Soundtracks for the Blind: The Necks // Unfold

Like the seminal Swans album, this column contains an eclectic collection of experimental music recommendations, all of which provide sonic landscapes for the listener to lose themselves within. Expect offerings from the genres of ambient, drone, electroacoustic, free improvisation, post-minimalism and more. 

One of the most unique and consistent contemporary avant-garde bands, The Necks are perhaps most notable for carving out and perfecting their own meditative niche. On the surface, the Australian group’s roster solicits expectations for a standard jazz trio – Chris Abrahams (piano, organ), Tony Buck (drums, percussion) and Lloyd Swanton (bass) seem to hearken back to the golden age of bare-bones bop and bandleaders like Bill Evans and Thelonious Monk. But these Aussies differ in how far they stretch their jazz roots into the avant-garde, comparable to but far beyond albums like John Coltrane‘s A Love Supreme and Pharaoh Sander‘s Karma. Though there’s a distinctly transcendental, spiritual vibe to The Necks’ music, the trio’s approach to this style is heavily informed by the sparseness of artists like Evans and Monk, with a considerable focus on minimalism, improvisation and ambiance that stretches their musical atmosphere from a smoky, luxurious piano lounge into a general ether of organic landscapes.

Unfold is a further extension on this philosophy which differs pretty starkly in its structure. Whereas most of the band’s albums consist of single, hour long compositions or two half-hour songs, Unfold is their first studio-album since Chemist (2005) to break this mold. The record’s four-song track listing is surpassed by just two installments in their discography – sophomore album Next (1990) and their OST for Australian drama The Boys (1998). The relevancy of this observation might not be apparent to those unfamiliar with the group’s back catalog, but it’s an incredibly important distinction that makes for a experience unique from their last couple of releases. Instead of an extended, improvisational foray into the textures of ambient jazz, Unfold presents a perfect double-LP – a mini-vignette each for Sides A through D that condense the impact of a full-blown Necks composition into a more accessible package.

These four works incrementally increase in length, with Sides A & B resting around 15 minutes while Sides C & D push past the 20-minute mark. No side reiterates ideas from its predecessor or successor, though, except for the trio’s incredible grasp of improvisational cohesion. This level of musical comradery can only come from a consistent lineup that’s grown together over the course of 30 years and almost 20 albums. The Necks has been—and likely always will be—Abrahams, Buck and Swanton, and that level of dedication to their bandmates and craft is what helps drive Unfold‘s quality.

“Rise” and “Blue Mountain” are perhaps the most related tracks on the album, with the trio’s standard piano, percussion and bass performances boiled down into each piece’s condensed run time. What’s most striking about a Necks track is the result of the aforementioned musical cohesion – each member improvises with a loosely methodical style, all while performing within their collective composition. Whether focusing on everyone’s individual contribution or the track as a whole, every element flows beautifully and feels well aware of its place within the expansive, jazzy atmosphere.

Abrahams tinkers with this equation on “Overhear” by opting for a new set of keys, and the ensuing organ-driven track takes on a light psychedelic vibe, almost comparable to a My Brother the Wind track distilled down to its simplest form. The album closes on as explosive a note as is possible within this style, as “Timepiece” sees the trio loosening up their playing even further. While not truly cacophonous, the track does have an almost electroacoustic vibe steeped in a layer of mystery, and the song’s concluding percussion shuffles and fades as if a ghostly procession has finally drifted off into the beyond.

Though The Necks’ music definitely requires patience, albums like Unfold serve as potent reminders for why their dense, extended compositions are well worth the trek. The four song structure might serve as a more penetrable starting point than the trio’s usual one track epics, and the relative diversity of the album presents several different meditative moods to explore. But you truly can’t go wrong with anything the group has to offer, and with a discography as extensive and intriguing as theirs, its worth letting a few consecutive projects echo within your empty house or apartment, absorbing the endless landscapes locked within their mystic minimalism.

Unfold is available now – you can purchase the album digitally and physically via Ideologic Organ and stream it in full on Spotify.

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