Thursday, March 24, 2016


  The Necks - Hanging Gardens

   For almost 30 years now, Australian trio The Necks have been pursuing a singular methodology: process-oriented improvisation unfolding within the interstice of jazz and minimalism. Their seventh album Hanging Gardens, released in 1999 on their Fish of Milk label and then internationally two years later on ReR Megacorp, is an exemplary display of pianist Chris Abrahams, bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer/guitarist Tony Buck’s collective gestalt. Its single, hour-long title track is a logical culmination of the direction set by their 1989 debut Sex, a concluding thesis of groove-based jazz before the incorporation of post-rock textures and reductionist silences on Aether, Mosquito/See Through and Chemist. With the release of their new album Vertigo, there’s an extended tendency towards drone minimalism apparent in Mindset and Open; enhanced spatiality inundated with a colour density akin to Spectralism's expanded palette. Their approach to process is no less fecund as it encompasses pure sound over rhythmic structures.

The Necks: Left to Right - Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton, Tony Buck.

   The inspiration of Miles Davis’ Electric groups permeates Hanging Gardens, an influence palpable since their second album Next (1990), the off-kilter On The Corner swagger of ‘Nice Policeman, Nasty Policeman’ in particular with its McLaughlin-esque guitar stabs and avant-funk keyboard figures. Buck’s drumming mesmerizes in Next’s Latin American-flavoured epic ‘Pele’, shifting patterns of metronomic rhythm suggesting a dreamy fusion of Temptations hand claps and Tony Williams’ ‘It’s About That Time’ backbeat. By the release of Aquatic in 1994, groove had morphed into submarine glide, primary bass and keyboard themes creating soothing shapes like bands of dappled light amongst coral outcrops. Space-riddled minimalism infused the 1998 soundtrack of the suburban crime drama The Boys with claustrophobic tension; a perfect aural complement to the film’s opening shots of bare light bulbs in empty hallways. Stylistic properties in oppositional balance coalesced in Hanging Gardens: the gravitational force of repetition versus the levitation pull of ethereal texture. Among this group’s most satisfying releases, it boasts an internally consistent style that embraces other scenes; a millennial summation of the era’s more promising musical pathways in hiphop and electronic dance music.

Miles Davis in his Electric period, early 1970s.

   The Necks participated last year in an international series of concerts commemorating the release of Discreet Music, Brian Eno’s landmark 1975 album. Hanging Gardens’ lapidescent amalgam of stasis and transformation has a parallel in ‘Iced World’, a track from the ambient pioneer’s 1997 cyberjazz release The Drop. Buck’s drumming is livelier and more busily polyrhythmic than the gentle locomotion of Eno’s programmed ride cymbal and simple bass pulse, but the two pieces similarly crystallise a luscious anxiety. Subtle music built of basic elements, constantly alternating between prosaic repetition and ecstatic illumination.

Bran Eno, June 2008.

   Mathematician John Conway’s ‘Game of Life’ computer program and its aesthetic implications - simple rules that produce complex results - found sublimation in Eno’s music and infiltrates The Necks’ by osmosis. Abrahams’ rudimentary piano/organ/synth patterns, Swanton’s protozoan bass and Buck’s rhythmic palpitations gain elegance in combination. Interaction becomes a lattice, writhing with iridescence; properties that would seem unsophisticated in isolation acquire an alluring gleam, music that unfolds over the length of an hour has the durability to enthrall over that distance.

The Necks at The Corner Hotel, Melbourne, February 2010. Photo by Nick Carson.

