Hanging Gardens

Fish of Milk FOM 007

Australia’s The Necks seem to occupy a musical space somewhere between the jam band groove of the U.S.’s Medeski, Martin & Wood (MM&W) and the ambient intellectualism of the U.K.’s AMM.

Deft at mood creation, the band’s CDs and live shows are all of a piece, consisting of only one composition that takes about an hour to reveal its many facets. Like AMM’s conception, the time period allows the band members to take a piece through all its possible permutations before it’s exhausted. Unlike the British group, though, they maintain a constant, often foot-tapping beat. While the endproduct isn’t as outrightly intellectual or discerning as AMM’s, it also isn’t submerged into an almost endless, unvarying groove like many of MM&W’s compositions, which often clock in at a radio-friendly few minutes.

Consisting of three of Down Under’s most in-demand musicians, the Neckers are also consummate studio pros, and on these sessions use this technical expertise to capacity, allowing the sounds of the more than one instrument which each plays to be heard live or overdubbed. Either of these discs could be a good starting point for Necking, but each highlights different facets of the group’s identity.

HANGING GARDENS, for instance, recorded in 1996 and 1999, is the prototypical trance-dance disc with repeated note patterns from each of the three recalling the sort of funk-jazz keyboard specialists like Herbie Hancock and Les McCann pioneered in the early to mid-1970s. AETHER, created in 2000, uses reverberating tones, amplified discordant noises and perfectly timed silences to build an ambient sound field, though with none of the bloodlessness associated with that term.

Although contemporary jazz figures in all of the band members backgrounds, together they temper that bedrock of instrumental virtuosity with the virtues that can be added from rock, pop, ethnic, pure improv and cinema soundtrack music,

Chris Abrahams has recorded solo piano albums and worked with rock groups, most notably nine months spent in 1993 as keyboard player with Australia’s political-rock export Midnight Oil. Bassist Lloyd Swanton, who also produces CDs and writes film music, leads his own group, The catholics, as well playing in Australian alto saxophonist Bernie McGann’s trio. Other employers have ranged from British pop star Sting to the Sydney Symphony Orchestra, American blues singer Jimmy Witherspoon and such mainstream Yank jazzers as pianist John Hicks and tenor saxophonist Clifford Jordan. Drummer Tony Buck has not only played with local — pianist Paul Grabowsky and saxophonist Dale Barlow — and American — saxophonists Jordan and Ernie Watts — jazz musicians, but has worked and recorded with adventurous musicians in Europe and Japan such as turntablist Otomo Yoshihide, violinist Jon Rose and saxophonist John Zorn.

If 60-minute CDs made the charts, HANGING GARDENS, with its hypnotic ornamentation could be a genuine pop hit. But then that would demand that Top 40 followers listen for 57 minutes more than usual. Awash with the sort of electric gestalt that characterized BITCHES BREW and other Ur-fusion efforts, the CD is even more impressive, considering that all the sounds are made by three musicians, not the 13 Miles Davis used. The instant composition is also built up from the bottom with the basso ostinato supplied by Abrahams’ six-note, right-handed piano cluster and Swanton’s almost concrete-strong 4/4 time keeping. With the theme fading in and out, coloration comes from brushes used on Buck’s cymbals, some outright jazzy drumming elsewhere on the kit and later (overdubbed) organ washes and higher-key, offbeat, piano melodies. As the vamp intensifies, the tune, in a perverse way, suggests all that was right about disco music: the feeling that the rhythm is all-encompassing and like the yellow brick road will go on forever. Eventually after an electric piano coda, the music does fade to silence. But what a roller coaster ride it was while it lasted.

Relating HANGING to the speedy hedonism that’s associated with clubbing, makes AETHER a disc for romantic late-night pleasure, or maybe one to play the morning-after-the-night-before. Languid to the point of near-stasis, the tune which begins with ghostly Hawaiian guitar-like rustles and protracted periods of pure, non-Cagean silences, unfolds like a ripening blossom.

With elongated treble organ tones, simple keyboard decorations, deliberate bow scratch on cymbals and insistent bell-like metallic blows developing over a four-note continuum, it’s probably arco bass strokes which alternately create the violin-like or electric guitar sounds you hear, sense and feel. Cinematic in an amorous, soft-focus — or it is soft-porn — sort of way, the constant repetition of different, intersecting themes, recalls the unhackneyed early drone pieces of Terry Riley, LaMonte Young and other 1960s New York experimenters. Remember, of course, that at the time their music was used to accompany the many so-called underground films exhibited. As for the piece here though, by the time it vanishes into a vortex of swirling percussion, the music has literally occupied all possible hearing spaces.

AETHER, which is very likely a peculiar antipodean mineral or perhaps medieval spelling of ether, is surely meant to suggest the upper regions of the solar system, not flammable liquid. Taken into the ear all at once, the impression left is that it’s a film soundtrack waiting to be linked to a sprocket.

Whatever the intent of both discs, it seems accurate to say that the members of The Necks have created their own outstanding and original Down Under take on improvised music. For non-pop types at least, it’s these three, not three Brothers Gibb of the Bee Gees who make up Australia’s most noteworthy group musical export.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Hanging: 1. Hanging Gardens

Track Listing: Aether: 1. Aether

Personnel: both discs: Chris Abrahams (piano, Hammond organ, Rhodes electric piano, other keyboards); Lloyd Swanton (bass, electric bass); Tony Buck (drums, percussion, samples)