Chasing Ephemera: Entering the World of the Necks

Michael McKinney offers an extensive guide to the veteran jazz trio.
By    December 11, 2019

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Michael McKinney‘s flow is metronomic.

The Necks were never supposed to exist, or at least not in public. The trio, whose unpinnable discography spans nearly thirty years, have flirted with jazz, free improvisation, ambient, post-rock, kraut-rock, and any number of other styles. They started as a respite. In 1985, keyboardist Chris Abrahams and bassist Lloyd Swanton, both prodigiously busy musicians in Sydney’s local jazz scene, recruited Tony Buck, a local drummer with a similarly packed schedule. Both Abrahams and Swanton played together in The Benders, a fussy post-bop quartet. Buck sometimes joined them as a sideman. Between the three of them, they had over a half-dozen bands going, but The Necks were to sound, and operate, unlike anything else.

Conceived as a long-form free improvisation trio, they dodged external pressure and expectations by never performing or recording. That didn’t last long. A building staffer, or so the story goes, overheard their workshopping and insisted they play at a local venue.

Australia’s jazz scene is a curious one. Its timeline is condensed compared to much of the Western world, so traditions and ideologies haven’t had as much time to calcify. But even still, The Necks were an odd one out from the start. Much of the local jazz scene was indebted to post-bop and head-rush modal improvisation, while this trio seemed to have emerged, fully formed, out of the nocturnal slow-burn smoke of Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way.

In an interview with Cyclic Defrost, Abrahams said that the group emerged as a reaction “against the display of virtuosity.” Swanton added that they owed their stylistic freedom, in part, to starting in Sydney: in “the cultural centers of the northern hemisphere… there’s some pretty heavy boxes that have to be ticked before you can go any further and we don’t have that.” If the hermetic and whole-cut aesthetic of their debut is any indication, Sex couldn’t have come from anywhere else.

Twenty-nine years later, it still doesn’t quite sound like anything else. Sex, the first of many album-length tracks from the group, doesn’t so much groove as it does breathe. Swanton’s three-note bass line, the same tone played in two different octaves, forms the piece’s unhurried heartbeat as Buck’s similarly unrushed cymbal playing fills in the empty space and Abrahams floats in the higher register of the piano. They complicate the fill—adding overdubbed bass moanings, rattled and smacked percussion, and chunkier chords—but never the mood or motif.

Despite its somewhat anomalous nature as the most straightforwardly “jazz” record in their catalog by some distance, it serves as a valuable introduction to the group’s methodology: situated on an intersection between ambient music and jazz; it is fully dedicated to glacially chasing a single sound through the twin powers of repetition and minute changes.

Over the course of nearly three full decades, sixteen studio albums, and hundreds of live performances, The Necks have made a career out of this quietly off-kilter free-improvisation music, and with every release or live performance, the construction of their Thesian ships seems to change a little bit. The trio has slowly remade themselves and pushed their sound into any number of unusual corners, making their career as rewarding to follow as it is challenging to trace.

Having dunked an ECM record in molasses for their debut, they quickly started moving in new and unexpected ways. They upped their name recognition by providing a lonely and pensive soundtrack for the Australian crime drama The Boys, took Sex’s sound and stuffed it with alien keyboards and hurdy-gurdies in Aquatic, and, with Hanging Gardens, put out a full-on psychedelic drum-and-bass jazz-fusion record. They’d later move into dense and nerved-up piles of tumbling percussion and whirring machinery, minimalism that dissolves upon contact, shuddering and spooked psychological-horror freakouts, and wailing post-rock. Their releases are linked by commonalities in approach rather than sound, which is part of what makes the trio so difficult to pin down.

Why try to do so now? To put it simply, 2019 has been a big year for The Necks. This isn’t because of any particular release—their most recent LP, Body, came out last year—but instead due to the outside attention they’ve been getting. They worked with progressive-techno legends Underworld on their six-disc opus Drift Series 1, filling an hour with collaborations that highlighted the groups’ shared affinities for propulsive and cluttered pulses.

