The wedding between Harlem's obscure collective the No-Neck Blues Band and the late John Fahey's Revenant record label was short-lived. While that imprint had made its mark rescuing figures like Dock Boggs, Charlie Feathers, and Captain Beefheart from the earthslide of history, No-Neck were intent on burying themselves and their by turns shamanic and shambolic music up to their, well, necks in mystery. A catalog once joked about an early NNCK disc coming "wrapped in tree bark," but the band had the last laugh when Revenant released 2001's Sticks and Stones May Break My Bones but Names Will Never Hurt Me encased in plywood and Plexiglas. The disc somewhat legitimized the shadowy group, or at least made their previously private-pressed noise somewhat tenable on a Borders shelf.
The release also announced the reemergence of that stranger strand of weirded-out American folk music, as collected by folklorist/alchemist Harry Smith on his Folkways three-volume Anthology (of which Revenant released the fourth volume), and practiced by Dylan down in his basement and the Grateful Dead mid-acid test. No-Neck was at the fore of this '90s resurgence, similarly rootsy but even more diffuse and willfully occult. The band retreated from exposure like nocturnal bats, while comparable ensembles like Sunburned Hand of the Man, Jackie-O Motherfucker, Wooden Wand, and Animal Collective grew and eclipsed No-Neck's contributions.
With Qvaris, the seven members of NNCK join the other misfits and freaks on the 5RC label, alongside Deerhoof and Xiu Xiu. On this, the most digestible representation of their music yet, they trim unwieldy jams into bite-sized doses, and their improvised sprawl becomes taut, yet their ability to shape-shift with dreamlike ease remains intact.
"Live Your Myth in Grease" rides a serpentine guitar lick just long enough to get at an amorphous center, which in turn reveals a squiggling snake pit at track's end. "Boreal Gluts" breaks out like a Beefheart boogie but slowly dissolves into the clamorous din of "Dark Equus." While focus and coherence have never been their mission--much less their strong point--here such moments stand out amid No-Neck's otherwise desultory music. NNCK are finally taking their rightful place as the progenitors of freak-folk, just as that movement faces a critical backlash. Who knows how much longer these phantasms will remain in light?
Check out this week's featured ad for Entertainment