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Monday, February 27, 2023

The Necks - Travel (Northern Spy, 2023)

By Ian Lovdahl

Dissecting The Necks invites an unavoidable discussion regarding genre. After sampling the various albums from the Australian trio's prolific career, one may wonder how exactly to categorize their style of music; instead of applying labels from the outset, it may be best to determine what The Necks are not. A self-described "cult band", the threesome qualifies that their creative output isn't "entirely avant-garde, nor minimalist, nor ambient, nor jazz." They specialize in engagingly repetitive and textured longform pieces, but tags of krautrock, jam, and drone also don't stick. Quite simply, The Necks play improvised music, creating a wholly unique and freeform musical universe while pulling inspiration from aforementioned genres in their orbit.

In an effort to capture a recent studio practice of playing extended improvisations, The Necks recorded Travel, their nineteenth album. Kicking off with "Signal", a shy piano treads lightly over a steadfast bass line and light percussion, composing mystery in the air for twenty minutes; muscular runtimes are a hallmark of the band's aesthetic, although Travel offers four medium-sized pieces instead of one or two goliath tracks. Eventually, the meek piano is replaced by a percolating keyboard that sounds vaguely like a smartphone alert; all the while, the bassline stays strong, followed closely by the drums. Even later when they introduce an organ and combine the two other key instrument variations, the rhythm remains steady, the tempo stays calm. Constructing a room of pseudo-spiritual ambience, the mood turns serene on the follow-up "Forming", where a softly-clamoring bass supports beautifully-organic percussion and inquisitive keys. The piano seeks jazz, but the drums simply attempt to keep peace, and the hazy scene yawns with the satisfaction of a lazy Sunday afternoon.

As Travel ages, two very specific album comparisons spring to mind: the Chilly Gonzales piano redux of Plastikmann's acid techno classic Consumed In Key, and Jeff Parker's excellent improvisational Mondays at The Enfield Tennis Academy. The former features sly piano fingers that ask questions with each press, while Mondays at The ETA composes grooves that ponder at the fork of spiritual jazz and jam. The back half of Travel fits suitably between these two LPs, which isn't to make a derivative accusation of the Australian trio; it's just interesting to note new comparisons to the group's very active discography. After an adventurous third excursion, the album closer "Bloodstream" wraps up with flowering keys that bloom amidst rumbling drum rolls and bowed melancholy. A courageous bass drum beat inspires the organ to speak up, droning in and out of consciousness like a self-medicating Sandman before sending the rest of the band to bed.

If you're a fan of The Necks, you'll be glad to know that the band hasn't altered their tried-and-true formula. Of course, it'd be difficult to mistake Travel for the recent Three or my personal favorite Unfold, but the foundation on which the trio's success is built remains reliable. Those patient listeners who get down with double-digit minute song lengths will certainly find a welcome home in The Neck's nineteenth record; and if you're wondering what an unclassifiable band sounds like, Travel is a fine way to indulge your curiosity.