The Quietus - A new rock music and pop culture website

The Lead Review

Year Of The Projectile Reptile: King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s Polygondwanaland & More
JR Moores , November 30th, 2017 08:30

JR Moores looks back on the Australian psych lords’ annus mirabilis and proposes and few theories on how they proved so productive.

It’s difficult to think of anybody who’s had a better year than King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. Vladimir Putin perhaps, eyes glistening behind the botox as he watches us western wallies play right into his hands. Bono’s unaccountable accountant? Ed blooming Sheeran.

Even the indomitable Sheeran has only managed to put out one album this year, the lazy get. When King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard first announced their ambitious scheme to release five albums within the space of 12 months, it was expected that at least one of those LPs might underwhelm. Surely the Australian psychedelic septet would have no choice but to release something along the lines of the final instalment to Oneida’s ‘Thank Your Parents’ triptych: the dronesomely minimal Absolute II. The gnarled cynics among us thought there'd definitely be a Metal Machine Music among the bunch. “Strewth guys, let’s just record an hour of roaring amplifier feedback and if we say it’s an album then that counts as a bloody album, all right?” But that tossed-off avant-garde one never arrived. When King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard say they’re going to do something, they’re damn well going to do it properly. Granted, the final fifth album is still on its way and that one may yet turn out to resemble Sonic Youth’s Silver Session, but the efforts that have been pumped into the writing, honing, rehearsing and recording of the Gizzard’s four albums thus far have been nothing short of herculean.

Not that there'd be anything necessarily wrong with an equivalent of Absolute II, Metal Machine Music or Silver Session, by the way. They all have their merits and are just the transcendental ticket if you’re in the right mood. It’s just impressive that the Gizzard haven’t had to resort to such abstract audio Rothko-ism which is, let’s face it, a little more straightforward than penning several elaborate and exuberant progressive-psych masterpieces. If the band had released this quartet, soon to be quintet, of albums over a decade-long period, as if they were those prog-grunge procrastinators Tool, King Gizzard’s fans would have been more than satisfied. To do it in a single year is superhuman.

Releasing eight albums between 2012 and 2016, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard were productive beforehand so it’s not as if they had the chance to take a five-year gap, stockpile a whole heap of fresh material and then unleash it all in a year-long spurge. They haven’t had a decade out of the public eye to fill several hard drives with their wacky stuff and then spew it out in one go like Aphex Twin and his soundcloud shenanigans. Apparently, around this time last year, the band only had two songs ready for each of the proposed five records.

They’ve not been huddled away in the studio for the entire time either. They’ve carried out their mammoth task while touring the whole time too. How on earth have they managed it? It’s feasible that King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s slightly silly name has stalled Stuart Mackenzie (vocals, guitar, flute, keyboards), who we can assume is the whip-cracking psychedelic boss man of the group, from being mentioned in the same breath as the mighty James Brown. Quality matches quantity. Recorded output and live performances are of equally significant standing. Maybe Mackenzie has the habit of fining his band members a tenner if they forget to press down on their wah-wah pedal at the optimum moment.

Apart from being the Godfather of Soul of Psych, there's another possible explanation. You get a lot of space exploration and time travel material from the geeks who write psych- and prog-rock lyrics. Mackenzie is such a pioneer that he has gone beyond theory and discovered a way to actually mess with time. He’s done the mathematics and has developed the ability to pause real time like Bernard Beasley in the CITV classic Bernard’s Watch or Adam Sandler in the less celebrated Click (2006), a surprisingly moving homage to Bernard’s Watch. While we were all unknowingly frozen in time, Mackenzie and his collaborators could spend as long as they needed to write and record their numerous albums. When unfroze time, it looked to the rest of us like the albums only took a day or two to complete, and all we could do was gasp in baffled awe. Either that or Mackenzie is related to Billy Whizz from The Beano.

Let’s recap. In February, North Korea fired a ballistic missile into the Sea of Japan attracting widespread condemnation and stern promises from the blustering Trump administration that the response to this act of aggression would be appropriately “tough”. Naturally I began building a nuclear bunker in the backyard and stockpiling tinned soup, but at least I had King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s Flying Microtonal Banana playing on my headphones to soothe me as I dug. Slightly less frantic than 2016’s Nonagon Infinity, the band’s first album of this year playfully exploited custom-made microtonal instruments and assorted influences from around the eastern hemisphere to heady effect.

