The Necks

Townsville
ReR Necks 8

Kapital Band 1

Playing By Numbers

Mosz 017

With terms such as ambient and minimalist sloppily and frequently bandied about, their correct connotation becomes as blurred as the sound often is during purported performances of the musical genre they’re supposed to represent.

The advantage of CDs such as The Necks’ Townsville and Kapital Band 1’s Playing By Numbers, however is that they’re ingeniously designed by musicians who concentrate as much on the details of creation as the overall structure. The discs also demonstrate that homespun, unfussy and discreet sonic creations should be expansive, not static or flimsy. Furthermore, although each band may be slotted in the same sub-section of musical creation, each pursues a different itinerary to reach its defined objective.

Australians, the three members of The Necks have been operating within the restricted freedom of unpremeditated improvisation for almost two decades. Yet the nearly 54-minute, single track that makes up Townsville is both consistent and unique. The consistency relates to the high standard which the band has set for itself over the years. However this floating nocturne is unique because it’s gradually revealed as a showcase for pianist Chris Abrahams, with the in-the-pocket groove of bassist Lloyd Swanton and inventive percussive fills, courtesy of drummer Tony Buck, subtly coloring his keyboard fantasia. Most other Necks’ discs focus on Swanton’s sturdy string stropping.

Although the applause is excised, Townsville was actually recorded live in concert and merely mixed and mastered afterwards. In contrast, Playing By Numbers is a totem to recording studio wizardry. Vienna-based Nicholas Bussmann, initially a cellist, and Berlin resident Martin Brandlmayr, ordinarily a percussionist, play all the instruments on the CD’s three tracks, except for flute. The resulting timbres from cello, guitar, marimba, voice and drums were sutured in the studio and extended with found urban street sounds. Wisely, the two have decided that when they perform live, contributions from other instrumentalists – including Buck, who is now a Berliner – will fill out the presentation.

That astute realization is likely why Playing By Numbers impresses while many other studio creations reek of dial and DAT manipulation. More to the point, both men have a history of playing live, Brandlmayr, with among others, the bands Radian, Trapist and Polwechsel; and Bussmann, who also composes for radio, theatre and film, with no-input mixing board manipulator Toshimaru Nakamua as Alles 3.

Conversely, mixing board manipulations are seamless and buried within the presentation in the Playing By Numbers. That means that among the harmonic confluence of cello swipes, vibraphone patterning and guitar plinks, triggered electronic wave forms that resemble winds whistling through a deserted ghost town, watery seascape and advancing and receding beach front tides color, but don’t overpower the presentation.. Unconnected ripples, retreating footfalls and languid sound snatches also play a part in creating sfumato-like transitions on the tracks.

Hypnotic minimalism arising from a bell-and-vibe configuration, percussive rhythms that encompass a single slap, or a descending, distracted rim shot. Meanwhile sweeping guitar string rotation enlivens the proceedings enough to confirm that humans are behind the CD’s creation.

Another human process detracts from the overall presentation however. On the final track a disembodied voice that sounds as if it’s broadcasting from beyond the grave repeatedly verbalizes a series of banal phrases in a monotone. Only when electric piano slides, bass guitar plucks and a final drum tap replaces the vocal mumbles dopes the tune to come back to life. For some reason appending deadpan vocals to a performance has become popular with many Teutonic reductionists.

Happily no one attempts to sing on The Necks CD, recorded in an arts centre in Thuringowa, Australia. In contrast, with the audience response deleted, this instant composition seems to be solidly of and about itself. Suspended in aural ether, it undulates through a series of intricate twists and turns as it meanders to the finale. Interconnections among the trio members are such however, that the piece manages to inventively accelerate from adagio to andante and beyond without any noticeable interruption or showboating.

Beginning with Abrahams’ organic note clusters in almost equal temperament, framed by Buck’s cymbal rattling and Swanton’s thumping bass the initial shape seems both romantic and impressionistic. Yet as the pianist’s tremolo cadences rustle and are rearranged harmonically, the portamento waves quicken and harden. While all trio members subtly shift the rhythm, this isn’t done in harmony, but in triple counterpoint, which each instrument’s line polyphonically unique. Never static, the performance gets busier and thicker until Abrahams’ overlay of cascading rococo detailing from one hand, and low-frequency chording from the other becomes evident.

Constantly in motion, the fragile theme advances not just because of the pianist’s waterfalls of notes, but also from the bassist’s rubato string shifting and the drummer’s drum top slapping. Guitar-like reverberations and echoes characterize the penultimate variation which depends on the confluence between the shifting, strummed chords from Abrahams’ piano and Swanton’s thick bass string patterns. Meanwhile, as the resulting cadences get denser, it’s apparent that underneath the others’ output Buck’s bounces and ruffs have made the tune louder, faster and more assured – almost double the tempo at which it began. Brought to a fitting climax with the pianist’s multiphonic arpeggios, the finale is signaled by a quick theme recapitulation and cymbal reverberations that melt timbres into suspended silence.

Although these are two notable efforts of prototypical modern improv, Townsville has the edge, since no one raises a voice in a song variation.

— Ken Waxman

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Track Listing: Townsville: 1. Townsville

Personnel: Townsville: Chris Abrahams (piano); Lloyd Swanton (bass) and Tony Buck (drums and percussion)

Track Listing: Playing: 1. Playing By Numbers* 2. Playing By The Night in Vienna 3. Counting the Waves

Personnel: Playing: Erik Drescher (flutes)*; Martin Brandlmayr and Nicholas Bussmann (live and remixed cello, guitar, vibraphone, bass, marimba, voice, drums and pre-recorded live sounds)