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The Necks: Vertigo

Dave Wayne By

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Permit me a moment on a soapbox. Improvisation is merely a process, just as composition is a process. It is simply a way to organize sound. There are no imperatives, no agendas. Just spontaneity and interaction. Contrary to what's been drilled into your head over the years, improvisation doesn't necessitate "harsh" or "abrasive" sounds. In the early days of freely improvised jazz, harsh and abrasive sounds were common currency as the development of the style was steeped in the energy and the urgency of social awareness movements: specifically Black Liberation. The music has evolved considerably since then. Unfortunately we cannot say the same of our social conditions.

Yet, 50 years on, the term "free improvisation" has remained so loaded that perhaps it should be banned from music reviews altogether. As soon as some folks see that phrase, preconceived notions about improvised music come up like a nasty belch after a gross, fatty meal. Even seasoned jazz aficionados associate the term with the superficial aspects of the music: screaming, squealing horns, skittering random percussion, pounding pianos, and—well—utter chaos. The reality is that we have been listening to free improvisation for years, but simply do not recognize it as such. You see, free improvised passages can be, and often are, a continuous part of a longer narrative involving composition.

The Necks, an Australian trio who, as individuals, are involved in all sorts of music—from straight ahead jazz and fusion to indie rock and contemporary composition- -have been issuing long-form improvised sets since the mid-1990s. Their debut, Sex (Private Music, 1995), was everything that improvised music supposedly isn't: intensely rhythmic, trance-like, tonal, episodic, and—significantly—quite easy to connect with on an emotional level. Their modus operandi emphasizes textural, timbral, and harmonic explorations over the more familiar melodic, contrapuntal improvisational approach.

Twenty years later, with the release of Vertigo, the Necks remain a vital concern. It's not hard at all to believe that this 45-minute plus journey is completely improvised, with a little post-production pixie dust thrown in. When you listen to it, what you're hearing is the sound of three musicians listening to each other and responding. Their choices are honed by lifetimes spent playing all sorts of music, and by two decades worth of experiences as the Necks.

A description of the music would be as much a spoiler as revealing the plot twists in the latest Star Wars movie. The trio's original notion was to maintain a drone that ran the entire length of the piece. That didn't quite happen on Vertigo, though the piece features several lengthy drones that impart an atmosphere of doomed mystery to the whole. More dissonant and electronic than some of their previous work, Vertigo would make a powerful soundtrack to a horror flick.

Vertigo emphasizes atmosphere over conventional chops, and favors gradual unfoldings over sudden transitions. Though it's a continuous piece, there are two discrete sections and multiple recognizable themes. The latter are customarily implied by hovering around tonal and timbral centers. Keyboardist Chris Abrahams reaches back into the 1970s for some signature analogue keyboard sounds, and bassist Lloyd Swanton and percussionist Tony Buck use some standard instrumentation, but all sorts of other musical resources come into play during Vertigo, including home-made instruments, "found object" percussion, samples, and extended instrumental techniques.

Vertigo clocks in at just under 45 minutes in length. The only way to really experience it fully is to consume it in a single, focused sitting. And repeat as necessary.

Track Listing: Vertigo.

Personnel: Chris Abrahams: piano, keyboards; Lloyd Swanton: bass; Tony Buck: drums, percussion, guitar.

Title: Vertigo | Year Released: 2016 | Record Label: Northern Spy Records

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