A few months later, June was blighted by a series of tragedies that needn’t be relived here. To make matters worse, Theresa May refused to resign with any scrap of dignity intact and instead formed a coalition of chaos with the reactionary Democratic Unionist Party. While the Tories may have held onto power like an insatiable zombie clinging at the rear bumper of the fleeing motorhome of decency, on a lighter note King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard released Murder Of The Universe. Its title, incidentally, appeared in a draft version of May's election manifesto until one foresighted wonk deleted it prior to publication out of fear that revealing the Tories’ voracious desire to destroy this country, the entire globe, and all other planets besides might make Boris Johnson appear marginally less cuddly.

So progtastic was this second Gizzard record of 2017 that it resembled three concept albums rolled into one. Its 21 tracks were divided into three chapters, each telling a different mad story. Tracks one through nine were about a flesh-craving human/monster hybrid. The second chapter dealt with the epic battle between an entity known as The Lord Of Lightning and a reanimated corpse named Balrog. The concluding cluster of tracks had something to do with a frustrated cyborg who merges itself with a creature called The Soy-Protein Munt Machine and thus inadvertently engulfs the whole universe in vomit. It may sound like an average night out with the Bullingdon Club, but the band actually made the whole thing up with their imaginations. The music matched the uninhibited creativity of the three stories, and Leah Senior was on hand to provide spoken-word narration.

August 2017 was bookended by the two worst pop-cultural events in living memory. First, cinemas across the land screened The Emoji Movie and then Kasabian covered Nirvana at the Reading Festival. It wasn’t all bad news. The weather was all right and King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard unveiled a collaborative LP with Mild High Club. Sketches Of Brunswick East was the sweet, light and wobbly panna cotta to Murder Of The Universe’s three courses of spiced beef. With flute firmly in fist, it merged elements of soul, funk, jazz and lounge music in a manner perfectly suited for unbridled summertime chillaxation.

This November, as Morrissey shook his brain free of its final hinge and Malcolm Young breathed his last, solace could be found in the announcement of another brand spanking Gizzard record: Polygondwanaland. This album has been distributed in such a novel fashion that, if such a scheme had been carried out by the idle Oxfordshire gentlemen collectively branded as Radiohead (just nine albums in two decades) then we’d never hear the bloody end of it. Polygondwanaland’s sound files and artwork are being given away for free, with downloaders encouraged to do what they wish with the goods, be it listen to the album privately or press up CDs or vinyl to flog to others. “Ever wanted to start your own record label?” asks the press release. “Go for it! Employ your mates, press wax, pack boxes. We do not own this record. You do. Go forth, share, enjoy. P.S. If u wanna make cassettes I don't really know what you would do. Be creative. We did it once but it sounded really shit. Maybe try the WAVs idano.”

Does giving Polygondwanaland away for free and encouraging strangers to manufacture it suggest that the album’s quality is lower than the preceding fully priced products? Au contraire. Rather than a case of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard finally running out of steam, Polygondwanaland is one of their strongest excursions yet, not just of this year but of any.

Their sound continues to evolve and mutate by introducing, reintroducing, fusing, blending and experimenting with bucket loads of different worldwide and cross-period influences. This time the listener is treated to Led Zepp-ish harmonica blasts, funky polyrhythms, the tinge of John Carpenter-referencing synthesizers, a sweet-leafed doom-metal outro on the opening track, woodwind-aided acoustic whispers one minute and disco grooves the next, and a prevailing space-folk-prog-jazz feel throughout.

It appears to be another conceptual work with several tracks segueing into the next and Leah Senior popping up briefly again for narration duties. There is a return to the theme of looming environmental disaster which informed the lyrics to Flying Microtonal Banana, most noticeably here on ‘Crumbling Castle’ with its prophecy of rising waters and imminent extinction. The opening lines of verse six work on another level, however. “I don’t want to fall into dust,” sings Mackenzie. “I don’t want nothing but to live on.”

Mackenzie’s immortality has been firmly secured by his output in this year alone. If he keeps it up, he’s only going to become more and more immortal. Even his band’s slightly silly name can no longer prevent him from being heralded as the unrivalled James Brown of modern psychedelia.

For all the depressing news that was laid upon us in 2017, an inspiring self-help message could be taken away from King Gizzard’s annus mirabilis. If they can do it, why can’t you? Think positively. Pull your socks up and your finger out. Set targets. Follow your crazy ideas through to fruition. Reach for the sky. When you’ve reached the sky, reach further, four more times, until you are somewhere in the proximity of Venus. Anything is possible. All you need is a clear dream, a constitution comparable to James Brown or George Clinton, at least two drummers, and a magical pocket watch that allows you to freeze time and space.

If you love our features, news and reviews, please support what we do with a one-off or regular donation. Year-on-year, our corporate advertising is down by around 90% - a figure that threatens to sink The Quietus. Hit this link to find out more and keep on Black Sky Thinking.