Both of The Necks’ hour-long sets at Village Underground began with the slow, collective deliberation of a three-way chess match. Very gradually, cymbals and bowed bass answered a looping piano pattern. After this point, as drummer Tony Buck told an interviewer two years ago: “It’s important that we don’t know where it’s going to.”
In the 25 years since they first started playing together, the Australian trio have developed a highly experimental sound that veers from pristine ambience to chugging krautrock, via everything in between. Performances are always improvised and built around a few musical figures which Chris Abrahams (piano), Lloyd Swanton (double bass) and Buck then steer into a trance-like holding pattern.
At first the opening hour evolved gently, but was soon buzzing with an itchy tremulousness, like a hot summer night thick with the hum of crickets. Swanton plucked his double bass with a rapid staccato, while Abrahams rattled the piano keys with an unceasing delirium.
Through a succession of incremental shifts in tempo, pitch and tone, the piece opened up into calmer territory, as though a cool dawn was rising out of the darkness. Occasionally, subtle changes to the repeating musical figures felt like the movement of a looming raincloud. But just as soon as this gearshift was made, the performance switched once again, this time pulsating furiously, curdling into a long period of sustained dissonance. By the time the threshing, throbbing storm had subsided, the music’s physical impact was noticeable: I suddenly realised I was slightly short of breath.
Watching The Necks can be a difficult experience at times. Something in the repetition demands the viewer stay with and within the journey of the music. This was partly exacerbated by tonight’s venue being standing room only, evident from the slight sway of several impatient bodies.
But this form of listenership also offers rewards. In the stretch where a consonant piano arpeggio and bass drone emerged out of a dissonant alarm-bell clatter, it felt almost like a benevolent act. When, halfway through the second set, Abrahams began to repeat a two-handed glissando figure, the hypnotic effect was not only pleasing, but almost troubling to hear fade away. The Necks have an impressive knack of showing the listener what it feels like to really listen.