Fish of Milk/Northern Spy Records
The Necks, 18 albums deep now, and still there’s (always) something different – it’s now instantly familiar, you know the band you’re hearing, you know the sorts of sounds and textures and feels they conjure but every album remains its own thing, quite majestic when – essentially – it’s still drums, piano, bass (Tony Buck adds some guitar as well as percussion) and – essentially – it’s still grown from jazz, ambient and minimalist movements. It is all at once all of those things and none of those things; not quite. The music of The Necks is about the elements – and though when you see them live it is, indeed, an improvising trio (mesmerising, stunning, startling) they have, increasingly, been pushing the envelope with their recordings – making something that could only exist in and of the studio.
The band’s last studio offering, Open, was my favourite record of 2013 – but where that felt like the middle of something (70 minutes that could just as easily have been 90 or 120 or 400…) this latest, Vertigo, returns to the sort of structure they explored on 2011’s Mindset. Where that was two distinct pieces (a break from the near-tradition of album-length works) designed to favour the vinyl format Vertigo is one 44-minute track, though there’s noticeably a shift in the middle – and an upcoming vinyl edition means that was, again, most likely, part of the consideration there.
Where Buck’s shimmering cymbal or the ostinato from either Lloyd Swanton’s bass and/or Chris Abrahams’ piano has often provided the pulse of any Necks album, here it’s an album-length drone that provides the framework. Hanging from it are soft clangs of percussion that feel, at times, like piano parts, and piano lines that blur with the cymbal, the rumbles of Swanton’s bass give anchor once again, providing that nautical sway that is so often a motif, give off the dusk/dawn moodiness that attaches (seemingly so easily, aptly) to the very best of The Necks’ music.
Here, as never before, the (potential) chaos is so tightly controlled as to never (quite) eventuate. We’re one slip away from brutal free-jazz, but in the same breath we’re sitting right inside the pocket where Arvo Part and Keith Jarrett and the like have always been touchstones.
Quite how The Necks continue to evolve, continue to simultaneously soften and darken the rub – the shards of sound here never quite resemble uneasy listening, they’re so delicately reassembled but never dip down into just easy listening either – is the mercurial magic, that ether-world they’ve made their own.
Forty-five minutes with The Necks is time spent beautifully, thoughtfully, thought-provokingly…you wonder quite where you’ve gone, and how they’ve taken you there. You marvel as the tangents unfold and rework and reinvent, as before your ears the magic trick happens. Each time it’s different. Each time it could only – ever – be these three players in this configuration, their hearts and minds and souls controlling the subtly unpredictable flow.