The Necks have never been much for tracklists. With some early and not always impressive exceptions near the dawn of the group’s almost three-decade career, the improvisational Australian trio has preferred to go the distance in one, perhaps two extended takes. For an hour or so at a time, restless drummer Tony Buck, patient bassist Lloyd Swanton, and soulful pianist and organist Chris Abrahams would slip into sound worlds of their own design and slowly morph, as if on an evolutionary timeline. Their best records, like 2001’s essential Aether or 2013’s consummate Open, gradually subside and swell, drive and drift. By stretching pieces past the hour mark, they could change one’s very sense of dynamics, where tiny shifts in volume or tone or speed suddenly felt revelatory. With the Necks, it seemed, anything could happen if you listened long enough.
But that approach ends abruptly on Unfold, the Necks’ 19th album and first for Ideologic Organ, the label of fellow slow-motion traveler Stephen O’Malley, of Sunn O))) fame. For this double LP, the Necks devote each of four sides to one improvisation. With runtimes between 15 and 22 minutes, they’ve chopped the typical Necks tune into thirds or quarters. What’s more, there’s no intended sequence for these sides, meaning you could start with the hectic, gamelan-like rumble of “Timepiece” or end there, a move that makes the entire experience feel like a ceaseless fever dream. It’s a surprisingly indeterminate decision for a group whose output has always felt, no matter how improvisational it was, meticulous, even hermetic. Since the mid-’90s, the Necks’ records have invariably offered micromanaged adventure; with Unfold, they let you shape your own tale by giving you tracks without a tracklist.
Still, all of the Necks hallmarks appear at some point during Unfold—hyperactive drumming that expands and contracts any real sense of meter; piano lines that can summon a storm or conjure a presiding calm; bowed bass that rattles the room. And though the Necks look like a jazz trio, their swing is tempestuous and their approach nebulous, with touches of post-rock and soul and Stockhausen and gospel wrapped into their orchestrated mess.
But Unfold’s unconventional format forces the Necks to condense its typical approach, to push and pull all the usual peaks, valleys, and arcs into more manageable spans. Everything speeds up just a bit. With that, by the end of the first two minutes of “Blue Mountain,” the bass, drums, piano, and organ are already intertwined and active. Buck’s distended drum rolls ricochet between layers of blue piano fragments and organ peals. And during the tumultuous “Rise,” which is so disorienting that the trio seems to be playing both meter and melody inside-out, the requisite moments of calm are fleeting. Here, the Necks make you gasp for air, never allowing for time or space to breathe very deeply.
Splintering the usual runtime of a Necks album into four largely disconnected pieces seems like it would fragment the experience—that is, turning a Necks record on, then disappearing inside it. Is Unfold the trio’s first album for our ever-shortening attention spans, at least since their salad days of placid bop in the late ’80s?
Turns out, not at all: The Necks’ newfound density is intoxicating. The ideas fly by in a way they never have with this band. Each compressed piece simply pushes you along to the next, eager to witness how a quarter-century-old act can again reshape your perception of drums, piano, and upright bass. After the Necks answer the psychedelic, wildly melismatic organ runs of “Overhear” with the pensive, clinched gaze of “Blue Mountain,” hearing what else is possible becomes a compulsion. (And if you’re new here, the quest can and should send you deep into a rich back catalog.) The relatively succinct tracks of Unfold aren’t some cynical concession to an audience’s fractured attention span or some attempt to become suddenly accessible. They are, instead, the result of a band that’s always tested supposedly solid borders—between jazz and rock, between acoustic and electric, between composition and improvisation. On Unfold, they’ve wondered aloud if the spell of their long-form magic works when stunted by the limitations of physical media and shuffled by the will of the listener. It does.