Fish of Milk
Ah, there’s nothing quite like entering the world of The Necks. Well, there are a few things I guess – you can hear Eno and Satie and Keith Jarrett and Bill Evans’ solo conversation overdubs and a range of free-jazz/ambient/minimalist and soundtrack ideas in their playing. Always. But for me a new Necks album – and this time it’s called Open – is an experience to dive into; to absorb. You come up for air after every listen, and then plunge back down on in for days on end. You rinse. Repeat.
They never (quite) repeat themselves.
For a long time people referred to the Sydney-based band as a jazz trio – due to the backgrounds of the players but also the instrumentation, proudly piano/bass/drums, a trio. Must be jazz? That definition – though capable of stretching – seems hard to pin to the band now. Particularly on Open, a return to the hour-long one-single-track format that is dominant in The Necks’ canon (but most recently they took a break from it for the vinyl release, Mindset). There are passages here that remind me of Keith Jarrett’s great Koln Concert recording – particularly toward the end of the first third where Chris Abrahams’ gliding piano is all but standing alone. But you could argue that Jarrett’s masterpiece wasn’t really a jazz album too.
Here there’s also the absence of a pulse, many of The Necks’ albums, including several of their finest, move – eventually – toward the shimmer of Tony Buck’s cymbal; it either sets the pulse instantly, or materialises through the swell of bass and piano to steer the ship home. Not this time. It’s not the first time a Necks album has been missing a ride cymbal – the difference with Open (take that title to mean so many things – but particularly the pulse-free/beat-free space this music occupies) is that it would be unfair to say the record misses it. It’s a strength to hear Buck stabbing at the hi-hat as if he’s playing piano keys; blocks of single bass kicks a and just a rolling choke of cymbal wash to mark the space, to create this playground. At one point he all but turns out his own Grand Vizier’s Garden Party.
The beauty of The Necks is in the fact that no one player ever shines brighter than the others across an album or set – they all take and make their moments, they all make the music together; each member indispensible – and if Lloyd Swanton (bass) appears to be doing some heavy lifting here (or rather, determined anchoring) well then that’s just because it’s his turn. At other times it’s been Buck or Abrahams, or most often all three. And it will be that way again.
Open is nearly 70 minutes of music – it’s almost The Necks at their most ambitious; it’s almost certainly the band at its most hypnotic. In the very best possible way this 69-minute album/track can play out as if 90 or 120 minutes – a brief keyboard hover, a drone, a waft, marks the near-enough-to-exactly half-way point in the album and there’s a gong slowly appearing in behind, as the bass continues its rumble. It’s almost a breaking-off point, an intermission, a reset; I’ve even paused the album right at this point, moved away, returned later in the day to what I’ve then created as my own part two/side two.
So many of the other hallmarks are here – time spent understanding Steve Reich’s key concepts, the interplay of greats such as Derek Bailey and Tony Oxley, the very cinematic feel that would suggest Cliff Martinez’ work if reimagined by a John Zorn-type figure; reworked for “jazz trio” perhaps. Towards the end of Open you could almost imagine that this is Kraftwerk if they played jazz-trio instruments.
It feels – in the best possible way – like everything great The Necks have already (and always) done. And then it feels like so many of the things they haven’t quite got to yet. As this band’s great skill in boasting a fairly prolific recorded output is that each album replaces the one previous; it doesn’t better it, doesn’t dwarf it, but it makes it impossible to really contemplate what they did before hand. Each album is in that sense a new beginning. A new band made up of the old members.
These players that can turn on a dime, they not only finish each other’s sentences but are all able to start more than once conversation (in more than one language) and yet somehow never ever give any suggestion they are talking over the top of one another.
It’s an emotional experience dealing with this album. It’s sometimes draining. That’s glorious. That’s wonderful. That’s special. That doesn’t happen all that often/nearly enough with music. It’s how you know you’ve got something to hang on to. Something that actually means a whole lot. You can hear the thoughts going into this. You can get lost in five or ten minute sections of this album for hours.
The pacing is this album’s sheerest display of virtuosity – these three players work as if with one heartbeat. And so calm, so sure, so very much the epitome of underplaying.
Most of the recordings by The Necks mean something very special to me. Some of them have stayed with me for days and weeks on end. Most of them I return to. Have been playing them so often across the last decade and a bit. Many of them are masterpieces. The ones that aren’t – quite, come very close.
Open is a masterpiece. Another one. A new one.
Open is another life, an afterlife. It’s almost hard to imagine that three people could come together to make something this beautiful, this sure of itself, this happy to take this much time to unfold. It’s flawless.