For all the discussion in recent years about the current generation’s creatively unique piano/bass/drums trios such as The Bad Plus, e.s.t. and Vijay Iyer’s trio, there’s scant talk about the earliest and most unique of this batch of modern threesomes: The Necks.
Perhaps it’s because they hail from halfway across the globe in Australia and their records have gotten mostly limited distribution in the States, or maybe their songs run too long for impatient Yankee listeners or maybe their singularity is too far beyond the pale. But that’s on us, not them.
Formed back in ’87, drummer/guitarist Tony Buck, bassist Lloyd Swanton and pianist Chris Abrahams have all made names for themselves apart from this gig, but when they convene to make music, it’s consistent and like no one else. Most of their songs are hour-long trances of glacier-slow evolution. You might call it ambient, but they aren’t always placid and the music is made up on the spot. They don’t groove hard enough to call it downtempo. There are way too many subtleties in their music to call it New Age and there’s no soloing or swing, so it’s not jazz. Think of Pat Metheny and Lyle Mays’ “As Falls Wichita, So Falls Wichita Falls” without the heavy synths and other dense moments. Though they dabble into electronics on some of their recordings, such noises stay in the background, so their music is inherently organic…and completely timeless.
If you hadn’t heard of these guys before, the impending Open album is about as a good place to start as their 1989 Sex debut. Following the two-track, relatively intense Mindset (2011), Open returns to their bread-and-butter single, sixty-ish minute long track format, and the gentle, Reichian minimalism. Buck’s single guitar chord gets the ball rolling but it’s the tone from his chimes that offers the contrasting tonalities instead. Abrahams on piano and Swanton on acoustic bass meekly make their entrances after a few of minutes of that. Abraham offers up some short figures based closely on that chord and without your realizing it, the baton has been handed off to him…the first of numerous and seamless handoffs that will happen over the next hour.
In the Necks’ world, the drummer/percussionist plays a crucial role, but not as a timekeeper. Buck is usually the one offering up timbres that ward off the monotony that any minimalist kind of performance must always guard against. The aforementioned chimes reappear at several crucial intervals of the song, and other carefully deployed sounds like a tympani, a snare roll or a cymbal wash add subtlety to the unfolding of the piece.
In spite of limiting themselves by not soloing or playing heavy, Abrahams and Swanton find ways to hold ones interest. A long-running trill accompanies a pulsing organ note at one juncture, and Abraham will also introduce short figures, repeating them with small variations each time. Swanton likewise uses short, circular figures, but he’ll play them at seemingly random intervals. At the ending section of the song, his bowed bass was dubbed over several times to create a quivering “arco bass choir” that goes where a synthesizer murmur might go, but this ends up being a backdrop that’s more exotic for Abraham’s relaxed meanderings.
There’s more to the plot, like when an industrial drone overtakes a sustained Hammond B3 chord, or a moment or two when no chords are being played, just pure resonance coming from percussion. The point is that, in their unassuming way, the Necks have this amazing ability to compel the listener to hone in on the subtleties like no other musical act can.