Ex Nihilo Vibes

Washington City Paper | December 9, 2005
The No-Neck Blues Band, a Double Leopards fave, is another abstraction-pushing, Gotham-based act that’s just released its first widely available, nonlimited full-length—never mind that the group has been around since the early ’90s. The ever-evolving collective, which also goes by the abbreviation NNCK, is known, if at all, for an impossible-to-track discography, shambolic performances at its Harlem commune, and the occasional open-air guerilla concert. One of the last reportedly resulted in an exodus of patrons from a nearby cafe, as well as in a scuffle between NNCK member and a noise-offended restaurateur.

The new Qvaris is more accessible than previous NNCK albums—it says “rock” right there on the stylized-script cover—but it still contains plenty that would unsettle most latte sippers. Like their progressive-minded forebears in the free-jazz, avant-classical, and art-rock scenes, NNCK members frequently doodle on synths (“Qvaris Theme”), squawk on fiddle and horn (“The Black Pope”), and bray into mikes as if they were zombies in heat (“Dark Equus”). Naturally, none of the freaky results are burdened by even the slightest hint of rhythm.

More noteworthy is Qvaris’ “rock” stuff, which boasts steady, if slightly stoned-sounding, drumming and song structures that are—shock and awe—almost traditional. The former is evident from the get-go: Haunting album-opener “The Doon” is propelled by a boom-boom-bap pulse that smacks of prototypical metal, and No. 2 track “Live Your Myth in Grease” lets loose a decidedly non-drum-circle sort of tribalism. The songwriting, by contrast, verges on the subliminal: Chord progressions and motifs—yes, they’re there, improv’d or not—are seldom explicit on first listen. It’s not until mid-disc that NNCK unleashes a true hook writ large, the rambling, Link Wray–informed guitar riff that gives “Boreal Gluts”—and the whole of Qvaris—its center of gravity.

Few Americans this side of a Kennedy Center subscription are oblivious to rock ’n’ roll, and these are hardly naive musicians. Nevertheless, there’s an ex nihilo vibe here—an un-self-consciousness that implies that the band members are just as surprised as we are at what they can do. Perhaps the best example of this, “Qvaris Theme (WOHIHB),” evolves from tentative guitar-and-kitchen-sink clatter into something that suggests jam-band music without actually being jam-band music. As the tune progresses, NNCK sounds less like a group finding a familiar groove than one making up a genre right there on the spot. It’s almost charming.

The No-Neck Blues Band is, of course, much older than any act in the No Fun clique, so it’s possible that the group has simply outgrown its most unstructured tendencies. Or it might be that Qvaris is simply the band’s attempt to distinguish itself in a newly crowded field. Given the opportunity to hear it, much of the record-buying populace would likely find even its most tuneful tracks to be horrible noise. But there’s quite a distance between the Velvet Underground and total cochlear abuse. That NNCK’s latest has edged the band closer to the Velvets camp offers one important lesson: When it comes to noise, a little bit of rock goes a long way. CP

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