It’s been fascinating watching Australian three piece The Necks approach recording over the years. Crafting improvised pieces that are more about the journey than the destination, that proceed through multiple at times almost imperceptible changes, their approach is hypnotic long form music that to some extent feels amorphous – freed from silly constraints like shape, time or genre that weigh down so many others.
So how do you document something that exists for the moment – that hangs in the air for an instant before disappearing, never to be repeated, only to be replaced by something new? Thus far the answer is multiple ways. They’ve set up the tape recorder pressed play to create in the studio doing what they do live, they’ve released actual live recordings, and they’ve also treated the recording process as a whole ‘other’ experience of the band – utilising it to do what they can’t do live: overdubs. Normally at this point you’d add a smug caveat ‘to varying degrees of success,’ but that would be a lie. The Necks have a unique ability to turn challenges into creative opportunities, and the quality of their output regardless of method is universally high and always feels like it reveals another aspect of the band’s character.
Which leads us to Travel – their pop album?
Well maybe as pop as they can get. With four pieces clocking in at 20 odd minutes each, initially it might appear that for their 19th studio album they’ve finally compromised for the sake of format, yet that’s not really the case. What we hear are The Necks limbering up, a sprightly 20 odd minutes to get the juices flowing when they’re in the studio, before they move onto their traditional 60 odd minute pieces. It’s difficult to know if these recordings were ever intended to see the light of day – though similar experiments appeared on their 2017 Idealogic Organ album Unfold.
It does feel like the trio are playing with a certain sense of freedom – but then of course they always do. In terms of track selection though they’ve gone to pains to highlight the diversity of their approach, where the breezy momentum of the opener ‘Signal’, butts up against the significantly more atmospheric and sedentary ‘Forming’. ‘Forming’ not surprisingly feels more exploratory, more textural, where the lack of cadence from the rhythm section offers space for all to explore mood. It feels like we’re waiting for ‘it’ to happen – whatever ‘it’ is. After a while you’re able to hear the music freed from anticipation, and you can relax (like they seem to have) and find joy in the mood and textures. Strangely I’m reminded of the intro to A Love Supreme before Coltrane’s saxophone kicks in – perhaps if it was extended for a lazy 20 odd minutes.
When you sequence like this it’s hard not to reflect on what makes a piece worthy – which can be challenging for improvised music as it’s often tied up in notions of identity and the desire to highlight forward thinking credentials. In this sense The Necks probably benefit from their 34 years on the planet – by this stage they don’t really need to prove anything to anyone. Their four pieces here couldn’t be more different, they’re all filled with these beautiful transcendent moments in time, yet they’re searching for and finding value in such disparate worlds. And that’s okay. Actually its more than okay – it’s essential. Travel poses questions, challenges assumptions, yet also seduces, drawing us further into their unique worlds, highlighting, as if you didn’t already realise The Necks are more than one thing. With bass, percussion and piano/organ they can be anything, and often are, but no matter where they go and what techniques they use, they will always be unmistakably themselves – whatever that is.