It starts with the piano. A trickling cluster of notes, like insects skipping across water, or motes of dust dancing in the sunlight. A bowed bass eases in, like a steamer easing over the horizon, becoming imperceptibly louder as it progresses. Cymbals hiss on the edge of audibility.
Gradually, a slow, surging rhythm establishes itself, created by variations in pitch and volume. From a relatively restrained start, we’re now in intense, stormy territory. The piano yammers an unrelenting torrent of notes, with a throbbing, thrumming bass underneath. It’s like being in a ship, in a storm, in the middle of the ocean. What sounds like a ship’s bell is clamours repeatedly.
Insects, dust, water, storms. The Necks’ music has a tendency to send music writers running for the thesaurus. The Australian trio play long, improvised pieces, usually around an hour long, that unfold glacially, yet are capable of reaching a mesmerizing peak of intensity
The band is in London’s Café Oto as part of tour to promote their latest release – their 17th – Open. As usual it’s made up of a single piece, this time 68 minutes long. But they’re not here to recreate that record’s crystalline beauty, painstakingly assembled and layered as it was in the studio from multiple takes and a variety of instrumentation, both acoustic and electronic.
Live, The Necks rely wholly on improvisation, based around their relatively straightforward setup of drums, bass and piano. It’s an approach dependent on many years of playing together and listening to each other.
They’re playing two sets tonight. If the first was watery, dynamic, tempestuous, the second is craggier, more, austere and rumbling, like storm clouds gathering over a moor. Chris Abrahams stays on the lower register of the piano for a large section of the piece as Lloyd Swanton gets his bow out again, setting up a nagging, buzzing drone.
There’s more percussion this time. First, Tony Buck’s wind chimes, maracas and castanets set up a clacking bed of sound. Then, he picks up his sticks, firing up a repeated cycle of blistered, asymmetric snare fills.
When Abrahams moves up the keyboard to unleash glittering, tumbling piano arpeggios, it’s like the sun coming out. Piano, bass and crackling snares suddenly combine and we’re lost in a transcendent moment of eternal summer.