Unfold, Australian trio The Necks’ 19th release, is a challenging but eerily beautiful free-improv record doubling up as a critique of the album-form. Each of the four pieces — among the shortest the band have ever released — is the length of a side of vinyl, maintaining a constant state of tension without exploding into noise or virtuoso soloing. Since none of the tracks are given numbers, the album allows you to develop your own listening strategy. It’s less a playlist to be put on shuffle (your music streaming service of choice places them in order of ascending length) than a Choose Your Own Adventure with a potentially infinite number of in-built listening experiences.
It would be a mistake to take the title at face value. These pieces do not “unfold” by starting in one position and elaborating on a theme in a linear way. They do not reach a point that has been determined in advance (beginning at point A and reaching point C after a detour at point B) by offering variations on their individual moments. They instead gradually expose the possibilities that were there at the start by showing all the working out, handing over all the evidence.
Each piece is organized around a theme, favoring atmosphere and texture over melody, groove, or fireworks, leaving us unable to fetishize any individual element as if it could be detached from the whole and turned into a hummable key hook. As ever with free-improv records, the level of control is remarkable. Even if there is a bit of studio trickery here and there (overdubbing, reverb, synths), what you have to listen out for is how each individual plays in the absolute present — it’s not about some silly New Age idea about “living in the moment,” it’s about producing something that can never be repeated.
“Rise” begins with a typical Chris Abrahams piano flourish and a retro sci-fi synth pad. Lloyd Swanton’s bass gurgles, snoring like a satisfied beast, before he starts using the bow to make a more conventional double-bass sound as if he were playing in a string quartet. Tony Buck’s drums are impossible to make sense of, their incomprehensibility acting as the element that makes Unfold comprehensible as a whole. His drumming is as expressive as it is rhythmic, as if he’s playing “prepared” drums rather than in a jazz setup; here, the snare drum — and the absent bass-drum and toms — take a backseat to clattering hi-hats and churning arrhythmic shaker sounds (which may well even be tied to the hi-hats). At this point, the percussion sounds like someone dipping their hand into a box of Legos. If the bass-drum and toms are there at all, they’re either filtered to within an inch of their lives or concealed by Swanton’s bass. The last third descends into chaos.
“Overhear” begins with a moaning bowed bass sound, drums that sound like someone shaking a bag of broken teeth, and an organ, which here acts as the lead instrument. It sounds like Terry Riley playing covers of The Doors in a keyboard shop haunted by the ghosts of Booker T & the MG’s (or something like that). The organ figure circles around and around, draining dry any possibility of uniting everything under a groove, despite the instrument’s usual associations with funk, soul, and praising the lord.
“Blue Mountain” is the most engaging and unashamedly beautiful piece here. You might need to sit in silence for a little while after listening to it. The band begin as an ensemble — rolling snares, a driving hollowed out organ synth, piano, bass — and they never let up. Abrahams plays something amounting to a hummable melody, offering a whole series of meditations on its basic figure throughout. The percussion here sounds like the symbolic death rattles of some orientalising cult, but it’s paired with wind-chimes that add a dimension of randomness to the proceedings. There’s a peculiar moment of calm half way through, where you’re left with just the piano, organ, wind-chimes, and what is probably Swanton scraping his bass. After about 13 minutes, the tension starts to ramp up. Buck’s bass drum starts working like a techno kick smothered in cymbals, the spaces in Abrahams’ figures become ever smaller, and that scraping sound becomes increasingly anxious. It finishes in jets of noise, each sound blurring into one mass, almost indistinguishable from one another but still driving forward into oblivion.
“Timepiece” owes much more to unpredictability than it does the even ticking of a clock. This is time to think — time for the vaulting ambitions of the imagination — and not the rationalized time of the factory or the office. It begins with unsteady drumming. The snare sounds like it has delay on it, but it is most likely the work of Buck’s all too human hands, occasionally backed up by a buzzing sound. It could be the sound of hurrying through the undergrowth being laughed at by arrogant birds of paradise, or it could be a fire-bell breaking the lazy office worker out of their dreamy reverie. Or it could be the impending doom of the real world breaking into the gentle world of the nursery interior, given that Abraham’s sparse piano work is paired to an organ that sounds as much like a music box as it does a vibraphone, glockenspiel, xylophone, whatever. They intertwine, coming in waves without ever mobilizing a full-frontal attack. Swanton’s bass takes the role we would usually associate with the prepared piano. It plays a single note ever so often, like an on-the-one bass tone more familiar from drum & bass or dubstep. It’s ominous, brooding, and a fitting end.