Pianist Chris Abrahams has been a dynamic force within an unclassifiable strain of modern music for over twenty years. Starting out with the touchstones of jazz, classical technique and improvisation, his predominant outfit, The Necks have somewhat unfeasibly become a beacon for many disparate strands of contemporary music practice. If they’d sat down around a kitchen table twenty years ago and mapped out the trajectory of The Necks (as well they may have been on the cover of early classic, Sex), I doubt that they would have pinned down just how influential their brand of hypnotic minimalism has conspired to be.
This leads to the music contained within Chris Abrahams’ fourth solo album, and second for the Room40 imprint. Play Scar, in some prodigious act of symbiosis, has filtered the sound and approach of Abrahams’ contribution to the The Necks through the opaque lense of post-rock, electronica, dark ambience, musique concrete and even a hint of metallic doomy drone. In the process he has produced one of the most immersive and rewarding listens that I have experienced this year so far.
I’ve always been a bit of a sucker for songs that have split personalities; from the jump-cut dada collage of Nurse With Wound, to the beatless breakdown prefacing a change of direction in Grooverider’ seminal late 90′ drum’n’bass opuses. Many of the longer pieces on Play Scar employ a similar modus operandi. Where many artists layer up tropes and sounds into a glorious noise, content to employ another idea for another tune, Abrahams is fully aware of the weight of certain motifs and feelings that can spin the listener off into a new orbit. On Fly Them, the spacious, warm oscillating drone of the first four minutes is imperceptibly replaced by Abrahams’ trademark clusters of ham-fisted improvisatory piano technique. Then suddenly, a warm Rhodes introduces some clicks and cuts flavoured squiggles to resolve the tension from the hanging cascades of piano.
To rewind slightly, the listener is caressed and repelled equally on album opener, There He Reclined. The warm Rhodes and spluttering, malfunctioning keys elbow each other gently for space, but somehow leave enough of a gap for you to lie down, curl up and drift off into the furthest reaches of your unconsciousness. One of the shorter offerings, Twig Blown provides a concrete melange of processed drums, crowds, scratchy balloons, rustling paper and fizzy drink effervescence that French conceptual heavyweights such as Bernard Parmegiani or Luc Ferrari would be proud to call their own.
Offering a respite from the frenetic atmosphere of Twig Blown, layers of phased gospel-tinged organ peel and swell, on The Same Time. Running Out has an atmosphere similar to The Necks soundtrack for The Boys, threatening violence and redemption in equal measure. In a nod towards Hitchcock (Alfred, not Robyn), a single, high-pitched note rings out from the rumbling low-end piano runs, similar to those that I have witnessed Chris Abrahams employ with The Necks on countless occasions.
Birds and Wasps sound sources are masked and erased by layers of processing, leaving a distorted and unidentifiable thrum, like that of a ship’ engine from fourteen floors up. Jellycrown appears at first the most Neck-like piece on the album, until a demented organ sound reminiscent of Conlon Nancarrow’ maddeningly brilliant music for piano players ushers in a new phase.
Leiden, which concludes the album, reinforces the musical sleight of hand that Abrahams has offered on Play Scar; post-rock textures, metallic, brushed drums and spacious, jazzy flourishes. Leiden is a fitting conclusion to an album that displays the hallmarks of a self-assurance and artistic vision. Play Scar is the glorious sound of well-established artist willing to push the boundaries of sound and technique into new realms.