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Saturday, September 8, 2018

The Necks - Body Music Album Reviews


The Necks’ 20th album is as laser-focused on repetition as ever. But for the first time, the trio indulges its rock’n’roll instincts, resulting in one of the most powerful albums in the band’s catalog.

Spoiler alerts do not apply to the Necks. For nearly three decades, the instrumental Australian trio has often followed a deceptively simple formula, both in the studio and on stage: Begin in miniature, with discrete thoughts stated patiently with grand piano, upright bass, and spare drums. Over the course of an hour or so, ratchet up the intensity and density of those phrases, expanding and interlocking them until they suggest much more than those primitive elements—perhaps a symphony, sustaining a crescendo as if holding a collective breath, or a large free-jazz ensemble, locked inside an unexpected moment of improvisational communion. There are, of course, exceptions. Sometimes they update their palette, adding a guitar here, an organ there; sometimes they invert the mold, so a monolithic sound breaks down rather than building up. But listening to the best of the Necks’ 20 albums can feel like watching a favorite movie for the 10th time; you get the plot and have even memorized some of its tricks, but changes in your own perspective let you see it anew, to discover a new thread inside a pattern you thought you knew.

That said, spoiler alert: Almost halfway into Body, the trio’s engrossing and overwhelming 20th album, the Necks shoot from a slumber of pensive bass and piano into a clanging post-rock eruption, where walloped drums swing hard and heavy beneath pounded keys and shrieking electric guitar that washes everything in vivid neon streaks. The first time you hear it, you may jolt upright with surprise, as if a boogeyman has suddenly appeared from around a corner in that movie you thought you knew so well. But this is not a blip. For a quarter-hour, the Necks grind away at this theme, rending a basic rock’n’roll riff and rhythm into utter dust.

Tony Buck, who tortures his drums and tames the electric guitar here, is the anchor and the aggressor. But it’s Chris Abrahams, ducking behind the cover of Buck and bassist Lloyd Swanton, who dances inside the din with boogie-woogie piano lines. Like funhouse mirrors, his harmonies reflect and reshape foundational rock chords, offering flickers of light from inside the storm. The unexpected stretch matches the delirious heights of the reborn version of Swans, when Michael Gira’s big band would lash out at a melody for half an hour, or the dizzying swirl of Rhys Chatham’s Guitar Trio, where one chord played over and over against a swinging beat somehow produces a trance. This is ecstatic music, as engrossing and powerful as anything the Necks have ever made.

The middle of Body is so jarring and thrilling it runs the risk of overshadowing the rest of the album. Divided into four unequal movements, though, these 57 minutes include some of the Necks’ most delicate and considered playing this decade, and especially since their 2013 opus, Open. The first section is a classic Necks incantation—infinite piano glissandi scaling the sides of kinetic percussion and bulbous bass thuds. It conveys a restless and anxious feeling, the equivalent of watching a lab rat scurry inside some booby-trapped labyrinth. At one point, Buck divides the beat by shuffling brushes or perhaps a chain over his snare drum, evoking a snake’s threatening hiss.

In the brief second section, the Necks linger inside a quiet world of organ whirrs, repetitive piano chords and bass tones, and sweeps of acoustic guitar. It is ominously still, setting up the sense that something cataclysmic is going to happen, that something has got to give. The eruption that follows—those 15 minutes when the Necks become a glorious post-rock band—is an escape valve for pressure that has nowhere else to go. It cannot last, either. The Necks allow it to collapse into a reverie of bowed bass, chiming bells, granulated piano, and crackling electronics. The drums occasionally flare up into aftershocks, but the end is mostly about surveying the damage, like waking up after a party or emerging after a tornado and deciding what’s next. As it fades into a distended hum, Body offers no clues or answers—only a little light for you to see what remains.

The Necks’ iterative framework has always allowed for individual interpretation. Decorated only with minimalist art or august landscapes, their records have been like expressionist paintings, meticulously constructed but emotionally conducive to the user’s own narrative and meaning. That applies to Body, sure, but something feels different here—ominous, urgent, melancholy. All this action builds only to fall apart, leaving us in a void of silence. For a trio that has reveled in building its own little worlds for three decades, Body feels newly reflective of our space and time, a stark and jarring statement about the precipice of modern life. This is as high as the Necks have ever taken us and, as such, as low as they’ve ever left us. This time, it’s hard to listen to the Necks and hear anything but our world, sounded back.

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