Essential New Music: The Necks’ “Three”

Numerology has never seemed that important to the Necks. But the title of the Australian instrumental combo’s latest album is a numerical key that unlocks several pertinent facts. There are three men in the band and three long tracks on the album. Advancing to division, the band has released 21 records, and 2020 is the band’s 33rd year of existence. 

Moving away from whole numbers, Three also reflects a series of unfolding dualities. One is the ongoing bifurcation of the Necks’ musical practice. Onstage, they’re a totally improvisational trio that grows each set-long piece from one musician’s opening gambit. Since these first moves often open into tunes and grooves, the music can fall easily on the ears of people who would rather tune out most free improvisation. But in the studio, other aspects of the manifold talents of Chris Abrahams, Lloyd Swanton and Tony Buck have come into play, and they’re key to Three’s enduring appeal. One is multi-instrumentalism; in addition to the primary colors of piano, bass and drums, the trio layers synthesizers, organ, electric guitar and a trunk-load of percussion over each 20-plus-minute track. 

The other is the Necks’ expanded sense of creative time; beyond their instincts for making something absorbing happen in the moment, the trio has a lot of good ideas about what to add to a performance. On “Bloom,” synth whorls and massed rattles accumulate like a storm head, building up and up over the cumulative mutation of an archetypal Abrahams piano motif. “Lovelock” develops more gradually, showcasing Buck’s knack for drawing out the sounds of cymbals and drumskins as well as his ability to make an electric guitar sound like a cross between a Sonic Youth coda and distant windchimes. The piano melody and bass groove on the final track, “Further,” express the yearning sway of a classic soul/jazz ballad. But even as Abrahams sketches out the tune’s implications, skirling guitar licks and churchy organ loom in the background, giving the music a three-dimensionality that’ll keep you coming back for more.  

—Bill Meyer