Cueing up Vertigo, the Necks’ 18th album, anyone familiar with the Australian trio knows they’re a bit Janus-faced: there’s the acoustic piano trio that improvises each concert, and the expansive recording group that—through the layering of tracks, electronics, and piles of instruments—uses the studio itself as a means of improvisation. Vertigo began with the notion of “hanging ideas” off of an extended drone, though “like all Necks albums,” says bassist Lloyd Swanton, the group “ended up in a very different place.”
The Necks’ music has always skirted even broad categorization, and Vertigo is no different. It’s in parts jazz, ambient music, New Age, minimalism, post-rock. Certainly much of it was improvised, though it feels inaccurate to call it improvisation. “Contingency” may better describe what guides the Necks in the studio, an openness to whatever possibilities arise as the musicians play, listen, take measure, and play some more. This can make their albums difficult to evaluate. It’s easy to approach each as an epic, cohesive composition, only to be faced with a piece of shifting character, one that moves more in swerving, digressive lines than a grand narrative arc.
Listening to Vertigo’s musical elements come into focus—a waiving chord on organ, brushes scratching cymbals, a distant śruti buzz—I often snap to and realize I have no recollection of when they arose. At nearly any point, the music feels in stasis, but this is wrong: I know it has been changing, and dramatically. A drone often does accompany the trio through Vertigo’s 43 minutes, fizzling out in one form only to return later in another. Chris Abrahams roams from piano to organ to synthesizer, but never far from melody—his modal splashes of color keep Vertigo on a calming, meditative plane.
For all their experimentation, the Necks are almost never dissonant or abrasive. Nearing the end of Vertigo, they do push into noisier territory, Tony Buck’s eerie sheets of guitar feedback punctuated by bursts of clattering percussion. It’s as close to a crescendo as the Necks will allow, and it’s certainly Vertigo’s zenith. In the end, perhaps not my favorite of their albums, but the Necks continue to leave me curious as to where they’ll head next.
Vertigo is out now internationally on Fish of Milk and ReR Megacorp. Northern Spy will release Vertigo in North America on October 30.