Words About Music
Australian rock group King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard has gone from goofily named garage rock band to a psychedelic, storied experience of its own. In a world where everyone and their mother is trying to be the next Ty Segall or John Dwyer, King Gizzard is pleasurably going against the grain, doing its own thing at its own (increasingly rapid) pace. I first gave the band a shot in late 2015, when the group dropped its seventh album (a little over three years after the release of the band’s 2012 debut), “Paper Mâché Dream Balloon,” an album wherein the band used entirely acoustic instrumentation. This isn’t the first time the band explored its limits through gimmicky “ground rules,” nor would it be the last.
I was impressed with what I heard, but it wouldn’t be too long before I realized King Gizzard’s true potential. Spring 2016, hardly 6 months after “Paper Mâché Dream Balloon,” saw the release of “Nonagon Infinity,” the band’s eighth album and most complete musical experience. This record is anchored around recurring motifs, heavy guitars, time-signature-defying riffs, and bizarre lyrics about some sci-fi nightmare realm. It was far-and-away the band’s biggest success, and it was one of my favorite albums of 2016. Then, the band would change everything with its big promise for 2017: King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard would release a whopping five albums this year, each a different experiment.
The first release was February 2017’s “Flying Microtonal Banana,” an album that was almost as satisfying as “Nonagon Infinity,” with its focus on relentless grooves, sticky melodies, and microtonal tunings. The band went out of their way to have custom instruments commissioned for this album, which contributed to an overall sound that is unlike anything I’ve ever heard from a rock band. Since then, the band has released two more albums: June’s conceptual, spoken word triple-feature “Murder of the Universe” and August’s jazzy Mild High Club collaboration “Sketches of Brunswick East.”
Part I: “Murder of the Universe”
“Murder of the Universe” is quite the ambitious undertaking for the Australian septet, especially considering that it’s composed of three disparate sci-fi/fantasy narratives, with the music tending to play second fiddle to the expository spoken word narrations.
The first of these narratives is the Tale of the Altered Beast, which is narrated by Australian singer/songwriter Leah Senior. This section of the album is based on an old video game, about a man who encounters a half-man-half-bear and, upon killing the beast, becomes it. I love the music the band composed for the section, along with Stu Mackenzie’s spirited delivery and expressive lyrics. What I’m not entirely sure about is the narration as a musical device. It doesn’t carry many memorable qualities and is very easy to tune out, making me wonder why it was even considered as an idea anyway.
I love the jerky rhythms on songs like “Altered Beast I” and “Altered Beast II,” and I like the rhyming poetry Stu wrote for the narrated spoken word elements, I just wish it was incorporated in a more tasteful way. There’s some unnatural quality to it. Additionally, the story being told through the lyrics is clear enough; it simply doesn’t require narration in the way King Gizz chose to go about providing it. It’s a shame, too, because there’s some really funny shit that gets easily forgotten about because it’s delivered in such a nonchalant, inessential way, like when the Altered Beast says, in Leah Senior’s voice, “My left hand is a knife and my right is a fork/I will pull you apart like a butcher pulls pork.”
Again, I must compliment the musical portion of this album. I love the way the band builds tension and experiments with different textures, time signatures, and styles. It is very much a spiritual successor to last year’s excellent “Nonagon Infinity,” but not quite as well executed. This is the case on tracks like “Altered Beast III,” which has a pretty dope psychedelic stoner metal breakdown toward the end, the impact of which is nearly negated by the narrator’s interjection.
Additionally, the Altered Beast section of “Murder of the Universe” feels a bit too long and repetitive. It could have and should have been cut down by a couple tracks. “Altered Beast IV” is quite the rambunctious finale to the tale, though, and I do mostly feel like this third of the album was delivered and written well. It’s darkly funny, as well as a great sonic morality play.
The next chapter of this album is titled, “The Lord of Lightning vs. The Balrog,” another classic battle of good(?) vs. evil(?), complete with the self-referential intro that is “Some Context,” which revolves around a riff from “People-Vultures,” a track from “Nonagon Infinity.” Leah Senior continues her narrative role in this chapter as well, with “The Reticent Raconteur” serving as one of the album’s best examples of the spoken word element working. I love the throat singing background and the way the instrumentation builds as Leah Senior takes us into this exciting new part of the album.
