No Neck’s noisemaking amounts to just that

No Neck Blues Band
A Vancouver New Music presentation. At the Arts Club Theatre main stage on Friday, November 10

B.C.’s otherworldly IMP(s) a gift by comparison

Let’s get right to the point: in its Vancouver debut, in front of an undersized crowd in the capacious Arts Club Theatre, the No Neck Blues Band stunk out the joint. It’s unclear whether the members of this near-legendary New York City collective are normally this unfocused or whether they were merely dismayed by the poor turnout, but in any case they delivered little of the visionary noisemaking on which their reputation has been built.

How lame were they? Well, once this ironically titled band’s set wheezed to a close, most of the audience ran for the exit without even a token call for an encore. After the stench rising from the stage, the swampy False Creek air tasted invigoratingly fresh.

Consider yourself lucky you weren’t there.

Now, I should explain that I’m not entirely opposed to studied incompetence as an aesthetic principle. The current vogue for performers who can’t really play their instruments is a perfectly valid and understandable reaction to an overabundance of machine-tooled sexpots and clinical virtuosos—but what No Neck peers such as Wolf Eyes or the Nihilist Spasm Band lack in technical command, they supplant with collective intensity.

Both intensity and any sense of communal purpose were lacking from the No Neck Blues Band’s set, however. The evening’s high point was a long drone-rock rave-up that sounded like a clumsy imitation of what German avant-rockers Can were doing circa 1974; the rest of the time, the performers wandered in solipsistic circles, blind and deaf to each other’s input. It is possible, I suppose, that their disconnected twanging, banging, and clattering is intended as an extended metaphor for urban alienation, but that’s a stretch.

More telling, to me, was that the No Neck players rarely made eye contact with anyone, which suggests that their supposedly subversive undertaking is nothing but an extreme example of American individualism. When you get right down to it, their music is no more radical—or useful—than the kind of lousy and expensive health care most U.S. residents must endure.

In sharp contrast, Victoria’s IMP(s) offered an opening set that was a giddy celebration of collective action. Using little more than hand percussion, subtle electronic treatments, and vocal techniques ranging from hippie to Tuvan, the five musicians created a sustained and otherworldly wash of shifting tonalities.

It’s true that Sarka Zdeninsyn’s lyrics sometimes wander into post-Burroughsian cliché; how many times do we have to be reminded that language is a virus? But the love these performers have for ?each other, coupled with their passion for exploration and Zdeninsyn’s considerable charisma, proved winning.

Although the No Neck Blues Band stole our time, IMP(s) gave us a wonderful gift. Their devotion to the power of the voice—and to the strength of their truly collaborative vision—was a genuine pleasure.