Two kinds of modern beauty
It was my friend and erstwhile Guardian colleague John L Walters who made the neat comparison between the experience of listening to the Necks and a stroll through an art gallery, during which the attention might wax and wane as the eye is caught, becomes absorbed, moves on, glances briefly at something else and moves on again. While listening to the Australian trio’s new CD, Open, which consists of a single 68-minute piece, I thought of a different analogy, one that works better for me. It’s like being on a long train journey, perhaps through several countries: the view can change many times in the course of the trip, gradually but inexorably, perhaps from vast wheatfields to industrial landscapes to valleys between snow-capped mountains, and the weather modulates along with the scenery. Occasionally you might dive into a tunnel, requiring the senses to adapt, and the landscape might have changed again when you re-emerge.
“Open”, which is also the name of the piece, starts with the gentle clanging of something that sounds like (but almost certainly isn’t) the strings of an abandoned piano being struck with a rubber mallet. Little cymbals are struck, a double bass enters (with the sort of sparse, sonorous, simple figure that so often provides an underpinning to the Necks’ long-form pieces), and a real piano makes its appearance, sounding a series of vaguely oriental arpeggios with the sustain pedal held down. Tony Buck, Lloyd Swanton and Chris Abrahams are all aboard, and we’re on our way.
The landscape changes pretty slowly on this trip. As it does, there’s always one element — perhaps the bass figure, or the tapping of a closed hi-hat, or the piano holding the key centre — to maintain a sense of continuity. There are quiet periods when nothing much seems to be happening, and passages of great intensity. In the first third there’s some fine drumming from Buck, whose ability to draw a lovely tone from his instruments reminds me of the young Tony Williams; around about the mid-point the oscillations of a single octave-doubled note held on a Hammond organ blend with a baleful industrial noise; there are several passages in which Abrahams moves between the quietly ecstatic approaches of Alice Coltrane and Charlemagne Palestine; and the gentle final stages feature what sounds like a choir of Swanton’s overdubbed basses.
It’s their 17th album, and even at this early stage of listening it sounds like one of their best, up there with Aquatic and Silverwater, in my view. And there are UK gigs — including three nights at Cafe Oto — to look forward to next month.
Arve Henriksen is also visiting the UK in November, to play Andrew Smith’s Requiem (inspired by the Utoya massacre) with a choir and the organist Stale Storlokken at St Luke’s in London and elsewhere. In the meantime there’s his new CD, Places of Worship, a work of very special beauty.
I’ve never heard Henriksen’s trumpet (or his counter-tenor vocals, for that matter) sound as profoundly and consistently expressive, that ability to mutate tone and attack matched by some wonderful phrase-making and a powerful sense of continuity. Nor has he ever benefited from more lustrous electronic backgrounds, the samples and programming mostly manipulated by Jan Bang and Erik Honore, with occasional help from Eivind Aarset’s guitar and Jon Balke’s keyboards. As a tailpiece, there’s a pretty song called “Shelter from the Storm” (not that one), sung by Honore.
In his five-star review in this morning’s Guardian, John Fordham drew a comparison with Sketches of Spain. That had been going through my head, too, particularly when listening to “Le Cimetiere Marin” and “Bayon”, two of the album’s 10 tracks. I was also reminded of Siesta, Miles Davis’s soundtrack to a 1987 film (directed by Mary Lambert) that nobody seemed to like but for which Miles, with the help of Marcus Miller, produced some beautiful moments at a time when conventional ideas of beauty did not seem to be high on his agenda.
Where Open demands a proper degree of commitment, Places of Worship opens its arms to any listener. In their different but equally wonderful ways, these are likely to be the albums by which I’ll remember the year.
* The photograph of the Necks — left to right: Lloyd Swanton, Tony Buck and Chris Abrahams — is by Camille Walsh. Their album is released on the RnR MEGACORP label. Henriksen’s album is on Rune Grammofon.