Right off the bat we’re off to a good start here, especially with the fantastic “The Lord of Lightning” song, which too references “Nonagon Infinity” by name. It’s a speedy jam that has that same 100 miles-per-hour quality that King Gizzard’s best music possesses. I love the wacked out guitar soloing that rounds out the end of the track. This track is a psychedelic space noise jam that practically sounds like a mosh pit taking place in an alternate universe.
The next track, “The Balrog,” introduces this disc’s main villain, a creature inadvertently created by The Lord of Lightning. It’s another personal favorite of mine in the tracklisting, standing on its own as a totally catchy, unhinged song. “The Floating Fire” provides a somewhat predictable conclusion to the tale, with tribalistic drums and more throat singing soundtracking the great battle between The Lord of Lightning and his wretched creation. Overall, I dig the general aesthetic in this section of the album, especially with its somewhat abbreviated structure when compared to the first section. I also feel like the spoken word bits suited this part of the album more than on the Tale of the Altered Beast section.
As if things weren’t weird enough, things get even more weird on the third and final section, Han-Tyumi and the Murder of the Universe. This one is narrated by the titular Han-Tyumi, a cyborg in a future where humans “turned our bodies to computer,” a process of self-digitization that leaves everyone descending into madness. And madness is certainly the word I’d use to describe the contents of this, my favorite part of the album. Things are especially hard for Han-Tyumi, the last person in the universe to have been born from a womb; the only being with any semblance of humanity in his subjective day-to-day life.
In his relative insanity, Han-Tyumi decides that the only two things that separate human from robot are death and the ability to vomit. So, to live out his dream, he builds a vomit-death machine that allows him to vicariously achieve his goal of death by vomit. I like the laser-fire synths that soundtrack the krautrock-esque sections of this part of the album. When the machine Han-Tyumi builds decides it hates its creator and what it is made to do, Han-Tyumi plugs himself into the machine and is finally able to achieve is dream, which, again, is vomit-death.
Han-Tyumi starts vomiting and enjoys it so much that he chooses not to stop, vomiting so much that he causes the titular murder of the universe. It’s a truly heartwarming story and a unique portrayal of the apocalypse that is absurd, humorous, and metal-as-fuck.
But what about the music? What about the album as an experience? Well, my main complaints still stand. While I mostly enjoy and appreciate what King Gizzard went for here, the narration and the way it’s weirdly worked into the album’s mixing leaves it feeling like something you can only really listen to once. It loses its shock value quickly, and it loses its replay value even quicker. There are certainly some standout tracks, and I think that lyrically this is a triumph. However, it’s not nearly as hypnotically listenable as either of its two predecessors. I enjoy this album overall, and I think it’s a one-of-a-kind experience that has been fairly under-appreciated this year. It just won’t be rounding out any best-of-the-year lists come December, at least not from this humble critic.
SCORE — 7.25 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Altered Beast I, Altered Beast II, Altered Beast III, Altered Beast IV, The Reticent Raconteur, The Lord of Lightning, Balrog, The Floating Fire, Digital Black, Vomit Coffin, Murder of the Universe
Part II: “Sketches of Brunswick East”
The second album on the docket today is the most recent in King Gizzard’s proposed pentalogy for 2017, the Mild High Club collaboration “Sketches of Brunswick East.” Mild High Club is the Los Angeles-based indie pop project of singer/songwriter/musician Alexander Brettin, who saw some acclaim with last year’s “Skiptracing” album. This album embraces a jazz flavor, sometimes approaching smooth jazz and elevator music stylings that might rub some the wrong way. Couple that with the pop-esque vocal performances and you’ve already got yourself set up for a potentially weak album.
I do enjoy the slow, steady way the album kicks off though, the charming 3/4 rhythm of the instrumental intro track. It’s also got some lovely woodwinds, probably provided by Brettin considering his background on the flute. The 9/8 bubbly beat of “Countdown,” a single from the album, reminds me a lot of what Unknown Mortal Orchestra was able to achieve on “Multi-Love” a couple years back. I love the melodies on this track, even if the vocals aren’t particularly strong or memorable. It’s a loving nod to vocal jazz, with some funky embellishments that really attest to King Gizzard’s overall music capabilities.
