The Necks – Vertigo (Fish of Milk)

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I’m not sure if there’s any significance to the Australian release date of the Necks’ 18th album, but the title certainly has me guessing. Is it a reference to the famous Hitchcock film, which pianist Chris Abrahams studied at UTS in the 1990s? There’s certainly a filmic aspect, as with previous albums, to this relatively short and concise album, which comes in at just under 44 minutes, and sound effects integrated into the mix include what sounds like a burglar alarm going continuously for several minutes. This occurs in tandem with Abrahams’ piano before it transforms into a single continuous organ note. Tuned percussion is also featured by Tony Buck, as well as extended trilled notes on the higher registers of the piano, augmented by an electric piano. As with most Necks studio albums, it’s a multi-layered affair, drenched with atmospherical affects, and also punctuated by the inner strings of the piano.

If I google ‘the necks vertigo’ I get ‘Cervical vertigo – Pathophysiology and diagnosis: Cervical vertigo is a vertigo or dizziness that is provoked by a particular neck posture. For example, dizziness provoked by turning the head about the vertical axis, while sitting upright no matter what the orientation of the head is to gravity’. I’m not sure this helps, but it may describe the trance-like effect the Necks induce in the listener, where there is also often a darker sense of menace. I can easily lose myself in my recollections of the vertiginous spirals of Hitchcock’s film while listening to this album, which features numerous different keyboard settings and percussion combining a steady cymbal with what sounds like whips – presumably one of the ‘homemade instruments’ mentioned in the press release.

Bassist Lloyd Swanton said of Vertigo, ‘ we started to pursue the idea of having a drone running from start to finish, off which we could hang ideas … But like all Necks albums we ended up in a very different place’. He also suggested the album could be perceived in two symmetrical halves. The album does slow down into something of a melodic plateau at about the 20 minute mark, with an acquatic-sounding echoing piano predominating, and the whip-like effect continuing, but there are still occasional elements of turbulence intruding, like piano strings, before an extended organ note takes over, with protracted cymbals and even a brief electric guitar drone (Tony Buck), and other sonic textures blended in, including Hammond organ, with percussive sounds entering the mix, which eventually subsides into a fade out. It’s another richly rewarding listen, especially on subsequent hearings.

Later this month the Necks perform in a collaboration with other musicians in ‘Transcender’, a celebration of the music of Brian Eno at the Barbican in London, before setting off in November on an extensive tour of Europe which culminates in three nights at the Café Oto in London, the last of them joined by British saxophonist Evan Parker for the second time. In their previous sublime collaboration with Parker last year, broadcast on Radio 3 and hopefully someday to be released, the saxophonist blended in with the trio perfectly to sound like their fourth member. Encouraged by their growing stature in the UK, I sent a brief proposal for a book on their previous, and arguably best, album Open, which featured a monochord, to Bloomsbury’s 33 1/3 book series. It would have been the only Australian album featured in the entire series apart from AC/DC, and I was also encouraged by their recent volume on Miles Davis’ Bitches Brew, which English critic Richard Williams has cited as an important predecessor of the Necks’ work. But I was told by their US editor, who recently took over the series and transferred it to the USA: ‘Thanks so much for your note. Though I don’t want to discourage you I think we might have a hard time selling a 33 1/3 on the Necks in our main market which is the US’. Despite Richard Dyer describing the Necks in the New York Times as ‘the greatest band in the world’, US mag Spin describing Open as ‘the most beautiful album of the year’, and the Los Angeles Times describing the band as ‘a magic act masquerading as a piano trio’, they appear to have suffered from a contemptuous review from US free jazz critic John Litweiler, who tried to make them seem like a bunch of amateurs in comparison to the US greats he has championed. Cracking the US market is always a tough task – but is it worth it?

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About Author

Tony Mitchell is an honoraray research associate at the University of Technology, Sydney. He has edited a number of books: on global hip hop (Global Noise, 2001), on Australian Popular Music (Sounds of Then, Sounds of Now, 2008), and New Zealand Music (Home Land and Sea, 2011). He is currently co-editing a book about Icelandic music.