Ethno-improviser Christian Burchard explores the strange indigenous music of Harlem's No-Neck tribe
Since quitting Amon Düül II in 1969, Christian Burchard has made a career out of collaborating with ethnic musicians, incorporating them into his free-flowing improvisational blend of world music, jazz, krautrock and other indefinable genres. Over the last three decades, Burchard has brought in traditional musicians from Morocco, India, Pakistan, Afghanistan, Iran, Egypt, the Middle East, Nigeria, Turkey and many other places for impromptu collaborations. And then, a year or so ago, he ventured, via email, into wholly unknown territory -- Harlem to be precise -- and made contact with a reclusive tribe called The No-Neck Blues Band.
Both Burchard's Embryo and NNCK share a genre-crossing commitment to improvisation. They are equally fond of multilayered ethnic percussion and the sorts of stringed and blown instruments you won't find in most suburban guitar stores. They are both very serious outfits. NNCK, in particular, pursues its art with almost monastical rigor, bounded by strange rules and a vow of anonymity, if not silence. After trading CDs and messages, the two ensembles decided to work together, NNCK bringing its seven-person caravan to Germany, arriving at the venue and learning that the band would play first alone, then merge with Embryo for an all-improvised session.
The result is Embryonnck -- seven tracks and 44 minutes of concentrated musical collaboration, a fierce and uncompromising mesh of artistic visions that will surely be among the year's best experimental releases. NNCK fans will find it lighter in texture than last year's Qvaris with fewer electrified instruments and more white space. There are no tracks as rock-oriented and beat-centric as "Live Your Myth In Grease" or "Boreal Gluts" here, though the opening and closing cuts borrow its shuffling, Middle Eastern rhythm.
These two cuts -- "Wieder Das Erste Mal" (Again the First Time) and "Das Erste Mal" (The First Time) -- bookend the album, yet they are in some sense its core. Alternate versions of the same musical idea, they are the disc's longest compositions, building eerie textures of malleted and shaken percussion, ethnic flutes and keening, altered voices around a circling, insistent beat. The repetitive rhythm is critical to this piece, its steady reiteration providing a foundation for a dizzying array of ideas. There are always ten things going on at once, notes pinging off each other, polyrhythms intersecting, independent patterns colliding off each other to create harmonies and melodies, whistling and buzzing and ringing. The whole composition feels like a circus train rolling by, its elements varied, colorful and many-textured but united in a single raucous experience.
"Five Grams of the Widow" is a more tranquil experience, more traditionally rooted in jazz with its bursts of sax rhythms and vibraphone shimmer. This is the single "live" take on the album, recorded separately in Berlin, and it has a looser, more muted feel than the rest of the CD. "After Marja's Cats", though, flashes a bit of the same late-night glamour, with flute and saxophone flutteringly chillingly through a muted metallic clangor. More overtly experimental, "Frank Cologne" pits rhythmic panting against a choir of tonal percussion, the vocalist building syncopated breath cadences of varying urgency. "Die Farbe Aus Dem All" ("The colors from the universe" according to Babelfish) hews the closest to NNCK's Qvaris, its electric bass pulsing under an ominous clatter and ghostly howls, more frightening and more rock oriented than anything else on the album.
The disc ends with "Das Erste Mal", a cut that takes up nearly a third of the album's total duration. It starts with struck, metallic percussion, pipes of different length perhaps, or cymbals. Out of this abstract frame, feverish sounds emerge and disappear, a trembling flute note, a haze of bowed notes, the reverberating sounds of something like a koto. The sounds are oddly-shaped, distinct from one another, introduced seemingly at random. Yet almost immediately they are sucked into the fabric of the piece, in a listening and responding process that you very nearly hear in progress. The piece gains density as it moves along, accelerating as it draws in keening female vocals, a nattering, muttering male's sounds, slashes of violin and staccato bursts of horns. The CD cover lists 13 musicians (including, sssshhhh!, the full names of all the No-Neck people), and it's easy to imagine every one of them at work in this piece, adding to and communicating about and playing an unimaginably complex group tapestry of sound.