For decades the albums of Sydney experimental jazz trio The Necks fell into two categories for me. Both serve a purpose. The first is a state of suspension in which tasks can be completed. The world is held at bay while I am held aloft of distraction, yet psychically grounded, cocooned by the trio’s elliptical motifs on piano, bass and drums. Albums like Sex and Drive By are perfect for the job.
The second state arrives with The Necks’ heavier recordings and, unfailingly, their live shows. It is akin to immersion baptism: a headfirst plunge into unknown depths, an inchoate dread, a sense of surfacing purged. It is followed by the hopeful notion that music can deliver a ‘before’ and ‘after’ version of yourself – and the latter is always better.
The disappointment of Unfold is that three of the four tracks induce neither. For 22 years The Necks released solely on CD, mainly to allow their lengthy compositions to be played uninterrupted. This is the group’s first double LP but the shorter pieces do not provoke a productive trance or a date with the innards of one’s id. Rather, they assemble the playing styles and sounds typical of The Necks without arranging them in very persuasive arcs. They are in-betweeners – neither drifting or demanding.
The nutty, complex textures of drummer Tony Buck’s percussive shakers feel overused by the end and pianist Chris Abrahams’ organ jam on “Overhear” is trilly and frilly. Meanwhile, the alarm clock noise on “Timepiece” is not nice on the ear, though perhaps that is due to Unfold’s minimal post-production or the fact it was recorded live.
Opening track “Blue Mountain” is the dazzling exception. Here, The Necks’ playing coalesces in a way that steals your breath and constricts your throat. In the intense final section, the organ is just two chords repeated, lording ominously over the cacophony. It reminds you how forceful acoustic music can be when its instruments are crammed so closely together and that The Necks can often be a jazz band by name and a noise band by nature.
If “Blue Mountain” had closed the album instead I may’ve decided to believe Unfold was in fact working on some deeper, cellular level. That my disappointment was a Trojan Horse hiding some yet-to-be-revealed resplendence. Such is my faith.
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