After the lyrically dark “Countdown” comes “D-Day,” which is referenced in the previous song. It’s more of an interlude, though. Like a lot of King Gizzard’s music, this album features some impeccable transitions between songs, presenting the album as a complete piece. I love the meaty bass riff on this track, as well as the classic King Gizzard guitar leads which work their way in. Just to continue flexing my music-counting chops, I believe this one is in 7/4.
The next track, “Tezeta,” is a pretty weird one, which features a guest appearance from none other than universe murderer and vomit fetishist Han-Tyumi. Again, we’re getting dark imagery underneath light, flowing musicality. At times, I admit, it does approach Muzak levels of straightforward, pleasant jazziness, but for the most part I think King Gizzard and Mild High Club both do an excellent job of subsetting that sound with some genuine soundplay, lyrical callbacks (more support for the existence of a so-called Gizzverse), and catchy refrains.
After an inconsequential instrumental interlude (“Cranes, Planes, and Migraines”) comes another lyrical stunner, “The Spider And Me,” which is about exactly what it seems like. Alexander Brettin sings lyrics about the close level of companionship that may exist between Human and Spider, if we allowed it. Again, I must say that Brettin’s vocal performance leaves quite a bit to be desired, making what could have been a great song into a decent, somewhat humorous song with a great melody. Like many King Gizzard songs, this one in particular reminds me of the legendary band Ween, who I could totally see recording some weird jazzy excursion like this.
The instrumental “Sketches of Brunswick East II” is okay, but it doesn’t totally justify itself. It kind of feels out of place, and I wish that it commanded more attention, especially considering that King Gizzard is a band that is very good at doing just that. I do quite enjoy the change of pace brought with “Dusk to Dawn on Lygon Street,” which is sung by Cook Craig, King Gizzard’s rhythm guitarist. I must also commend the production/mixing excellence that bandleader Stu Mackenzie was able to wring out of these performances, even if this all seems like an elaborate joke with its subtle samples, popping bass hits, and all-too-smooth schmaltziness.
The continued theme of lighthearted background music with comically disturbed lyrics. “The Book,” one of the album’s best songs, is a prime example, with its lyrics centering around a religious person who believes he receives a sign from his chosen deity, encouraging him to commit violent acts. Stu Mackenzie sings this song in a goofily menacing voice, adding to the generally humorous atmosphere of the song. It’s brilliant black comedy about religious fanaticism and how it can cause people to find meaning in the meaningless, even if that meaning is sinister and downright evil.
“The Book” is followed in succession by two tasty instruments, “A Journey to (S)Hell” and “Rolling Stoned,” the latter of which has been in existence in one form or another for a couple years now. The spooky garage rock nature of King Gizzard is explored more in “A Journey to (S)Hell” than perhaps any other track on the album, with its droning synth noise and skillful drumming. “Rolling Stoned” is a decent enough track, but not the most memorable track on the album, with its straightforward structure, pleasant flute lead, and laid back nature.
Smoother jazz flavors pervade on the last non-instrumental track, “You Can Be Your Silhouette,” which is an enjoyable, somewhat uplifting track. I’m not sure how “being your silhouette” would help a person in times of trouble and depression as the song’s lyrics suggest, but it carries the delightfully weird nature of this record through to the bitter end. Once again, I can’t help but compare this track to Ween, especially considering the way Alexander Brettin chooses to sing.
Overall, I think this is probably the least effective King Gizzard album to come out in quite a while. That’s not to say it’s bad because it certainly isn’t. However, it’s a bit too samey for its own good, and it’s all too easy for this record to become background music, especially considering the quieter textures the group employs throughout, in addition to Alexander Brettin’s muffled, understated vocal style.
“Sketches of Brunswick East” is certainly a good album and in many ways a successful foray into jazz for King Gizzard. I like that certain bits tie into previous albums, and there are many lyrics and melodies to be found here that are worth treasuring. Overall, though, it’s the band’s weakest release since I came across their music. I wish there was more material here to discuss, but there are numerous instrumental tracks that don’t fully make the case for their own existence. While I may not be in love with this record, nor was I in love with “Murder of the Universe,” I still love and respect King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard as a band, and I sincerely hope to see them put out another record or two before the year is over. Hopefully the next journey is one that results in a more listenable record.
SCORE — 6.75 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Countdown, Tezeta, The Spider and Me, The Book, You Can Be Your Silhouette