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The Necks Bend Space and Time With the Ambient-Jazz Triumph ‘Open’

The Necks / Photo courtesy of Northern Spy
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: October 29, 2013
Label: Northern Spy

After nearly a quarter-century of activity and more than a dozen albums, Australian jazz-minimalism-trance-jam trio the Necks toured the United States for the first time in 2009. The performances enjoyed generally unapologetic enthusiasm — except in Chicago.

There, the local Sydney Improvised Music Association assigned noted jazz critic John Litweiler to review the show. He did an exacting, aberrantly scientific job, taking minute-by-minute, motion-by-motion notes on the Necks’ set and publishing them with timestamps. First entry: “7:10 p.m. Piano plays a little noodling lick centered on a repeated treble note, then rests.” And so on. He complained that the music never developed or progressed, dismissing the concert as a series of preludes stacked over a mess of inaction.

Though the graceful Necks have always seemed inwardly restrained and outwardly reserved, bassist Lloyd Swanton responded angrily, calling the critique a “disrespectful, out-of-hand effort.” Litweiler, he suggested, had come with the plan to pan.

But mostly, the critic had simply misunderstood the band’s purpose: They plainly aim to construct absorbing vacuums of sound and attention, where the usual musical language of rhythms and melodies and solos dissolves into a slipstream unbound by time altogether. The Necks are attempting to capture the liftoff of Brian Eno’s Music for Airports and forever suspend it in midair, with the staid conventions of jazz, rock, and classical music withering in the cold. In fact, when the trio started up in the late ’80s, the plan was not to perform publicly, the better to avoid those expectations altogether. “The entire focus was on the process of making music, with no concern for the actual product,” Swanton has said.

Open, their 17th album and first for emerging American experimental bellwether Northern Spy, might be the most lucid and resonant expression of that philosophy to date; plus, it’s one of the most mesmerizing records of the year: an hour-long, labyrinthine, uninterrupted dream. Sculpted from hours of improvisation, these 68 minutes tease with tension and release, insinuating climaxes that never come and revealing exits that are only trapdoors. The band pirouettes between free jazz and ambient sound art, fostering their own paradox: mechanically perfect but emotionally warm, a machine made with feelings.

Live, The Necks generally stick to the basics — bass, piano, drums — and build, tortuga-like, to a sustained climax. But on Open, they coax a much broader dynamic from a technologically enhanced palette. Chris Abrahams employs organ and synthesizers to craft theatrical aubades and chiffon textures, while drummer Tony Buck even adds a hint of guitar. At the start, his kaleidoscopic cloud of dulcimer immediately establishes the sense of atmospheric gravity upon which the Necks depend. They don’t offer a payload finale on Open, despite their live approach; instead, this music ebbs and flows, reveling in the motion instead of the map. These studio flourishes don’t overshadow the trio’s primary tools. Abraham’s busy rivulets of piano still suggest the impressionism of Keith Jarrett or the continuous music of Ukrainian composer Lubomyr Melnyk, with plenty of meditative empty space. Buck jumps into puddles of drums, teasing funk with syncopated hi-hat outbursts and rock’n’roll with a snare riff that seems to stretch toward a yawning infinity. Alternately bowing or plucking his double bass, Swanton sometimes lurks in the shadows, conjuring a distant din from his low tones; elsewhere, he’s out front and entirely commanding, playing enormous and bulbous themes that suggest the arrival of a drone-metal quake.

These parts slide and slip through and around one another, creating a shifting matrix that consumes your attention for as long as the band wants to play. Indeed, the prospect of a 68-minute “soft jazz improvisation” probably sounds somnolent. But the Necks blur time. They used to play to a steady pulse, but not anymore, an audacious move that allows them to turn an hour not into a succession of clicks, but into a continuum open on both sides. Channeling Litweiler, I attempted to annotate Open at least twice, noting the moment where one particularly punishing drum thwack sends the trio temporarily into chaos (15:32), and another where a Hammond organ drone that stretches out like a slowly fading denouement (31:50–34:20) reveals itself to be but a ferry into the next half-hour.

But both times, I didn’t finish the task. That sort of analysis only cheapens an album that refuses to divide itself into discrete units. The Necks make music that invites you in with the intention of letting you back out only when it — and not the ticking clock — sees fit.