A few months later, they contributed their disorienting style to the latest iteration of Swans (whose head honcho, Michael Gira, has likened working with them to collaborating with The Beatles), another long-running group defined more by approach than sound. These team-ups cap off a relatively prolific past two years, during which they’ve released two studio albums and one live record on top of maintaining a busy tour schedule. Combine all this and you’ve got a trio primed for new ears. But where to start?


Slow-Burning Jazz

This is the mode The Necks started in, so it’s the place to start if you care about chronology. It’s also the first place to look if you’re interested in the quiet smolder of cool jazz or the hushed and meditative quality that northern Europe’s often tend towards. That’s not to say that this work is calm, per se—it’s just slow-moving and deliberate. This can manifest in serene jazz workouts, but it can also turn out fever dreams of stumbling organs and churning, blackened piled-up rhythms that crash into each other.

Sex, released in 1989, remains the trio’s longest, and most stilled, exploration of that sound. They would later go on to complicate their records and twist their approaches into all sorts of knots, but that makes their debut all the more unusual: they have rarely returned to this smoky late-night ambiance. The piece exists in a sort of limbo; it’s tough to attach a mood to it, even as Swanton’s bass starts to wail and Abrahams adds almost-frenzied double-time runs in his right hand. But the piece is all about its three-note pulse and undercurrent of cymbals. At one point, it even threatens to swing.

They didn’t completely scrap the style once the ‘90s rolled around, though; it can be found 20 years later in the unsettled and unmoored “Overhear.” Abrahams’s organ tumbles over itself in slow motion, wading through a sea of clattering percussion and bass that seems to be moving both too quickly and too slowly at once. As with much of Unfold, “Overhear” is focused on following a single mood down whatever alleyways it reveals, which isn’t that far off from how they started. Replace the pulse with a rattling din and you’re on the right track.

“Raab,” the final recording on their four-disc live-album monolith Athenaeum, Homebush, Quay & Raab, retains the group’s focus on excavating and mapping out rabbit holes but sees them traveling down delightfully disorienting paths. For much of its runtime, the piece is contemplative and deeply deliberate, built around just a few notes from Abrahams while Buck and Swanton brew a storm around him. But it eventually turns pitch-dark as the piano drops into its lowest registers and speeds up; the bass and drums make a twisted rhythm of sharply plucked strings and floor-tom smacks. This is their least explosive live recording, to be sure, but it is also their most sinister, and it turns their interplay unsettling, warped, and claustrophobic.


“Sex” (Sex), “Overhear” (Unfold), “Raab” (Athenaeum, Homebush, Quay & Raab)


Locked Grooves

Here’s a version of The Necks that doesn’t overcomplicate things. For a handful of records around the turn of the century (and in fits and spurts in the following years), they explored using a single rhythm as the backbone for a track to a degree that they haven’t much since. This resulted in some of their most straight-ahead and unrelenting studio records. These pieces often recall (or directly incorporate) various strands of dance music: the manic roil of drum-and-bass, the consistent but calm undercurrent found in some of house music, the simmering energy of a properly deployed TR-909. Their drive can also make the ways that the tracks shift all the more surprising; feeling an aggressive and pummeling foundation molt and reshape itself over the course of a few minutes is a striking thing.

This approach was first shown in full force on 1999’s Hanging Gardens, a record that took Sex’s deliberate stride and turned it into a full-bodied sprint. It shifts the focus squarely onto Tony Buck’s eight-armed drumming; for the first twenty minutes, Abrahams’s piano sticks to playing a bassline. Later, a frazzled and delightfully messy organ (an instrument which would become a staple in their arsenal) solo explodes onto the mix, turning the piece from nu-jazz via Squarepusher to full-on stretched-out electric Miles.

Released just four years later, Drive By initially appears motionless by comparison. The piece is built around the heartbeat of an electric keyboard; the band mostly fills in the spaces between. This comes in a shimmering organ, a staid hiss-clunk drum kit, and a snaking, slowly circling bass line. But as the trio’s pieces often do, it transforms utterly without moving at all: the time signature jumps towards longer measures, the drumming turns hurried and anxious, field recordings fly past either channel, and the pulse moves relentlessly forward.

