each event doubling the attendance rate and visitors taking home stories about having witnessed something utterly inexplicable and special. Jazz and adjacent genres are the artistic headlights of the Bunker Ulmenwall – only a day later, Angelika Niesciers will combine the exciting sounds of her Saxophone with the ancient lyricism of the Oud and the venue's Weltnachten-Festival will research the tangents between Oriental and Occidental traditions – and even though the organisers have again found it hard to come up with a completely satisfying genre definition (The Necks are billed as „Ambient Jazz“ in flyers), this truly appears to be a match made in heaven.

You would expect a venue like this to be packed with a program like tonight's and yet the sight of what must surely be 150 paying visitors is still impressive. The Necks have achieved what most other bands wouldn't even dare to dream of: They have turned into a metaphor for an idea. This idea has a lot to do with a very particular and singular vision of improvisation as a mode of communication and composition. It is an idea with just enough clearly defined parameters to establish a recognisable style and yet with enough openness to turn each gig into a unique ritual which almost habitually leaves some frustrated but without even the most frustrated leaving before the last note has been played. For every disappointed visitor, however, there are at least five whose view of music has been challenged and smashed to pieces and no other act in whatever category currently seems able to similarly cater to this desire for enlightenment. Grown-ups who last attended a concert years ago will approach band in the breaks between sets like teenagers, asking them to sign their CDs. Fans will stand in line at the end just to tell them they „saw them in Amsterdam and you were great“. Supposedly, there are regularly fights at the merchandising counter over which album is the best, definitive or most representative of their career. Few rock bands can compete with this kind of passion, few techno acts conjure up a similar ecstasy and there aren't even that many Jazz bands exuding a similarly cool self-confidence.

In the first half of their performance tonight, The Necks demonstrate what has gotten them this far. Lloyd Swank opens with a minimal, blue bass motive composed of three tones and varying degrees of silence between the last note of a cycle and first one of the next. While his colleagues are waiting patiently and attentively in the opaque potential of these first minutes, he savors every resonance, stretching one note here and adding another there until the motive has changed – not necessarily expanded or ornamented – into something completely different. In the meantime, the band has silently awoken from its suspenseful stasis. Chris Abrahams is moving from solitary chord clusters in the upper registers to one-finger impulse drones, which gradually coallesce into clouds of constantly morphing overtones and rhythmo-harmonic patterns. Tony Buck, meanwhile, whose deep percussive tremors have created an eery mood of unease at first, is feeling his way forwards to a steady metrum. For almost the entire performance, he seems to dance around the beat, flirting with it before withdrawing from the consequences. When it does arrive, however, the impact is colossal, the trio gallopping forward unstoppably on the wings of electromagnetic propulsion.

Despite some claims to the contrary, there is nothing functional about The Necks' approach. There is a clearly defined process at the heart of their music, but the process is not to be confused with the actual music itself. Pieces are long, but they could both be shorter or even more epic without violating their principles. The main attraction of listening to their pieces, be it live or on CD, does not lie in observing Swanton, Abrahams and Buck start in one place and ending somewhere else entirely. Instead, it is about listening to music magically and intuitively unfold in the moment of its creation along lines which are as simple to understand as they are complex, confounding and confusing in their emotional effect. It is almost as if the fledgling themes already contain their final form within them and it is the job of the musicians to transfer them from one state into the next over the duration of a concert while maintaining the energy brimming inside of them. Each second for each musician involves revealing a new facet of his material while staying true to what has happened before and making sure not to miss the golden passages of confluence, when the performances of all three members suddenly intertwine to create a overwhelmingly physical and breathtakingly hypnotic sequence. Some have compared their approach to Bohren & Der Club of Gore, but tonight's performance proves that comparison to be beside the point. For while the dirge-like doom of Bohren never leaves the safety of a single mood, The Necks shimmy through the dots of their music's braille with neverending curiosity.

The second set of the evening makes this even more apparent. Just as long but less elegiac as the first one, it settles into a groove much quicker, virtually shooting into a euphoric passage of punctuated bass, metalically ringing percussion and psychoacoustic Piano pulsation right from the outset. Even though (or because) he sometimes seems to operate outside of the tight Drum/Bass foundation of Swanton and Buck, Abrahams is in the limelight here, permutating insistently moving tonal cascades with his fingers. In the middle section, the trio strikes upon the outer edges of chaos and Noise, before returning to the realms of organised harmony and majestically rising like a firy phonix at the end. The sustained applause after their landing makes the band return to the stage a couple of times, before Lloyd Swanton jokes that they „don't do encores“ and the evening really is over. Noone wants to leave, though, and besides a couple of soccer-fanatics discussing the fact that local club Biefeld has drawn against Leverkusen, the entire Bunker Ulmenwall seems occupied with exchanging what they have just experienced. As we stay for a little while longer, sipping on our alcoholfree beers and partaking in this upbeat mood, I'm no longer sure there may be an event space more ideally suited to The Necks than this one.

By Tobias Fischer

Homepage: The Necks
Homepage: Bunker Ulmenwall

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