The Necks Vertigo

[Northern Spy; 2015]

Styles: ambient jazz, free jazz, experimental jazz, vertigo
Others: Bohren & der Club of Gore, La Monte Young, Chicago Underground Trio, Steve Reich

Contrary to what you may have heard, Vertigo is not actually the fear of heights. It might sometimes appear with the condition formally known as acrophobia, but on its own, it’s simply the (often nauseous) sensation of moving when you’re not moving. People subjected to its emanations suddenly feel as though they’re spinning and swaying, even though they might be completely stationary. They sweat profusely and sometimes vomit, and as a result of its physiological trickery, they ironically find themselves barely able to move, immobilized by the overpowering sensation that they are too mobile.

Mutatis mutandis, this is the very same experience recreated by the 18th (!) album from The Necks, possibly Australia’s foremost purveyors of experimental and ambient jazz. Lacking any conventional structure or legible harmonizing, its single piece advances and shifts constantly, paradoxically evoking the sense that such motion is an illusion. It unwinds through pregnant organ drones, insecure ripples of percussion, and waves of empyrean feedback, and the counterintuitive effect of all this unstable movement is the suspicion that, over the course of its 43 minutes, it doesn’t really move even once.

Despite its false mobility, Vertigo somehow manages to absorb for its entire running time. From the get-go, from the very first tremblings of Chris Abrahams’s piano and the hullabaloo of Tony Buck’s drums, the album engineers an atmosphere of beguiling insecurity and enigmatic possibility. At one and the same time, the veering Hammond-organ peals and the rumblings of ivory come across as both a promise and a threat, challenging the ears to decipher the ambiguous fate they dimly trace as they melt from one benign ripple and portentous soundscape to another. Even if they give nothing away, it’s precisely this challenge that sucks the listener in, leading her on with the suggestion that all their fluctuations are eventually going to take her somewhere.

Nonetheless, the beauty of Vertigo is that they take her nowhere. For all their passages through sustained hums, tinkling waves, jittery guitars, and unfathomable bass, their only destinations are yet more points of departure. As soon as the keys settle into a dulcet figure or the occasional Morse-code electronics assume a quasi-stable pulsing, everything deviates once again into a deceptively unrelated vignette, cancelling the hopeful belief that a particular course had been established.

Whether it’s with the UFO palpitations that unnervingly rise up after 11 minutes or the ominous clinking that resonates in echo around the album’s halfway mark, this absence of a tonic, of harmonic regularity, and of a unified direction engenders, sooner or later, an atmosphere of restive caprice. In turn, this caprice engenders an impression that too many things are happening at once and that what’s happening could change in an almost unlimited number of ways. Because of this disquieting suspicion, the listener is deprived of a center or focus that might stabilize her as she tries to find her feet amid ghostly reverberations and fluid motifs; and in her deprivation, she experiences the nauseating sense of vertigo that is the album’s namesake.

Such Vertigo endures even though the lack of a consistent trajectory arguably means she doesn’t actually move at all. Moreover, its misleading dizziness enjoys a relevance to our present world, insofar as this world pledges to us endless innovation, progress, and spectacle, yet only as a smokescreen for the absence of any fundamental change in the underlying scheme of things, of any alteration in the economic base of human relations. It’s the cognitive dissonance and schizophrenic tensions caused by this underhanded contradiction that the album captures so boldly as it careers through accumulations of mesmeric noise and yet lands nowhere new. It drifts haphazardly through intermittent crests of instrumentation and melodic fragments, throwing in bouts of dispersed organ and piano that are different in particulars yet generally identical. In so doing, it hides its own stasis, duping the listener into believing that all is in flux.

This doesn’t make Vertigo any less hypnotic or affecting, however, and in addition to its seductive ambiance, it shows how there can a kind of infinite variation of the same. Like with previous entries in The Necks’ canon, the album repeatedly breaks with the listener’s expectations viz. musical convention and conjures an intimidatingly rich perception of possibility, irrespective of the fact that such possibility changes with each additional visit. Yet even more than with the band’s earlier stabs into the unknown, it exhibits a remarkably adept mastery of texture, tone, and color, one that somehow elicits more than an orthodox composition with an obvious beginning, middle, and end ever could have. Admittedly, this “more” doesn’t encounter any tangible consummation in a crescendo here or a coda there, but it’s exactly its aversion to consummation that throws light on the abstract kind of vertigo we all meet with in our lives, in one form or another. It reminds us that we often move the least when we think we’re moving the most, and it reminds us that, just when you think The Necks have spent a whole album not going anywhere, their art has taken one leap forward.

Links: The Necks - Northern Spy

Eureka!

Some releases are so incredible we just can’t help but exclaim EUREKA! While many of our picks here defy categorization and explore the constructed boundaries between ‘music’ and ‘noise,’ others complement, continue, or rupture traditions that provide new forms and ways of listening. Not all of our favorites will be listed here, but we think each EUREKA! album is worthy of careful consideration. This section is a work-in-progress, so expect its definition to be in perpetual flux.

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