Say what you like about their music, but I don’t think anyone can say that King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard are lacking in ambition. The Australian psych rockers’ latest studio effort, Flying Microtonal Banana, comes as their ninth album in five years, and the first in a series of five records that they have promised to release over the course of 2017. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard were always a band I admired from afar; I was thoroughly impressed by their productive work ethic and the fact that they seemingly didn’t sacrifice quality for the sake of quantity. Despite the great respect I held for the band, they were yet to put out a project for which I was head over heels; or, at least, this was the case until last year, when they dropped Nonagon Infinity. As the name may suggest, Nonagon Infinity is an infinite loop of music, comprised of nine tracks that all bleed into one another, with the end of the last song leading into the beginning of the first. This album was what elevated King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard from being an interesting experimental rock project to something really quite special and groundbreaking, in my opinion, and Nonagon Infinity ranked as my fourth favourite album of 2016. The Aussie group’s latest effort continues their journey into the quirkiest depths of psychedelic rock. Once again, this album’s title, Flying Microtonal Banana, is a reference to the music contained on the record, that being the band’s first exploration into the world of microtones, with custom guitars, played in 24-TET tuning, being made especially for the recording of this album, and all the other musical instruments being turned microtonal. I see this as a pivotal development for the band because, whilst Nonagon Infinity was based around an incredibly inventive idea, it nevertheless stayed true to typical musical conventions, whereas this project does not entirely. Microtones, by definition, exist outside of the context of Western musical customs, being comprised of intervals smaller than a semitone, meaning that they cannot be found in our standard tuning octaves. Although Flying Microtonal Banana is a fascinating feat from a theoretical perspective, that’s not to say the end product is inaccessible to a wide audience; rather King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard do a very good job of rooting their microtonal experimentations within a classic psych rock sound that maintains a broad appeal. Ultimately, as admirably ambitious as Flying Microtonal Banana is, that’s not to say it cannot be enjoyed more casually as a mesmerising display of psychedelic eccentricity.
Our first sneak peak at King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s foray into the world of microtones came in the form of this album’s lead single, Rattlesnake. It’s easy to see why this song would have been chosen as the primary teaser track from Flying Microtonal Banana, as it’s built on a solid and accessible drum and bass groove that allows for the band to gradually toy with some microtonal weirdness over the top. This track is also an apt album opener, as it comes across as somewhat of a tentative feel of the waters, with the first few minutes following a more straightforward psychedelic sound before the group starts to branch out into their more ambitious embellishments, with some wacky but charming guitar solos that display an Eastern influence as a result of the microtonality. It should also be said that Rattlesnake establishes the production quality for Flying Microtonal Banana, which, in typical King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard style, is lo-fi and crunchy in a way that complements the band’s zany aesthetic. In particular, the guitars carry a desert rock vibe that works to good effect with the Eastern influence on this record and especially on Rattlesnake, given the song’s lyrical content and what sounds like the noise of a swirling desert wind that can be heard towards the backend of the cut and leads into the next song. As the whistling wind bleeds into the following track, Melting, drummers Eric Moore and Michael Cavanagh break into a fantastic duelling drum pattern, which seems to be rooted in the traditional rhythmic stylings of some Western African countries. Indeed, the influence from various forms of world music continues as Stu Mackenzie’s vocal/guitar line uses some Eastern scales. Much of the this song takes the form of a sort of desert blues jam, with some more intricate guitar leads and a warm keyboard providing some much-needed counterpoint. Interestingly, Melting also marks the first appearance of some recurring lyrical themes across the record that relate to a man-made apocalypse, with this song specifically addressing global warming. Indeed, it seems that Flying Microtonal Banana is conceptual in more ways than one, as the album cover, depicting Mackenzie in an NBC suit next to a barrel of nuclear waste, alludes to much of the lyrical content of the album, particularly on Melting, Doom City and Nuclear Fusion.
Despite the clear underlying themes of Flying Microtonal Banana, both musically and lyrically, there are a couple of certain tracks that deviate slightly from these concepts and display a side of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard that has seldom been seen in the past. Sleep Drifter, for instance, has a slight country rock twang to it, particularly as a result of the Americana-sounding mouth organ and some of the slightly bluesy guitar rundowns, which work well with the desert rock vibe of much of the record. The country and western theme, however, appears most significantly on Billabong Valley, as the song opens with the lines, “Outlaws on the run / Faster than a stolen gun”. This contrasts greatly with the next cut in the tracklisting, Anoxia, which feels like an Eastern garage rock tune. Many of the fiddly guitar lines on this song, and indeed on much of the album, retain a snake-charmer quality to them, in keeping with the themes established by the album artwork and the very first song on the record. However, nowhere is this aesthetic more evident than on the final cut on the album, the instrumental title track. A subtle traditional African rhythm section is married with some guitar lines that could have been pulled straight from the latest Tinariwen album, and the main melody of this track is performed by a zurna, a central Eurasian wind instrument, which is utilised at several points on the record. The way in which the agitated, swirling sounds of the zurna buzz around this piece is mesmerising, but given the common use of zurnas in Anatolian folk music — a style that King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard have often played with — it fits perfectly within their unconventional aesthetic. The salient quirks and novelties of Flying Microtonal Banana may appear to be quite obvious when first hearing the record, but with time, this album reveals numerous layers of subtle stylings and intricate passages that allude to an incredible array of musical concepts, making for a record that is as well-textured as it is well-assembled and well-executed.
Ultimately, Flying Microtonal Banana lives up to King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s previous album in many regards, and that’s considering Nonagon Infinity was a very tough act to follow. Flying Microtonal Banana clearly conveys the ambition and boldness that the follow-up to Nonagon Infinity likely needed, but most importantly, it displays the usual daring nature of the band, whilst also exhibiting their ability to write incredibly captivating music despite the artistic restrictions they put on themselves. I noticed a lot of people brush off Nonagon Infinity as being a novelty record, and I’m sure those same people will direct similar criticisms at Flying Microtonal Banana, but this is most definitely not the case. Whilst both of these records have somewhat of a gimmicky spin to them, their aesthetics aren’t completely hinged on these quirks. Flying Microtonal Banana is a fantastic psychedelic rock record that incorporates numerous influences from a myriad of different genres of music, making for an incredibly vibrant, unique and ultimately enjoyable album, and an album that can be enjoyed outside of the context of its explorative nature. What sets this album apart from its predecessor, however, is the fact that the core concept of an entirely microtonal album has such a direct impact on the record’s music, and King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard use this to their advantage to create a dynamic and colourful project and to further their reputation as one of the most eccentric artists in the contemporary psychedelic rock scene. If this is the bar the band has set, I look forward to the other four albums they have in stock for us this year.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8.5/10