Is there a modern band as prolific and inventive as King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard?
Is there a modern band as prolific and inventive as King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard? Keep in mind, this is a band who have, so far, released nine albums in seven years. This is the band that, on the day Flying Microtonal Banana came out, announced another album and promised two additional albums – all three of which will be released this year. For any other band, this would elicit groans of quantity over quality and justifiably so. But King Gizzard have simply gone from strength to strength with each release. Their brand of manic, Thee Oh Sees-inspired garage rock has been transformed into 60s acoustic psych, metal-inspired riffage that loops back into itself, and now Flying Microtonal Banana, their most outlandish and thrilling album yet.
The title, of course, deserves an explanation. Microtonal basically refers to the notes in between notes – so somewhere in between, say, an A and an A-sharp would be a microtone. Mostly used in the realms of experimental electronic, Eastern European, Asian and classical music, less than a handful of prominent rock musicians have managed to wrap their heads around these notes (Radiohead being the most prominent example). The banana is a yellow, custom-made guitar that bandleader and singer Stu Mackenzie used for the album. Custom-made, microtonal bass guitars and harmonicas were also used throughout recording. It all reads as a bit of a gimmick, but Flying Microtonal Banana has enough woozy hooks and surprising guitar riffs to justify the effort. Everything sounds a bit off, instruments playing around each other in a slightly out of tune fashion, and a captivating set of songs and grooves hold everything together.
However, it is important to differentiate the song and the groove. Catchy melodies are sprinkled throughout, but the real driving forces behind Flying Microtonal Banana are drummers Mike Cavanagh and Eric Moore as they play in and around each other and the rest of the band, managing to both hold everything down before flinging songs off into another direction. It’s not quite as catchy or traditionally song heavy as Nonagon Infinity or Paper Mache Dream Balloon, but songs like “Sleep Drifter” and “Open Water” provide more than enough melodic thrills to make up the difference.
Opener “Rattlesnake” sets the tone with a boogie-ready riff that slithers and sneaks around floating reverb artifacts disguised as windswept dunes and an unexpected zurna, a wind instrument primarily used in central Eurasia. It’s small touches like these, with an emphasis on atmosphere and environment, that make Flying Microtonal Banana an album worth obsessing over.
Harmonica player Ambrose Kenny-Smith takes the vocals on “Billabong Valley,” painting a desolate picture of “outlaws on the run faster than a speeding gun” with “bloodthirsty tendencies”, intent on “burning tents to the ground” while the cops look the other way. For a discography full of vivid lyrics and fantastical scenarios, “Flying Microtonal Banana” pushes the envelope as being perhaps their least wordy album.
“Nuclear Fusion,” the most bonkers track on the album, begins with a cavernously deep voice belching out the title. No fewer than three subtle changes occur within the first minute as King Gizz dance away from straight-forward garage rock into a hypnotic beat that drifts around the brain, courtesy not of any panning effects but from their two drummers methodically playing around each other in a dizzyingly impressive and disorienting fashion. Some songs only need a groove this thick and syrupy to succeed, but the Gizz boys provide a catchy chorus built over blaring harmonicas and drums that drunkenly stumble in and out of time. Similarly, “Melting” takes advantage of the two drummer setup with percussion seemingly falling from the sky: light ride taps setting the pace with samba-esque, tom-heavy fills.
There are rumors that many of the lyrics in Flying Microtonal Banana actually continue a running narrative that has subtly formed over their past three or four albums. If there’s one thing entirely true about King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard it’s that they forcefully exist in their own world. With a name like that how could they not? Luckily, these minor details scattered throughout Flying Microtonal Banana and the rest of their discography act as warm welcomes and secret clues to share amongst fans. Flying Microtonal Banana’s lacks the pop chutzpah of its predecessors, but its experimental flair and tight grooves elevate King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard to cult-like status. Time to get on board before they really set out to conquer the world.