   The trio was heading in a more elemental musical direction, but rhythm and melody is crucial to Hanging Gardens. Buck’s frenetic, breakbeat-like drumming is reminiscent of the halcyon days of jungle techno, the aura of Elysian euphoria surrounding Goldie tracks like ‘Sea of Tears’ from Timeless. The Necks recreate something of that sense of hearing a new futuristic jazz, digitally enhanced and turbo-charged, but also those paranoid moods of entrapment that darkcore producers conjure with their jittery recombinations of the Amen break. Abrahams’ stately piano theme, the track’s melodic highlight that first enters at the 22 minute mark and then again at 47 minutes, has a pop sensibility that seems spun as much from the 80s jazz-lite songbook of Joe Jackson as the regal touch of Bill Evans’ chord progressions. As a stalwart of the Australian pop scene, the pianist is no stranger to the tunesmith’s trade, having brought his skills as a player to bear with charting acts like The Whitlams and in songwriting partnership with singer Melanie Oxley. What startles and gladdens about the theme as it materialises is a matter of context: melody sounds adrift here, resonating on the horizon like a mirage promising balm to a traveller moving with futile speed along a vast, asymptotic curve.

   The Necks also seem to draw inspiration from sampladelia’s elevation of loop and juxtaposition. There’s a similarity of results to sampling process rather than the boom-bap schematics of hiphop: selecting a moment that contains the most piquant qualities of funk or soul in a track, looping it and bringing it into conjunction with the disruptive element. The paradigmatic reference here is that alluring snatch of bluesy Isaac Hayes piano thrown into a cauldron of scratchy disjuncture on Public Enemy’s ‘Black Steel in the Hour of Chaos’. The Necks bring together both in real time and studio overdubbing what could be a succession of such looped moments, but subjected to gradual change in live performance. Swanton’s bass alternates throughout between a unifying one-note pulse and tumbling cycles of transitional phrase that hint at forward thematic motion without fully delivering. Something magical occurs when an organ motif wreathed in glowering Leslie speaker/wah-wah ambience, its cadence redolent of the noir milieu of the trio’s The Boys soundtrack or Larry Young’s ‘Khalid of Space’, is juxtaposed with the gentle optimism of Abrahams’ piano theme. The former is no less menacing, the latter no less conciliatory, but their alignment accentuates their psychoactive qualities, like interstellar matter with diverse origins on an orbital spiral into a black hole, radiating with greater ferocity as drawn nearer to singularity.
The Necks - L to R: Tony Buck (drums), Lloyd Swanton (bass), Chris Abrahams (piano).

   The willingness to engage with formal elements from pop and techno as well as minimalism sets The Necks apart from other jazz practitioners. Consider music released by Barry Guy, Evan Parker or Marilyn Crispell through such labels as ECM and Leo in the late 90s. Beautiful, exploratory work much of it, but from a more rarified milieu, the hermetic tradition of free improvisation. By embracing fundamental melody, drone and the loop, The Necks’ music sounds more open-aired and just as open-ended.

   The trio has drawn fire from purists for this repetitious simplicity, but such criticism only raises deeper questions about the inherent subjectivity of musical appreciation and the perception of genre. Isn’t one man’s dumbing down another’s discovery of wit in concision? Does self-indulgence or lack of taste exist in prolonged displays of extended technique just as much as scalar noodling? Jazz as category has always entailed hybridity as well as reverence for tradition: from its foundational syncretic bonding with elements of classical, blues and other folk forms, through Schullerian Third Stream, fusion and Chicago Underground post-rock participation, with minimalism as another evolutionary bud. The trio operates between poles of hypnotic repetition and micro-melodicism that have already been validated by such luminous forerunners as Terry Riley and Steve Reich. And regardless of their collective origins, is it accurate to strictly label The Necks a jazz group, any more than it is to apply that descriptor to an outfit like Kammerflimmer Kollectiv, whose propensities towards ambient and noise mirror zones Chris Abrahams has explored in his solo work? All that matters in the end is that performance and structure, composed or improvised, engage the contemplative faculties - emotion and imagination. It’s music of fluid boundaries and vortical fascination that makes Hanging Gardens an essential entry point for nascent post-everything aficionados, just as Miles’ psychedelic fusion albums were in the 1970s.

 © Copyright Jonathon Kromka 2015