The Necks: The best band you’ve never heard of

THEY have been described, by the New York Times as “one of the greatest bands in the world”. The Guardian has been similarly breathless, eulogising them as “one of the most extraordinary groups on the planet”.

To other critics and fans, the trio are simply “masters” and “nothing short of miraculous”. And on Thursday they play their first concert in Cork as part of a mini-tour of Ireland.

The band are called The Necks, they are from Australia, and they comprise Chris Abrahams on piano, Lloyd Swanton on bass, and Tony Buck on drums. Playing together in various groups since they were teenagers more than 30 years ago, the trio formed The Necks in 1987 and have released 17 albums. Slowly but steadily they have become something of a cult band, in that they have a small but dedicated following, can sell out gigs in hours, and are championed by other pioneering musicians such as Nick Cave and Brian Eno.

One reason The Necks are so admired is that they really don’t sound like any band or music you have ever heard. On one level, they are an instrumental piano trio. But the band doesn’t sound like you might imagine an acoustic piano trio would or could sound: their music is not quite jazz, classical, minimalism, ambient, trance or alt-rock. Somehow it seems post- or beyond all these labels.

“The band was formed for a specific reason and to explore a particular way of making music,” says 51-year-old drummer Tony Buck. “We’d all played a lot of jazz, but we’d also been listening to a lot of other music, from dub to gamelan, soul, minimalism, industrial rock and African music — and we weren’t really hearing anyone who was improvising those kinds of sounds or rhythms, especially as equals. We also wanted to play in a way that gave the music the space to grow slowly, in its own time.”

The Necks create music that is mesmerising, experimental, sui generis — and their subtly changing and developing pieces can last for up to an hour — and yet it always seems entirely open and accessible. There is a tonal or emotional centre, often an insistent pulse or groove, a repeated figure or shifting pattern. If you can let it, the music gently draws you in, like a Debussy Prélude, a Keith Jarrett solo concert, or Indian classical music perhaps. The Necks have been called “artists-in-resonance”.

Live, the trio simply walk out and play; nothing is discussed or prepared in advance. One of the band will usually begin softly, with a repeated melodic or rhythmic phrase, and the others gradually join in, adding complementary or contrasting ideas that incrementally build and enrich the whole. The overall effect is meditative and hypnotic. There is a curious intensity and alchemy, a slow burn, a heightened sense of really listening.

“Once we’ve got the piece up and running, and we’ve established what the sound or feeling is, we try to sustain it, to maintain a patience with it, to see where it takes us,” says Tony Buck. “After that, the aim is to try and stay out of it as much as possible, to let the music have a life of its own. It almost feels that we’re caretakers of the music, or serving it in some way. The music becomes a kind of fourth player.”

The Necks also like to ‘play the room’, to work with the particular acoustics of the spaces in which they perform.

“Triskel Christchurch is a very beautiful acoustic space that is perfect for such projects, for yielding up these kind of discoveries,” says Tony Sheehan, artistic director of the Triskel. “That music, in this space, could be very, very special indeed.”

  • The Necks play Triskel Christchurch in Cork on Thursday; then Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Friday); St Columb’s Ballroom in Derry (Saturday); and the MAC arts centre in Belfast (Sunday).


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