The No-Neck Blues Band & Embryo
ot too long ago, when the country was split into separate nations, when boats cluttered harbors filled with immigrant’s twisted tongues, mystery choked the air as readily as cholera; “heathen” musics splashed over Sousa’d rat-tat-tats, pulmonary Alma Mater replete with blood-soaked brass, skin-stretched beaters, rope tension bass drums rumbling as thunder sheets. Commingling, inevitable, musical divisions were destined to relax. Connective tissue came about on its own, caused of itself, threading Chinese gong and zither, snare and ocinara, accordion, oboe, kalimba, and tuba. Bones made as good a striker as a stick, skulls even saved tones within their temples. Musical primitivism struggled against the score’s formality around shine-sustained campfires, in the midst of orchestra pits, blacks on urban block corners clicking out a living in worn tap shoes. Music sought to maintain the mystery that “theosophy” thought to disperse. The Transcendentalist, folk sage, mystic and alchemist alike spun similar yarns, cocooning the unknown in a curious claptrap. Syllogisms became a part of the sonic mapping, music derived from tonal deduction. Reluctant bedfellows, their alliance saw few red-blooded conquests as musical modernism left the concert stage staid; boxcar vagabonds and boorish savants slipped into the basement to harness the past; proffer a future; befuddle and enrage the usual suspects.
As much a part of the “invisible republic” as Bukka and Boggs, Harlem’s No-Neck Blues Band has worked tirelessly to untangle Reason’s yarn, giving the stage thoughtless sound, percussive strokes that rise out of ribcages and disperse like the long, deep piss. Appropriately, there had to be a nexus of past and present: here a meeting of familiar bedfellows, EmbryoNNCK documents a seamless merger with Munich’s Embryo, an ensemble with a 30-year existence, three decades of constant experimentation, ad hoc provocation birthed from musical boredoms.
A rare success outside of improvised jazz, this tandem triumphs in its selflessness, musical devotion built on custom’s foundation—as much to do with the Depression-era front-porch hootenanny as Krautrock’s storied linear madness: Autobahn’d motorik rebuilt on the bedrock of ritual hand percussion, xylophone, marimba, glockenspiel. Other elements: flatulent brass, rollicking free reeds, meandering bass and winged strings sew themselves onto each other, piercing, perforating, and healing anew. For this music, there is no sequence, no series suspended in time. Beginning and end as plastic sounds pulled into shape—a circle drawn in the dirt from nail-bitten fingers. Drums nearly beat Blakey, unbound from a zither’s metal pluck; voice mumbles, screeches, whispers and slow yells; guitars sound as so many cicadas stridulating in the moist summer air; claves, bone and brass slapped, struck and shattered: the primordial murmured “ur.” Sun Ra’d big band, organic and inorganic sound as ordinary event and inexplicable phenomena—all the violence and beauty of a backseat birth from an unwilling mother who can no longer keep her baby within her well: The cracking of several shells underneath an unmoving ass. Were we to break the egg, Emerson tells us, the embryo—before its eyes have even opened, will bite fiercely. Provoke a snapping turtle with a stick and his teeth quickly respond. Take his head from the body with a blade and the teeth still do not relinquish the stick: They bite in death; they bite even before they are born. The No-Neck Blues Band and Embryo—Das Erste Mal: The first time.
Wieder, das Erste Mal: Again, the first time. Habit’s custom comes in many forms. It wears as many faces. Loosed from the Latin—suus—one’s own, or found in bone chimes’ crinkle, a conch trumpet’s bellow, the sweet thump of a marimba’s tonal bars amidst ride cymbal sizzle. From the start, the ensemble easily couples; clang and clatter, Strum und Drang. It’s how they all perceive their parts, their instruments: a guitar is wire and wood as much as it is frets and notes as it is a hard purple prick dancing in a slick soft fist. Present-to-hand leaves them as a muck of materials; ready-to-hand sets them soaring. The percussion is no different, as skin and shell combine to thump, rumble and roar—echoes of the animals they were culled together from. Die Farbe Aus Dem All: Qualities of the unqualified. Too great to be plied with pen, to dense to be thinned with word or song, one’s only recourse is usage—practice or procedure, a method to the music, which is truly what EmbryoNNCK is at its base. Jug or jam band, guerilla outfit or neo-dada situationists, the two ensembles couldn’t be more similar, a resemblance seen easily from a mutual approach, a common “usage.” Sun Records’ Sam Philips knew if church song was pulled from the pews, sung after several bottles of beer paid for with a paycheck’s last cents, it meant more; it was more; not just a song: a organization of instrumental passages augmented with narrative vocals—it was an experience, an event put together with cunning usage.
Usage’s clothes are kept in separate closets—either hidden away like fetish wear in bottom drawers or kept crisp and bright as the starched white of a business blouse. Fetish leather isn’t part of the work world; just as “smart” shoes and a Hermès scarf have no place in the rite of indoor sport. The heathen’s hallowed “blot,” the communicant Catholic’s wafer and wine: body and blood—both instruments given meaning from the adherent’s devotion. It’s one thing to be aware of this, another to act on it. Tropes come with their own tolls, duties; making good on the expression is always quid pro quo. When the exchange isn’t made, neither is music. When the fare is paid, one is ably carried away, cradled in competing melodies often times threatening to lose its line, but ably staying its course, aided by a whistle, a rustle of dried leaves or beans, a tambourine’s trickle. Call it counterpoint; call it contrapuntal, it’s the same no matter in The Band’s basement, Zappa behind Beefheart’s mixing board, a suburban stoner placing a micro-cassette recorder on the tracks as the locomotive’s whistle slowly lows.
No-Neck and Embryo share the same knowledge: The point of much music is transport. Whether one’s ears are punctured on one prickly detail or lost in cogency’s lack of locale, both avenues are ends of the same line; terminals grown from their own green geometries, concluding in solipsistic impressionism—fleeting eidolons like fresh cut flowers thrust into a vase of bleach. As easily as one is carried away, one can crash back into the here and now: horny morning thoughts breakfasted on tongues, vulvas and slapping pelvises are lost in invasive alarm trumpets; there is no recovery in coffee, shower and commute. Which is why a head stuck in song is always a welcome diversion—a place without space, a region comprised solely of remnants.
Traces are the stuff from which much mindfulness swells; where the embryo is held at home in its shell, knowing nothing outside of its calcareous covering. Here, self is the only truth; the thing alone is all there is, a world whipped up from its own modifications—no matter how minute, banal or primitive: The percussive clutter of “Die Farbe Aus Dem All,” the snapshot primitivism that lingers in the fragrance of “Frank Cologne,” an unmeasured quantity of “Five Grams of Widow”—all distinctly different approaches that rise to similar heights, achieving an unspoken goal of musical timelessness. The ensemble may deem it Das Erste Mal, or even liken the recording to the earliest stages of development—as in embryonic, but these are sounds that have always been here and are only now registering impressions. Earshot has never roamed wider; from Red Hook to Munich, from Appalachia to Autobahn, first and last are all here, in the “Babel of sound and filth” that continues to dwell within the folk free enough to let it be.
Reviewed by: Stewart Voegtlin
Reviewed on: 2006-06-07