Over the last few decades, Chris Abrahams, Tony Buck and Lloyd Swanton have refined The Necks into an improvisational group so fine-tuned that the trio sometimes sounds like they share a hive mind. Not unlike The Fall, the Australian post-jazz maestros are built on a foundation of three techniques: repetition, repetition, repetition. John Peel’s description of Mark E. Smith’s outfit, “always different, always the same,” could likewise describe the infinitesimal yet subtly profound experimentations that have morphed The Necks’ music over the years without sacrificing its core components. For all of their emphasis on free improvisation, the trio does have the capacity to shape their music consciously, and Three, their 21st album, finds them producing some of the most focused work of their careers.

Compared to earlier Necks albums that devote as much as an entire CD to a single track as the trio gradually finds its way around a theme, the songs on Three sound as if they’re starting in medias res, with the band having jammed their way to a comfortable area and cut the exploring that led to it. Opening track “Bloom” offers nothing more for introduction than a brief lead-in lurch by Swanton’s upright bass before Buck’s skittering cymbals and rattling percussion burst out of the gate at a paradoxically restrained gallop. Occasional whines of electric guitar fade in and out on the horizon as Abrahams offers measured flourishes in the space around Swanton’s grounding bassline. The track, simultaneously busy and static, shows off the best of The Necks. Each member seems to be testing just how far apart they can pull away from the others without severing their tethers. You cannot even say of the material that it grooves; it instead sprints in place, which allows the group to slowly introduce new elements like filigrees of buzzing organ and butterfly-effect shifts in Buck’s percussion patterns that incrementally induce changes that slowly amount to major shifts. Rooted in place by Swanton’s bass and Buck’s hi-hat, “Bloom” is as concise an example as you’re likely to find among the gargantuan running length of Necks compositions of how the group operates.

But even that is an inadequate primer, for the next track, “Lovelock,” abruptly shifts into a languid, ambient pulse that sounds like a meeting ground between Miles Davis’s mid-’70s studio collages and the soundtrack work of Trent Reznor and Atticus Ross. A mournful tribute to Damien Lovelock of Australian alt-rockers Celibate Rifles, the track foregroudns Buck’s chimes as they twinkle arrhythmically over snare rolls that form hissing tone clusters in the background. Abrahams darts in and out of the mix, whether crafting howling, sine-wave synth groans or trilling eerily on a piano. Swanton’s bass drones are as thick as a tar pit, gurgling so lugubriously that they swallow any moment the track might escape its dirge. Like Miles’s side-length tribute to Duke Ellington, “Lovelock” contains little within its epic runtime that stylistically pays homage to its subject, but the trio builds so many errant moments of atonality and clashing patterns into this otherwise steady lurch to communicate a great anguish for their fallen friend.

The final track, “Further,” comes the closest to providing a holistic experience of the Necks approach. It begins like lounge jazz gone slightly mad, Abrahams’s elegant club piano and Swanton’s percolating bassline surrounded on all sides by Buck’s overwhelming percussion, which swarms like a disturbed hornet’s nest around what otherwise could have passed for cool jazz. Faint dashes of organ that occasionally add a mild classic psychedelic rock touch, while the sporadic strum of a distorted guitar chord briefly diverts the material into the realm of spaghetti westerns. Slowly, Buck’s clattering swaps places with Abrahams’s piano in the mix, foregrounding the pianist’s elegant but increasingly knotty runs as he casually matches pace with the drummer.

“Further” epitomizes the trio’s ability to constantly mutate their improvisatory sketches without falling into the usual traps of this kind of playing. Despite the addition of new elements throughout, the track never builds to a cathartic release, instead finding its way back to the starting point, albeit with odd new aspects that do not so much repeat a cycle as move in a spiraling motion, locked into the same horizontal breadth but moving ever further into new depths. At once one of The Necks’ most accessible and most impressive studio efforts, Three confirms their status as modern free-improv masters, ones able to pinpoint the touchpoints of their own explorations like cartographers plotting maps of the region they themselves create in real time.

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