Fish of Milk FOM0016
Reviewed by Tony Mitchell, March 2nd, 2014
In their 25th year of operation, the Necks seem to have reached a peak. A highly successful European tour, in which they sold out three nights at the Café Oto, one of the major London venues for experimental music, and several other venues as well, were invited to play a set with leading British saxophonist Evan Parker, which was broadcast and streamed on BBC Radio 3, and released Open, their 17th album, which has been generally acclaimed as their best work so far. It has even been reviewed in rock music magazines such as Uncut in the UK and Spin in the US, whose reviewer, Grayson Curran, took delight in exposing the opprobrium poured on them during their 2009 US tour by Chicago jazz behemoth John Litweiler.
The 30-minute set with Parker was sublime, with the British sax maestro blending in perfectly with the trio, as if he were a natural extension of their dynamics. The opening set at Café Oto was also broadcast on the BBC, and before it bassist Lloyd Swanton and drummer Tony Buck responded to questions from the audience. When asked if they thought their music was particularly Australian, Swanton replied that it was no coincidence that Australia had produced one of the most distinctive drone instruments in the world, and while none of them played the didgeridu, they were certainly influenced by its existence.
Open, like the Necks’ first album Sex, released in 1989, consists of a single 68 minute track, which was played in its entirety on the ABC’s ‘Jazz Up Late’ on November 1st, and streamed for almost a month afterwards. Swanton has described it as exploring ‘an area of great stillness’ after the relatively turbulent Mindset, released in 2012 on vinyl, and consisting of two quite active tracks. Open introduces the sound of a monochord, an ancient one-stringed instrument originally built by Pythagoras in which an open-tuned string was stretched over a wooden plate and used for harmonic experiments. These days it can have up to 21 strings, all tuned to one pitch, with one string tuned an octave lower. The instrument was built and provided by Emma Nilsson, and played by Tony Buck to striking effect at the beginning of the piece, combining with the drummer’s Tibetan-like cymbals to produce a raga-like effect, with piano adding a rippling effect along with a deep four note bass pattern.
Constructed around a single sustained piano chord from Chris Abrahams, Open is unusual for the Necks as it can almost be divided into a number of discrete segments, changing direction a number of times throughout its duration, as the piano comes into the foreground before a long, muted quasi-drum solo takes over, augmented by bass notes, then the piano returns with variations on a pattern, with a sustained organ note gradually surging forward, joined by the drone-like monochord. After an extended drum roll, the organ moves into the clear, a swirl of percussion takes over, then the piano gradually re-enters in an extended, shimmering flurry of trills punctuated by Buck’s occasional muted cymbal and Swanton’s one-note bass line, before winding down into a peaceful bass figure, cymbals and the monochord in the background. Then a quiet transitional section with bass, cymbals and monochord leads into a new section with just two piano chords repeated languidly along with strings, as percussion gains momentum along with what sounds like Buck on guitar. This continues for several minutes, before the monochord re-enters with cymbals, the piano returns with a much more filigreed series of motifs and an organ pattern enters along with a shaker, and some delicate arco bass with an almost Velvet Underground-like feel, then silence. As Evan Parker said, ‘the Necks are always more than the sum of these three people’, and they have achieved a rare kind of alchemy here which rewards repeated listening.