From Frank Zappa to Merzbow, of the myriad artists throughout music history to have been distinguished for their prolificacy, it is those who justify their fruitfulness with an appetite for experimentation that shake off the shackles of the “quantity over quality” mantra. Although not often as discussed, when it comes to exceptionally productive musicians, perhaps more important than the merit of the music itself is its overall purpose. Without a defined artistic motive having evidently inaugurated the compositional process for each work the musician puts their name to, it would be easy for their prolific philosophy to come across as somewhat of a gimmick with little to no substance behind it. For exactly these reasons, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard, regardless of what one personally thinks about their music, stand as one of modern music’s finest fertile acts, entirely emerging from how potently they own their productivity. Whether it be their foray into freak folk on Paper Mâché Dream Balloon, their conception of an infinitely looping record with Nonagon Infinity, or their excursion into the world of microtonal music earlier this year on Flying Microtonal Banana, each album conceived by these Australian psych-rockers has laid out its artistic purpose and pertinence to the band’s legacy clearly and abundantly. King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s newest endeavour, Murder Of The Universe, marks not only their second of a promised five albums to be released over the course of 2017, but also an unequivocal continuation of their recent creative streak. This being said, whereas records such as Paper Mâché Dream Balloon and Flying Microtonal Banana were defined by the band’s musical ambition displayed in the projects’ conceptualisation, Murder Of The Universe, whilst arguably just as audacious, is distinguishable more on a lyrical and structural basis than a musical one. Sonically speaking, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard aren’t necessarily breaking any new ground on this album, rather their eclectic approach to garage rock, which integrates motifs from all over the musical map, stays largely in tact over the course of the tracklisting. Instead, Murder Of The Universe is defined by its bold structure, being separated into three distinct chapters, each of which flows as one cohesive piece that has been divided into a selection of tracks and carries a unique, surrealist narrative that makes heavy use of spoken word narration. With these three arcs being almost entirely removed from one another — bar their absurdist imagery, conceptual dualisms and recurring grimy and morbid themes that relate to unity and division, lust and temptation, power dynamics and Otherness — the structure of Murder Of The Universe is comparable to that of an anthology film. As such, it would be very easy for issues of inconsistency to arise, but perhaps King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s greatest success when executing this omnibus album is how well the whole record and each of its individual arcs are contained within an impressively strong foundation that accommodates for the scope of their avant-garde artistic ventures. There are perhaps a few nitpicks to be had with its presentation, but for the most part, and especially given its narrative-driven nature, Murder Of The Universe witnesses King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard craft an engrossing listening experience, courtesy of their comprehensive commitment to their conceptual enterprise.
Undoubtedly, in the broader context of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s discography, Murder Of The Universe takes the path less travelled. Indeed, for a band whose reputation has largely stemmed from their musical experimentation, the fact that this album should suddenly shift the focus onto their lyrics and story-telling abilities, whilst the compositions throughout the tracklisting hark back to the staples of much of their previous output, arguably makes Murder Of The Universe one of the group’s riskiest moves yet, at least in principle. However, overtly alluding to their earlier work in the record’s musical themes is far from a decision that arose from laziness or a lack of creativity, rather it’s abundantly clear how such references benefit the tone shift to a largely narrative-based approach. In particular, Nonagon Infinity stands out as on obvious stylistic touchstone for Murder Of The Universe, in that each of the album’s individual acts are structured in a similar fashion, with each track that compiles these chapters flowing into one another seamlessly, forming a larger, cohesive piece that nevertheless exploits the reappearance and recontextualisation of leitmotifs as a means of toying with tension and song progression. This technique acted as the crux of Nonagon Infinity and played a significant role in its success, in that the continued reapplication of motifs throughout the tracklisting made it so that the record didn’t merely feel like a regular psych-rock record wherein the ending of the last song just so happened to lead into the beginning of the first song, but as an encompassing, cohesive experience greater than the sum of its parts. In the case of Murder Of The Universe, however, this same tactic is employed, but for a very different purpose, in that the recurrence of musical phrases works in conjunction with the album’s plot sequences as to bolster the impact of the band’s storytelling abilities.
