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The Necks (live at The Barbican)

The Necks at The Barbican Theatre
The Barbican Theatre, London
26 June 2010

The Necks have had a pretty good upswing in their fortunes with London performances over the last few years, with sold-out runs of nights at The Vortex in Dalston so successful they added in extra shows late into the night, followed up by a triumphantly immense performance in the ecclesiastically-charged setting of the Union Chapel in May 2009. Tonight’s set finds them moving further into the upper echelons of the capital’s establishment music scene by bringing their  special brand of minimal-maximal improvisation to the Barbican Theatre, the smaller space in the Barbican arts centre – which is by any other standards a huge space where a pin dropped reverberates and a coughing audience member resonates into the auditorium.

So when Chris Abrahams starts things off with a faint ripple of piano notes, they ring out with crystal clarity,  as Tony Buck chimes in with a twinkly bell and micro-percussive ripples, and Lloyd Swanton throbs delicately on his upright bass, the slow climb out of silence from the trio spotlit onstage into the otherwise darkened hall is one conducted in an atmosphere of deep, reverent listening. In some ways this denatures the performance a little, removing any background and presence of the space itself and foregrounding the music itself and the three thoroughly absorbed performers themselves at the slight expense of much in the way of psychogeographical mood. Such is the nature of large, mostly anonymous concert halls, where the pristine nature of the sound often results in a faintly flatter experience of the show itself.

Lloyd Swanton, Chris AbrahamsNevertheless, while contemplating the above, it soon becomes apparent that The Necks have built up a formidable wall of sounds, the piano rumbling in waves and rippling hypnotically while the cymbals and blocks tap out a pitter-pat rhythm underpinning the swelling bass. The mask of concentration on Lloyd Swanton’s face is a particular aspect of Necks performances, his eyes screwed tightly shut as if he cannot bear to witness the spectacle in front of him lest he lose the moment, or that the slap of strings should become so immense that he could drop hold of the gathering slow crescendos. Abrahams, meanwhile, is stroking crinkly sweeps and sharply-interjected single-key taps out of his own 88 strings while maintaining the ever-present trills, and Buck is hard at work on placing sticks to surfaces with the skill of a multi-limbed metronome. The sensation they produce resembles nothing so much as contemplating a liquid flow of music emanating from the trio’s bodies and out of their instruments, and of being pulled under into riptides of tightly-interlocking channels at varying depths, the bass drum, upright bass and piano in particular meshing at various points into a pounding, breathing mass palpitating with a tachycardiac heartbeat pulse.

Tony BuckAfter 30-odd minutes the piece has risen into  a coruscating wash of  by now bowed strings and Buck’s trembling drumkit, the torrent shuddering as if  coming into contact with a waterfall, the flow poised in a seemingly endless rush of motion held in almost unbearable tension, then ebbing inevitably over the edge and down into softly-struck silence. No wonder both they and the audience need an intermission.

Suitably refreshed, the second set opens with a low throb from Swanton and a hesitant melody perambulating out from Abrahams’ keys as Buck shakes and eventually taps out a block and gong rhythm. Where the first session grew naturally and easily, this time around the tone at first is distinctly less comfortable, the single-minded percussion in particular jarring almost angularly against the bright trills morphing out of the piano. Almost sneakily, The Necks deploy a range of subtly-growing thumps and thuds from each of their instruments, the dysrhythmia flickering with an urgent momentum into a thunderous roil, and again there is the sensation of being held in stasis, of being transported without moving in the thrall of an endlessly circulating and slowly-changing six-handed entity which is making the huge room judder.

Lloyd SwantonJust when it seems impossible for the music to get much bigger, the trio pull off the trick of lifting the piece yet further into immense atonal spasms of multi-dimensioned ecstasy. With rhythmic gears shifting into overdrive, there is a curiously wrong mechanical aspect to their interlocking anti-grooves, like the rise and fall of a non-Euclidian engine propelling the three riders up the never-ending surface of a hyperbolic wall of death; and that is very much as disconcerting as it sounds, the central section of the set being one that is almost vertiginously difficult to bear. As the layers of seething sound are stripped gradually away and rebuilt in differing forms to the never-faltering but ever-enhanced beat of Tony Buck’s hammered blocks and clangorous chimes, the ever-rumbling bass asserts its presence again and again. Together, the trio’s primal stumble steps erratically to avoid the cracks, loping past and through Abrahams’ haunted, omnipresent looping melody, surging wildly once more into the space-filling reaches of tightly-wound chaos in expansion, before falling into a slowly divergent termination which is at once both a welcome relief, and all too soon come in its arrival.

-Richard Fontenoy-

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