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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.

3 Comments Post a comment
  1. A journey is a good analogy for The Necks’ music, and Open is a great example. I’ve been listening to it in the car to & from work, on repeat and the end comes back to the beginning in a continuous loop. At some places I’d really like to put my foot down but the congested roads won’t allow it and the music is the same, it picks up a little speed only to dissipate around the next bend. It’s driving music for urban streets, for traffic conditions with an organic life of their own. It never develops quite as you might expect.

    October 29, 2013
  2. Dewi Williams #

    Hi there. I went to see The Necks for the first time at the Capstone Theatre in Liverpool two nights ago on what I think was the start of their UK dates. A prompt start at 7.30, two sets of 40/45 minutes, and back in the car by 9.30. I own [and like] three of their CDs so had some idea of what to expect, but was a little disappointed.

    By far the most interesting member was Tony Buck on drums – a variety of differing tones, some unusual percussion instruments, thoroughly engaging. Buck introduced the 1st set with beautiful rustling percussion from what looked like a bunch of small shells in his left hand while circling the surface of a drum with a brush. Lloyd Swanton bowed a bass figure to lovely effect, repeating several times, occasionally [I think] an octave lower. Then the piano entered and things rather went downhill for me – Swanton seemed to limit himself to repeated plucked notes from then on, with little change in rhythm, while Chris Abrahams was perhaps having an off night. One exception: in the second set Abrahams had his hands well down in the bass register, such that both were out of my sight, for a long period; combined with the string bass this made a deep and exciting climax to the set. But Buck was man of the match.

    I bought Silverwater in the interval and have listened with great enjoyment this weekend; I think for me maybe they’re best experienced as studio recordings.

    I hope you will post your thoughts on the Cafe Oto nights coming this week.

    November 3, 2013
    • Thanks for your observations. I’ve just posted a new blog on their past couple of days in London. I agree with you that the Necks live and on record are two different animals, and if I could keep only one it would be the recorded incarnation — but I do think you might have caught them on a less than remarkable evening. That happens with improvised music. I think you might have felt a little differently last night at Cafe Oto.

      November 7, 2013

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