No-Neck Blues Band and Embryo: Embryonnck

Ethno-improviser Christian Burchard explores the strange indigenous music of Harlem's No-Neck tribe

No-Neck Blues Band and Embryo


Label: Staubgold
US Release Date: 2006-04-14
UK Release Date: 2006-04-24
iTunes affiliate

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.


In Americana music the present is female. Two-thirds of our year-end list is comprised of albums by women. Here, then, are the women (and a few men) who represented the best in Americana in 2017.

If a single moment best illustrates the current divide between Americana music and mainstream country music, it was Sturgill Simpson busking in the street outside the CMA Awards in Nashville. While Simpson played his guitar and sang in a sort of renegade-outsider protest, Garth Brooks was onstage lip-syncindg his way to Entertainer of the Year. Americana music is, of course, a sprawling range of roots genres that incorporates traditional aspects of country, blues, soul, bluegrass, etc., but often represents an amalgamation or reconstitution of those styles. But one common aspect of the music that Simpson appeared to be championing during his bit of street theater is the independence, artistic purity, and authenticity at the heart of Americana music. Clearly, that spirit is alive and well in the hundreds of releases each year that could be filed under Americana's vast umbrella.

Keep reading... Show less

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.

60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

Keep reading... Show less

This week on our games podcast, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

This week, Nick and Eric talk about the joy and frustration of killing Nazis in Wolfenstein: The New Order.

Keep reading... Show less

Which is the draw, the art or the artist? Critic Rachel Corbett examines the intertwined lives of two artists of two different generations and nationalities who worked in two starkly different media.

Artist biographies written for a popular audience necessarily involve compromise. On the one hand, we are only interested in the lives of artists because we are intrigued, engaged, and moved by their work. The confrontation with a work of art is an uncanny experience. We are drawn to, enraptured and entranced by, absorbed in the contemplation of an object. Even the performative arts (music, theater, dance) have an objective quality to them. In watching a play, we are not simply watching people do things; we are attending to the play as a thing that is more than the collection of actions performed. The play seems to have an existence beyond the human endeavor that instantiates it. It is simultaneously more and less than human: more because it's superordinate to human action and less because it's a mere object, lacking the evident subjectivity we prize in the human being.

Keep reading... Show less

Gabin's Maigret lets everyone else emote, sometimes hysterically, until he vents his own anger in the final revelations.

France's most celebrated home-grown detective character is Georges Simenon's Inspector Jules Maigret, an aging Paris homicide detective who, phlegmatically and unflappably, tracks down murderers to their lairs at the center of the human heart. He's invariably icon-ified as a shadowy figure smoking an eternal pipe, less fancy than Sherlock Holmes' curvy calabash but getting the job done in its laconic, unpretentious, middle-class manner.

Keep reading... Show less
Pop Ten
Mixed Media
PM Picks

© 1999-2017 All rights reserved.
Popmatters is wholly independently owned and operated.