The Necks are an Australian trio — Chris Abrahams on piano and Hammond organ, Lloyd Swanton on electric and upright bass, and Tony Buck on drums, percussion and electric guitar. They have been around for over 30 years with no membership changes, and have made about twenty albums. With few exceptions (their second album, 1990’s Next, contained six tracks, 2005’s Chemist had three and 2017’s Unfold had four), their releases offer single performances of between 45 and 60 minutes. In 2002, they released Athenæum, Homebush, Quay & Raab, a four-CD live set. In recent years, the trio’s profile has risen outside their home country. Their 2015 release Vertigo and 2018’s Body came out on the Northern Spy label in the US, and Unfold was on Sunn O))) guitarist Stephen O’Malley‘s Ideologic Organ imprint. They’ve collaborated with Swans on that group’s latest album, leaving meaning., and with Underworld on the recent Drift Series 1 box set.
As its title suggests, their latest release, Three, is another multi-track album. Each of its pieces runs just over 20 minutes, with the second, “Lovelock,” lasting nearly 23.
The Necks‘ music covers a surprisingly broad range given the relatively strict limits they place on their instrumentation (they rarely have guests). The first track on Three, “Bloom,” layers seemingly irreconcilable elements into a collage that somehow coheres. A soft, patient piano melody is supported by a bouncing, almost Krautrock bass figure, and if those two elements were allowed to flourish and feed off each other, you’d have something quite beautiful. But the percussion is the loudest and most obtrusive element; it’s a massive rattling sound like someone shaking hard plastic balls in a coffee can, with a quiet but persistent hi-hat figure tucked into a corner of the sonic field, like someone trying to get your attention without pulling you away from whatever you’re doing. About five minutes in, a buzzing, prog-rock synth appears and from there on, the piece rolls blissfully down the road, never taking any sudden turns or offering any real surprises. Honestly, it could be a late ’70s or early ’80s Tangerine Dream piece, except for that rattling percussion, which after a while starts to remind me of a YouTube video I saw years ago, of some Eastern European folk musicians using an idling tractor as a makeshift drum machine.
“Lovelock” is very different. Rather than maintain a steady pace, it waxes and wanes, with Buck offering first slowly building snare rolls, then, at the piece’s midpoint, a thunderous tom passage, as Swanton’s bowed bass seems to bend the air. Abrahams’ piano is multilayered — one set of delicate figures over here, another, more hypnotic and jabbing figure over there. All the while, what sound like wind chimes tinkle gently. In some ways, especially when Buck begins to play something almost like a beat in its final third, the piece reminds me of Miles Davis‘s “He Loved Him Madly” crossed with Tangerine Dream‘s Zeit. It’s worth noting that “He Loved Him Madly” was a dedication to Duke Ellington, and “Lovelock” is a dedication to Damien Lovelock, former frontman of Australian punk band the Celibate Rifles, who died in August 2019.
The album ends with “Further,” which sounds at first like the most conventional piano trio piece of the three; they set up a lurching, slow groove and ride it, with Abrahams playing both piano and Hammond, and Buck adding delicate guitar accents here and there, more like a single sliding note than anything that seems deliberately struck. The percussion is overactive again; there’s a nice steady beat, with the occasional snare fill to refocus the listener’s attention, but there’s also a persistent rattling that sounds like a short sample of clattering junk, looped endlessly. Despite that deliberately disruptive element, it’s a nice conclusion to a very beautiful album. The Necks aren’t as radical as they’re sometimes described as being, but every record I’ve heard by them has been time well spent, and Three is no exception.