Sex and the Single Track
Sex is hypnotic, an hour-long joyride. It is soothing and subtle, and yet earth-shattering enough to change your perceptions of both time and space. Sex can be very rhythmic, and you’ll certainly grow to appreciate its charms. OK, OK, I’ll do you the favor of suspending the semi-erotic ironic descriptors. I will, however, tell you that this Sex is well worth seeking out. It is the debut by Australian piano trio the Necks, whose sounds are as much ‘experimental’ and ‘minimalist’ as they are ‘jazz’. This album never builds and bursts into sweeping crescendos, but that’s not to say that isn’t surprising and satisfying. It can be enjoyed as background music, and is also wholly engaging under the scrutiny of headphones.
Some may level the Riley and Reich ‘minimalist’ comparison to this release, but I believe the Necks stand unique. Sex is an album unlike any I have ever heard — a one-track disc with a boxed set’s worth of ideas. Indeed, this 1989 release established the template and basic formula that the Necks are still exploring today: the creation of a general motif, which the trio subtly builds upon, morphs, and investigates over the course of forty to sixty minutes.
In Sex, Lloyd Swanton’s bass opens with a gently thudding, descending-scale theme, while Tony Buck holds time with an unobtrusive high hat. Chris Abrahams’ piano soon chimes and tinkles over the warm palette of the rhythm section, building the track’s atmospherics delicately and slowly. The piano’s most prominent engagements with the bass and drums — often simply teasing with the notion of ‘melody’ — occur most perceptibly around the nine- and 17-minute marks. Space is a key component, and often Abrahams steps aside for Swanton’s minor variations in the plucking or bowing of his bass. Only subtle flourishes and changes come from each instrument over the following 56 minutes. From within this created soundscape, delicate accents and the smallest of flourishes sound quite monumental — the audio equivalent of rippling waves from small pebbles thrown into a serene pond.
For example, although Buck holds down a gentle cymbal pattern from the initial seconds of the track and continually adds percussion, his presence isn’t notably prominent until around the 30-minute mark, when he begins to splash the high hat more heavily and add some almost tribal drum fills. It is here that the track begins to rumble and assume a restrained, almost lanky swing. This swing slowly morphs into a very unobtrusive, ambient vibe as Abrahams and Swanton reassert the lead. Swanton’s bowed bass then rings with resonant, shimmering tones, giving the track an otherworldly feel. The three instinctively know how to provide each other with the space necessary to maintain the established tone. And just when you think things can’t get any more atmospheric, the pianist displaces six right-hand notes in a higher register, the echoes of which offer an aural snapshot of the recording room and even the piano body. It seems that the music is breathing, and the effect is that you can inhabit the song itself. When the last note of bass rings, there is a cavernous silence that shoots back into the listening room, a room that previously absorbed the rhythm section’s locked groove; the walls are a now little softer and the air a little lighter.
Discovering Sex has lead me to seek out several of the Necks’ twelve releases, and I have found the vast majority to be engaging, full of experimental sounds, and well worth revisiting. Other releases contain much more dramatic, although still gradual, shifts in sound. Abrahams employs a menacing keyboard sound to build a fury of noise in the 1999 release Hanging Gardens, before this dense, foreboding atmosphere releases into a lighter, more cerebral and swirling hypnotic piano/cymbal finale. The Eno-esque minimalist washes of 2001’s Aether serve a tranquillising effect — perhaps too much so — although the wall of sound built in the last ten minutes makes the wait worthwhile. The four-hour live box set Athenaeum, Homebush, Quay & Raab from 2002 offers soothing textures, psychedelic crescendos, clamoring rock, and even a dabble into mostly-straight-ahead jazz. In particular, Homebush reveals the group’s comfort with start-stop precision, rhythmic displacement, and, well, tribal-sounding noise freak-outs.
Indeed, the Necks have subsumed and accompanied many enjoyable hours of my existence. Transitions to other artists and genres are always fascinating; sometimes for amusement I’ll queue a 2:20 punchy pop song after one of the Necks’ 63-minute forays around a theme.
Speaking of length, Wikipedia reminds us that the compact disc format was unveiled in the mid-’80s, and Sex followed in 1989. It is worthwhile to note that the work of the Necks could not have existed for consumption pre-CD. The time limitations and format restrictions of cassettes, vinyl, and the obtuse eight-track would have meant that their work could only be experienced live. The band admits that they often take their ideas from the live setting, and that each room and audience inspires a unique improvisation. Indeed, several of their best releases are recordings of performances: 1998’s Piano Bass Drums, the aforementioned four-disc box set, and 2005’s double album Mosquito/See Thorough.
Yet Sex remains the best introduction to this oft-overlooked trio. I wish I could cajole friends to sit down, turn down the lights, and listen to this album, without providing a description of what they will hear, other than “one of my favorite albums”. Seek this disc out — you’ll always remember your first time.