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The Necks – Open

Northern Spy (North America)/ReR (Europe)

The Necks - OpenI was determined not to like this album.

I’d signed up to review it in advance of The Necks’ sold out three-night stand at Café OTO in early November – new album review, live gig write-up, a nice little Necks package all tied up with a coloured bow on top. I’ve always like symmetry, me.

Yet the album never showed up from the USA. And it kept on not showing up. Eventually, Freq’s estimable editor had to get on the (metaphorical – Ed.) blower and hassle the record company again (And it was probably the Royal Mail’s fault anyway. Ed.). The weeks ticked by – still no show. First my ardour began to cool, and then, like a lover spurned, it turned to fury. Bloody Necks. Never liked ‘em that much anyway. It’s probably just an hour of ambient tinkling. Heard it all before. Eno did it better back in the 1970s anyway. Bah.

Then, early one morning insult was added to injury. Ahead of a trip across town to Richmond (Jesus H, who wants a 10am meeting in Richmond anyway..?) I had to trek up to the local sorting office. But that was OK. In fact it was better than OK, because I was clutching a ‘We’re sorry you were out when we called’ UPS note in my grubby little mitt, a note which was about to entitle me to take possession of a piece of pure 24ct gold in paper form. Yes, eagerly awaited, I’m about to collect my ticket to next week’s Black Sabbath show at the O2. It’s here! Praise be (as Thora Hird used to say). Ozzy’s back in the fold, it’s SABBATH! BLOODY SABBATH! Tony Iommi will walk amongst us, metal fingertips clanking, preposterous facial hair wafting in the blast of the sonic frequencies emanating from his amplifiers, and The Sabs’ supernaut riffs cudgelling our brains until they liquefy and ooze slowly out of our ears. Whilst queuing for the counter I’m so excited that I’m quite literally hopping up and down on the spot.

“Sign here, mate” says the man behind the counter and, after hastily scrawling a completely illegible glyph on the LCD screen of his electronic scanner, I race outside into the morning sunshine and rip open the small package. WHAT!!!!??????? What’s this???? FFS!!! It’s the bloody Necks CD!

At that moment I was ready to snap it in half immediately such was my anger, a volcanic eruption of ire sweeping down the side of Mount Disappointment. I hate this CD. I’m not even going to review it now. And if The Necks ever so much as set foot in East London again, they’re marked men. And so, Open, The Necks’ seventeenth album, sits on the floor of my hallway for the next week…

This is actually a really lovely album.

After the band’s previous waxing, Mindset, which comprised two tracks, including the positively raucous “Rum Jungle,” Open sees The Necks return to their most beloved format – a single, long-form piece, over an hour in duration, during which they explore micro-fluctuations in texture and tonality, building patterns slowly over tens of minutes before any significant changes in dynamic are introduced. The overall effect is much akin to standing and watching a spider spin a web – if you’re in a screaming hurry, this is not going to be the undertaking for you. If, however, you have no particular place to go, and a lot of time available in which not to go there, then the absolute joys of watching something delicate, gossamer and special emerging gradually from nothing, bit by tiny bit, are not to be sneezed at. Like watching a Béla Tarr film. Only without any whale carcasses.

There is a lovely segment, almost ten minutes in, which features little more than simply Tony Buck on the hi-hat, punctuated by the occasional low frequency boom of the kick drum and a pulsing tone so quiet that it’s practically subliminal. It seems to go on forever, and it’s hard to envisage another band that would have either the skill or bravura to even attempt it in the first place, or to make it such an engaging listen once in execution. Quite literally, nothing is happening, and it’s marvellous. When Lloyd Swanton’s bass intrudes every now and again, just sticking its head round the door to see what’s happening and then buggering off again to have another cup of tea, one feels like whooping.

At forty minutes in there is a segment of tumbling piano reminiscent of the sections at an Evan Parker gig where the maestro’s circular breathing lead him on a polyphonic dervish dance the tip of which is a wave never quite breaks, but instead seems constantly to teeter on the edge. Towards the end, delicate stabs of strings sit lightly atop, sparkling away quietly like crystals of ice.
It’s easy to see why The Necks’ music has often been referred to as ‘Trance Jazz’, although that possibly does it a disservice on both counts. Instead, I like to think of it as being a marsupial cousin of the voyages of inner exploration that Alice Coltrane used to excel in. Any piece that can – in this age of the instant cut – take its time to explore an idea in the round, that can meander without feeling the pressure to get to its destination like Usain Bolt after a starting pistol, and in which the participants can grant each other the space (and the support) to delve into what they want to say without drowning the fuck out of each other with torrents of playing, is to be respected and admired.

I was determined not to like this album. It’s great.

-David Solomons-

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