This version of the band, a trio that jumped into rhythmic currents and followed them for an hour, didn’t last long. Chemist, their three-track LP from 2006, opens with “Fatal,” a rousing number that makes comparisons to Neu! start to make sense. It’s a sizzling bass-and-drums rocker packed with near-constant piano fills and a guitar screaming from a few rooms away. In retrospect, it looks like the beginning of the end of a Necks that was chiefly focused on repetition and a subtly, but constantly, shifting ground.

But The Necks have a way of revisiting past versions of themselves; old ideas can resurface, albeit often radically shifted, in unexpected places. “Appleshine Continuum,” one of the group’s 2019 collaborations with techno duo Underworld, shows the trio barrelling forward for the better part of thirty minutes. The electronic percussion kits help drive the momentum, to be sure, but it’s tough to ignore the night-out groove, overpowering din, and eventual come-down that the band cooks up. 

Playlist: “Hanging Gardens” (Hanging Gardens), “Drive By” (Drive By), “Fatal” (Chemist), “Appleshine Continuum” (Drift Series 1)


Free Improvisation as Explosion

While many of The Necks’ studio albums—especially their 2010s output—use overdubbing and digital splicing to work other layers into their compositions, their live performances tend to be a different beast entirely. They reach towards starry-eyed ascension in a way that more readily recalls post-rock than it does conventional jazz; this version of the group is most interested in turgid and stormy playing that reaches catharsis through brute force.

The easiest way into this style, though, isn’t a live recording at all. It’s “Blue Mountain,” the centerpiece of 2017’s Unfold. The piece takes all the hallmarks of their official live recordings—the slow build towards wailing piles of cymbals, bass bowings, and fistfuls of piano keys; the gradual dissolution of any semblance of a groove; and each musician wordlessly egging the others on—and compresses it into twenty minutes. What starts as an elegy eventually turns to a mass of cymbals, pizzicato, and piano hits. Even if it’s one of their shortest recordings, it’s one of the trio’s most unashamedly broad-scoped.

If you want the most definitive document of this mode, though, you’ll need to reach for 1998’s aptly titled Piano Bass Drums. If the slowly undulating Sex is one end of their discography and “Blue Mountain” is the other, “Unheard”—recorded in Sydney two years prior—might be understood as a center. Along with much of their output in the 20th century, it holds onto a defining melody as a building-off point (whereas later works are often more overtly concerned with textures), but it builds towards the same raucous heights seen on “Blue Mountain.” 

It is also the closest thing to an artist showcase released by the band: “Unheard” is Chris Abrahams’s show, and he makes the most of it. At first, he is restrained: the set opens with a four-note bass line, and he gently searches for a melody on top. But when he finds it, somewhere within the first ten minutes, Abrahams grabs on and uses the remaining forty minutes to snowball. It turns into a blur much sooner than most of their live recordings; the pianist moves in double- and then triple-time, jumping from octave to octave with abandon. It is not demonstrative of the band they are now, but it is one of their most wild-eyed performances: a trio moving as quickly and decisively as they can manage, daring each other to play harder, faster, and messier.

Tracklist: “Blue Mountain” (Unfold), “Unheard” (Piano Bass Drums)


Disorienting Soundscapes

Sometime around 2010, The Necks’ studio records took a turn towards the expansive. They began moving away from riffs and towards atmospheres, connecting seemingly disparate ideas together in service of an all-prevailing mood. This shift in direction means two distinct but related things: first, The Necks have, in this decade, abandoned many things that made them a straightforwardly jazz-based trio when they started. Second: they have picked up many elements of ambient music. Their 2010s releases are often charged with an accordingly hushed reverence, and their newly scattered approach results in records that cohere in new and unexpected ways.

Open may be the strongest example of this sort of new-age ambient-jazz approach. It isn’t the most extreme (that’s Aether, from eleven years prior), nor is it the most recent (that’s “Rise,” from four years later), but it effectively synthesizes many of their modes while capturing an atmosphere that the trio hasn’t replicated since. Much of the piece is defined by an unhurried game of cat and mouse between percussion and keyboard; it’s not until after a long series of chimes and dulcimer strikes that Abrahams’s piano enters, careful not to take up too much space. Elsewhere, measured drum rolls underpin a gradually accelerating piano melody, only for both to disappear not long after. On Open, the trio falls into rhythms for a few minutes at a time before leaving each just as slowly; in doing so, they find a number of achingly gorgeous and wide-open sounds. A single hit on the snare can send you falling off a cliff; this record serves as proof.

