alk about rockist; Drive By consists of one hour-long track, meaning you have to listen to the latest album by this intriguing Australian three-piece all in one sitting or be damned. This is far from being a problem though, firstly because anyone at all familiar with The Necks’ music will have been expecting this anyway, and secondly because Drive By is such a wondrous experience that I simply cannot imagine anyone wanting to do anything less than soak it all in at once.
The Necks have been around since 1987 but play together for only one or two months out of every year, when they all reconvene to Sydney at Christmas time. For the rest of the year drummer Tony Buck is based in Berlin, Lloyd Swanton is a busy jazz session bassist, and pianist Chris Abrahams is occupied with various other musical projects. The music they make together as The Necks rises from the purest sense of improvisation, their live sets unravelling slowly as they explore the acoustic possibilities of the space they are performing in, their studio albums working from a similar base but making use of overdubs and the like to add layers of subtle complexities to their simple but ever-shifting musical template. Ostensibly this is jazz, but really it is unclassifiable, drifting through territories some would claim to recognise as post rock, electronic, new age and ambient. 2001’s Aether comprises an hour of beatific, ultra-minimalist ambience, while 2002’s Hanging Gardens is a thrillingly pulsative and visceral record that veers close to more traditional dance music at times, while the live Piano Bass Drums (1998) is a remarkable exercise in minimalist jazz synergy, fully realising the interplay of the three members by removing anything but their primary instruments.
Drive By, while superficially similar to their previous work and obviously of a kind with it, sees The Necks move in slightly different waters once again. Much more groove-based than Aether and less frenetic and danceable than Hanging Gardens, the mood is one of darkened waters and vast, grey skies. The music rises from the faintest electronic pulse and the most distant unheard melody, slowly adding Swanton’s seemingly unchanging bassline before Buck’s relentless, hypnotic drumbeat emerges, giving the impression that there was never a time when it did not exist. Whorls of organ and keys ghost through the groove, occasional stabs giving the impression of something more abstracted and electronic; children are intermittently half-heard playing in some distant schoolyard; crepuscular invertebrates inveigle themselves to the ambience; and all the while bass and drums keep time like a seismic metronome, outlasting the evolution and extinction of countless species, facilitating all life and movement. When, after 23 minutes, a few rays of clear piano pierce through the eternal rhythm, the effect is like sunlight burning through clouds and illuminating pathways from the sky to the earth at the horizon. The effect is nothing less than entrancing.
The antecedents and contemporaries of The Necks are easily discernable, though few of them take their music quite as far (indeed, before the CD-age no one could; vinyl is simply not amenable to 60-minute ‘songs’); Miles Davis’ liquid In A Silent Way is owed a great debt, while Neu! and Can (though the group claim never to have heard the latter) share the everlasting-groove sensibility. Likewise the strange, spiritualist beauty of Talk Talk’s final two albums could be considered a reference point, or the extended ambient explorations of Bark Psychosis’ “Scum” and Orbital’s “Attached”. The Necks can withstand such lofty comparisons though; the power of their own music is undeniable. Drive By is a masterpiece.
STYLUSMAGAZINE.COM'S ALBUM OF THE WEEK - JANUARY 11 - JANUARY 17, 2004