I used to run the film and music department of a university library, which was semi-sealed off from the rest of the library, meaning we could play music. Most of the time we took advantage of the extensive American music collection the department held – several thousand LPs of mainly jazz and blues, but with a few outliers (Nevermind, a Ministry album, 3ft High And Rising) – but occasionally we’d bring our own records in, especially outside of term time.
Of all the records we played in the department, the one that inspired the most people to ask what it was we were playing was this. Almost without fail, we’d put it on and someone passing through the department to borrow a film or check a journal would stop, cock their head to listen, and say “wow, who’s this?” or “this is really cool” or “what type of music is this?”
Who it is, is The Necks, an Australian trio, who make a living as session musicians across the globe and meet up once a year back in Australia to make a new record, sort of. What it is, is minimal, almost to the point of being ambient, experimental jazz. That’s reductive, but there’s not a lot more you can say without starting to throw around loose adjectives like “hypnotic” and “groovy” and “repetitive”. You could compare what they do to Miles Davis’ In A Silent Way or CAN’s Future Days, stretched to infinity…
I’d never heard of The Necks before Drive By, when a review in The Guardian caught my attention. I ordered it online the same day, was dumbstruck within seconds of it starting, and transfixed for its entire 60-minute duration. 60 minutes that is comprised of just one hypnotic, groovy, repetitive track, built on a shuffling drumbeat and alluringly sinister bassline, and decorated with swirling organs, samples of crepuscular insects and far-off children’s playgrounds, and stabs of piano, which puncture the gloom like rays of sunshine. It is the very definition of Eno’s Oblique Strategy that “repetition is a form of change”, as the rhythmic base and textural superstructure of the music constantly makes almost imperceptible shifts.
Indeed, The Necks perfectly fit Eno’s description of ambient music as being like a painting; it can be in the room with you and you can ignore it, face away from it, but it still shapes the colour and mood of the room around you; or else you can stand before it and become completely absorbed. Much of their work, and especially Drive By, is intensely physical, groove-based, rhythmic music.
As with many artists, my first exposure to The Necks remains my favourite. I own another six albums by them (one a double CD); almost all are comprised of a single, unbroken, 60-minute track, all slightly different, all very similar, and all very, very good indeed. But Drive By is the one I go back to most often; and I go back to it a lot. If I could scrobble my CD players, I’m pretty confident that I’d have played this record more than any other single album in the last nine years.
Intriguingly, as a recording artist, The Necks couldn’t really have existed in the pre-CD age; their most recent album comprises two 22-minute tracks, and is their first ever vinyl release. Their music almost defies the post-physical age too – you wont find them on Spotify or YouTube, although you can download them via iTunes. Live, they improvise a new set every night, exploring the acoustics of whatever room they’re in, bouncing sound off the walls and ideas off each other, disparate explorations coalescing into something profoundly powerful. I find their music almost endlessly fascinating and compelling.