There are films you’re supposed to have seen, and lots of them are films I haven’t – Apocalypse Now, Schindler’s List, The Goonies – which creates a weird sense of guilt, like I’ve broken some sort of unspoken cultural contract. On a more niche level, it seems there are bands you’re supposed to have witnessed live, and Australian trio The Necks is surely one of them. The group’s approach – which entails long, unbroken free improvisations that slowly evolve and shift – is around thirty years in the honing, and the stuff of legend. Amid surprisingly chilly February air, I bump into K___ in the line for the bar, and confess: “Yeah, I’ve never seen the Necks before. I’ve missed them every time they’ve come.” (In my defense, I wasn’t even born when they first started playing). K looks relieved and laughs: “I’m glad I’m not the only one.”
D____ and I cradle plastic cups of liquor through the curtained entry point and find a pair of free seats in the already well-populated outdoor auditorium. THE NECKS begin: quiet, unobtrusive drones and gentle cymbal wash coalescing in space, waiting for a detail to emerge and take the lead. Eventually, this lingering fog of sound does make way for movement, an unhurried and simple two-chord undulation driven by subtle piano variations and the gentle melodics of bowed double bass. Drums, bass and piano all abide by this sense of movement, though not in a uniform way: each instrument cycles through its own ebb and flow at its own pace, creating layers of overlapping dynamics, slow-motion sea-foam crashing on a shore at night. This continues for a long time, eventually driven along by Tony Buck’s insistent quaver dings on the cymbals. Things are changing, but almost imperceptibly, like we’re ants ambling along a Rothko. At some point, crotales and seed pods are added to the kit, expanding the sonic palette. Chris Abrahams’ piano playing moves from a fluid, almost synth-like drone style towards more discernable arpeggios and pseudo-melodies featuring octave harmonies and blue notes. Lloyd Swanton begins to alternate between bowing and pizzicato, gradually locking in more with Buck’s increasingly structured thumpings. It finally coheres into a swaggering common-time groove, floor tom emphasis on one! and! two! comprising the main figure. There’s no real moment of epiphany or totally united rhythm; piano and bass slowly fade into silence, leaving Buck to usher us out with a shimmering, rattling cowbell, which cross-fades into discernable oompah/dancehall bangers emenating from a nearby circus tent.
Following a short break filled by a minimal deep house DJ, German musician Volker Bertelmann aka HAUSCHKA appears under the towering festival stage-dome. Armed with a prepared grand piano, incidental percussion (to likewise go inside the piano) and unseen electronic sound-sources, Hauschka’s approach is essentially a fusion of established extended techniques combined with fairly accessible contemporary classical and/or EDM-influenced compositions.
This format plays out in a set of continuous sound, as with The Necks; unlike The Necks, this set is busy, crammed with ideas, variable polyrhythms, clear-cut melodies and emphatic sound events. Bertelmann tapes small drums and tambourines, egg shakers and other foreign objects to his piano strings, eliciting concurrent percussion sounds when he strikes particular keys. At times, this is remarkably effective (at others, it’s seemingly arbitrary and borderline annoying). Here and there he strips back the physical “prepared” elements and proffers kind of Satie-esque piano interludes which creates a pleasant dynamic counterpoint. Other moments rely more heavily on electronic augmentation, whereby piano keys might trigger a kick-drum sound that gets looped, or where a synthetic texture plays from an unknown device.
Whether Hauschka’s overall project is innovative or gimmicky kind of depends on what mood you’re in, and how much you think his process serves its ends. Certainly, the process is foregrounded – a camera films the inside of the piano, with all its rattling insertions, and projects it on the big screen rear of stage. This is definitely YouTube generation stuff, designed to “wow” through its audacity and extravagance before it generates any kind of more contemplative thought. That’s not to say the latter can’t arise, or that it’s necessarily cheapened by its ostentatiousness. Some of the best music is flashy, self-consciously and deliberately novel. For my part, I can only really get on board with a portion of the actual compositions here, and the process (intriguing though it is) isn’t compelling enough to sustain your interest alone. At its best – where form and function operate in symbiosis, where compositions are unique and well thought-out – Hauschka’s style reveals moments of beauty and exciting possibilities. At its worst, it feels like a cheap trick, with uninspired musical ideas propped up by clunky gimmicks and somewhat dated electronic influences.
THE NECKS and HAUSCHKA were a well-programmed pairing. Both evince an emphasis on the nexus of tradition and experimentation. Both are preoccupied with repetition, layering, phasing and long-form listening. Fittingly, or perhaps ironically, each act’s flaws and strengths felt inverse to the other’s.
The Necks are seasoned professionals and their delivery tonight was as flawless as you’d expect. Every sound they eked out was ear-pleasing and effortlessly cool; nothing stuck out as weird or wrong. What they seemed to lack however was any palpable sense of adventure. This is the sound of an ambient/improv/post-jazz trio playing it safe, doing what they do well, to nobody’s detriment. But given their reputation as genre-smudging and envelope-pushing, heck even just in the sense that it’s sometimes nice to be surprised, I would have liked them to take a few more risks (melodically, dynamically, rhythmically, texturally, take your pick).
Perhaps it’s not fair to judge a band against their hallowed, iconic status – after all, musicians (mostly) just do their thing and it’s the public and critics (mostly) who generate a discourse of hype and expectation. But then again it probably is fair, because it’s this discourse that’s sustained their illustrious career. At this point I want to hear them pushing themselves.
Hauschka, conversely, was risky business. He moved restlessly between ideas which at any one moment might seem brash, uncool or incongruous. His multi-tasking is ambitious and he couldn’t always nail the one-man-band mechanics, resulting in moments of vulnerability and imprecision. And yet, Hauschka’s flawed set boasted a forward-looking zeal that The Necks seemed to have abandoned in favour of a comfortable routine.
Hauschka and The Necks are both world-famous; both are the recipients of glowing praise, and are perhaps likewise victim to hyperbolic expectations. We assume they ought to be boundary-pushing, or note perfect, or both, and maybe they’re not bout that life. For what it’s worth, both were a pleasure to behold. But each act would do well not to rest on its laurels, and maybe even learn a little something from the other.