Vertigo, the followup released two years later, is Open’s spooked-out and inverted twin: Abrahams’s piano is anxious and disoriented, stumbling through a drone that hangs over the record like a dense fog; both drums and bass are consistently scattershot and shot through with tension. The rare moments of beauty are pierced with horror-flick electronic manipulation or woozy, wobbling keyboards; at one point, Buck’s drums sound like they’re snapping in half. Eventually, an electric guitar plays the part of descending spacecraft, roaring over scattered drum hits and a piercing organ. Vertigo is the record to turn to if you want to hear a free-improvisation trio do their take on dark ambient; it’s a clattering, cold, and alien record that lingers far too close for comfort.

The most radical example of the band’s gestures towards ambient music comes in Aether, possibly their strongest album. Unlike Open, it works with only a few ideas: cresting waves of cymbals and quickly fading piano chords, a keyboard whose oscillations render it a blur; a heaving, groaning bass. It is possibly their simplest record since their debut twelve years prior, but it is bewildering to listen to. At some point, the opening waves—recalling Terry Riley’s “In C” as much as anything from the jazz canon—turn to a frenzied and unending wall of sound. It’s tough to tell where exactly the transformation happens; the closer you look, the harder it is to follow.

Tracklist: “Open” (Open), “Vertigo” (Vertigo), “Aether” (Aether)


Far-Flung, Cosmic, and Cluttered Jazz

Given Abrahams’s, Swanton’s, and Buck’s tendencies towards pushing their sounds, whether in form, genre, or style, it should come as little surprise that a few of their recordings are anomalous within their discography. What exactly comprises this zone shifts with every release, but their most singular records tend to rush between ideas, picking up connective tissue as they work through. A decade ago, this sort of material was often disorienting, blurry, and uncomfortable; now, the group has a proclivity towards a clearer vision of the same woozy and fragmented soundscapes.

Silverwater, released in 2009, serves as a valuable precursor to some of their later, more scattered work. Rather than developing a motif and elaborating on it, they take a more kitchen-sink approach to improvisation. A wobbling organ and glistening wind chimes give way to a series of patiently, but insistently, deployed tom-tom rolls; skip ahead and it’s an unsettled slow-burn rock piece, an armful of claves falling down the stairs, or an unending cluster of high-end piano scribbles.

If Silverwater is the group at their messiest, “See Through” may be understood as its mirror image. But it also works as a follow-up, or response, to Aether, the ambient record the trio released a few years earlier. Where Silverwater made an anxious and disoriented pile-up and Aether’s wafts turned into a full-on wind storm, “See Through” takes spiritual-jazz hazes and slowly unspools them, winding down rather than up over the course of an hour. When the band plays, they lay down fussed and thrumming full-combo swells: high-register keyboard rolls, walls of cymbals, insistently plucked bass. But they take minutes of silence in between each, lending the recording a type of uncertainty unique within their catalog. It’s not The Necks’ first excursion into rattling and discombobulated jazz, nor is it their first time using silence as a key compositional element, but it is where they pushed both the farthest.

The relationship between “See Through” and Aether shows two of the most rewarding throughlines in The Necks’ catalog: they continually revisit their own history, but their approach has rarely stayed exactly the same. These are on full display for 2018’s Body, a record that helpfully showcases several elements of their modern sound while pushing them in new directions. There’s piano rolls and fogs of percussion, recalling parts of the previous year’s Unfold; there’s muffled ambient-techno drumming; there’s pounding post-rock; there’s a bleary come-down by way of piled-up cymbals, bells, and slowly-moving melodies. This sort of instrumental and tonal variety has been a characteristically gradual addition to the trio’s oeuvre, and if recent work is any indication, they’re likely to continue down this road.

Tracklist: “See Through” (Mosquito / See Through), “Silverwater” (Silverwater), “Body” (Body)

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