Athenaeum, Homebush, Quay & Raab
Fish of Milk FOM 0008

For the uninitiated, hearing performances and CDs by the Australian trio The Necks are somewhat akin to looking at those cartoon quizzes that ask you to find the differences between two nearly identical pictures. Everything sounds very similar. But more contemplative exposure to the band’s work — like careful examination of those pictures — reveals a host of singular details, making The Necks’s creations not only exciting, but unique as well.

So it is with this oddly titled, 4-CD collection of live tracks. About 3¼ hours of music, each instant composition takes up one complete disc. Three of the shows were recorded in the band’s native Australia, one in Austria, and were transferred to CD with minimal postproduction and editing work. All can be heard as mesmerizing examples of ritualistic minimalism.

In common with some contemporary classical works, the idea seems to be that when subtle variations of certain patterns are repeated often enough, and for a long period of time, new formations and patterns suggest themselves. What’s more, any description of the band that tries to slot it into the ambient category is almost laughable. The soaring tumult the Necks bring to the tunes has about as much connection with so-called ambient sounds as laborers do with computer programmers.

Granted purported influences from experimenters as different as composers Erik Satie and Alexander Scriabin; British improv mainstay AMM; cosmic jazzers Sun Ra and Julius Hemphill; plus the earliest Pink Floyd instrumentals inform the band sound. But what else would you expect from three men whose playing experience has encompassed rock band Midnight Oil for pianist Chris Abrahams, jazzers like cornettist Nat Adderley and saxophonist Bernie McGann for bassist Lloyd Swanton and turntablist Otomo Yoshide and saxophonist John Zorn for drummer Tony Buck?

That said, the mesmerizing performance that best defines one aspects of the trio’s art is “Quay”, at nearly 54 minutes, the longest track — and disc — here. Recorded in Sydney, it also allows Abrahams more time in the forefront than the others. Beginning andante with piano chords that elongate while Buck scrapes a drum stick across ride cymbal to create shimmering, metallic sounds, flickering figures soon turn the theme to diminution as Swanton’s bass strings pick out a standard 4/4 beat. Between the cymbal echoes and scratches and wire brush pressure on drumheads, what sounds like sand slowly shifting and a foghorn (!) slowly move into audibility. Meanwhile, the pianist’s output moves from unabashed romanticism to jazz piano trio suggestion in a Keith Jarrett mold.

Midway through, the tempo starts to pick up as bass and drums break into a shuffle rhythm and Abrahams introduces a modern variant on boogie woogie, with his right hand repeating a rhythmic blues theme and his left producing a perpetual rhythm of eight notes per bar. Easing from andante to staccato, he begins to pitch slide as Buck pounds out an evenly accented rock-style rhythm. Soon arpeggios are flying from the piano with each note heard seemingly exhibiting its own overtones. The drummer and bassist combine for a funky variation on the Bo Diddley beat as Abrahams appears to be pounding every key he can, skipping over the molten flame of a beat created by Swanton and Buck.

“Raab”, recorded in Austria, provides a much different experience. Abrahams actually sounds as if he’s rephrasing a child’s rote piano lesson for a time. You can almost hear suggestions of “Frère Jacques” and “Baa Baa Black Sheep” making appearances. Embellishments come from a simple bass round and what’s probably a mallet occasionally striking a ride cymbal. Abrahams begins creating tremolo accents while advancing a four-note pattern with his left hand, as Swanton’s woody pizzicato motion allows Buck to construct a new percussive figure. At this point, the pianist is embellishing the theme, playing the melody with one hand, then commenting on it with the other. Eventually, he gets into repetitive chords presaging the home stretch, as the theme gradually diminishes and pliant drum beats underline the final diminuendo.

Silences broken by a two-handed motion from Abrahams characterizes “Athenaeum” as well, though the overall theme seems more impressionistic than the others. Here the bassist’s foursquare beat is most prominent, with low frequency tremolos from the keyboard expanding as the piece advances. Midway through, a waterfall of keyboard notes introduces a high-pitched, sprightly new theme, with Swanton adding rococo ornamentation to the melody. Pressure from Buck’s bass drum and the bassist’s string tugging, contrast with Abrahams’ tinkling high notes to such an extent that at times you wonder if he’s playing variations on “Chopsticks”. Ultimately the four-beat rhythm disappears into descending motifs from all three musicians.

Most abstract and rhythmic of the four discs, “Homebush” builds to a crescendo from thunderous bass lines, repeated piano arpeggios and heavily accented drumbeats. Almost orgasmic in its centre, with glissandos from the piano turning modal, woody buzzes from the bass morphing into guitar-like strumming and Buck producing what appear to be Native American Indian tom tom rhythms. The end result seems to exist midway between Pink Floyd’s “Interstellar Overdrive” and the all-encompassing space chord that Sun Ra sometimes demanded from his Arkestra. However, the near military style tempo mixed with a foot-tapping beat advanced from the bass also characterizes the piece.

Summary definitions of The Necks’ art, the four-CD program is probably too much to absorb at one sitting, except for the most rabid Necker. However anyone interested in out-of-the-ordinary improvisations will find much to like — and be impressed by — on any of the discs.

— Ken Waxman

Track Listing: Disc 1. Athenaeum Disc 2. Homebush Disc 3. Quay Disc 4. Raab

Personnel: Chris Abrahams (piano); Lloyd Swanton (bass); Tony Buck (drums)