Taking Chapter 1: The Tale Of The Altered Beast as an example, a tale of temptation framed around the fusion of a human and a beast that ultimately leads to the self-destruction of the resultant hybrid monster, the intermittent refrain of “Altered Beast, alter me” is constantly repeated, with occasional changes to the dynamics or tone, in a way that mirrors the impending insanity of the Altered Beast, arising from the loss of identity that comes with being neither man nor monster. Likewise, the rapid, palm-muted guitar riffs that support Leah Senior’s soft-spoken narration are greatly altered by the point of the story’s climax, assuming a much faster and more minor hue, making for a dramatic peak to one of the chapter’s most prevalent motifs that, again, fittingly parallels the protagonist’s descent into mental, and eventually physical, decay. On the topic of Senior’s spoken word passages, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard do a fantastic job of acclimatising them naturally into the album’s music, with the well-constructed syllabic structure of her dialogue melding seamlessly even into the sections that utilise unorthodox time signatures and phrasings. Indeed, employing spoken word excerpts into the band’s tortuous compositional style is no simple feat, but Mackenzie and co. execute this masterfully, not once sacrificing the usual cohesion and strength of their unique ear for intertwining melodies, with the constant counterpoint provided by the fluid vocal and guitar lines that soar atop the mesh of fluttering, rhythmic riffing displaying King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard utilising this signature trick of theirs in an exceptionally compelling manner.
The relationship between Murder Of The Universe and Nonagon Infinity is made explicitly clear during Chapter 2: The Lord Of Lightning Vs. Balrog, albeit in a rather different fashion compared to the preceding act, with the introductory instrumental, Some Context, simply recreating the lead riff from the single People-Vultures, whilst The Lord Of Lightning even incorporates the phrase “nonagon infinity” into its lyrics. The fact that specifically People-Vultures should be referenced here is likely no coincidence, given that there are through-lines to be found between the song’s exploration of the opposition to opportunism by god-like figures and Balrog’s seizure of the opportunity to wreak havoc on a nearby town after he was inadvertently brought to life by the Lord of Lightning, who had previously been taking pleasure in tormenting the townsfolk himself. With the structure of this story including a foreword from the narrator, in the form of The Reticent Raconteur, to establish the ongoing battle taking place between the Lord of Lightning and Balrog, before going on to recount the events from the very beginning of the timeline, the whiffs of melody from The Reticent Raconteur that appear revamped during the tale’s climax on the track The Floating Fire fortify the dramatic conclusion to this chapter in a similarly potent fashion to the first act. In fact, given the more linear and less repetitive structure of this story, the reincorporation of these motifs into the explosive apex of the chapter makes for one of the most satisfying pay-offs over the course of the entire record. What’s more, the bellowing, primitive vocal drones that loom throughout much of the chapter really capture the sense of folklorish legend in which this particular story is shrouded, as do the minor melodies of Mackenzie’s legato vocal passages, before the band explodes into some fiery, psychedelic blues jams, comprised of their usual tangles of searing string-bends, harmonica freak-outs, synthesized gurgles and mellotron madness.
Of the three tales, however, Chapter 3: Han-Tyumi And The Murder Of The Universe is the notable outlier in just about every conceivable fashion. Lyrically, it is by far the most surrealist of the three acts, telling the tale of a cyborg named Han-Tyumi who gains consciousness and laments his inhumanity, and thus pursues the ability to do what humans can do and what cyborgs cannot; to vomit and to die. After creating a machine whose sole purpose is to vomit, but who rejects the love of his creator, Han-Tyumi, much in the same vein as the Altered Beast, fuses with the robot in an attempt to achieve his goal of being able to vomit, which ultimately leads to his demise, in that he ceaselessly spews sick to the point of engulfing the entire universe in his vomit and destroying it. Whereas the themes of the prior two chapters could be compartmentalised into apparent messages that Mackenzie was trying to convey, the story of Han-Tyumi is almost too absurdist to extract any purpose from, perhaps with the exception of it being some grand exercise in nihilism. Rather fittingly, however, this third chapter also sees King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard strive for their most abstruse and experimental musical endeavours across the course of Murder Of The Universe, even employing a text-to-speech system to handle the spoken words excerpts and taking cues from noise music in a way that they have seldom exhibited so explicitly in the past. Both the tracks Digital Black and Vomit Coffin, for instance, integrate eruptions of discordant electronics, as if reflecting both the technological themes of the story’s setting and its idiosyncratic concept, whilst the accented cascades of fuzzed-out guitars hit wisps of double harmonic melodies that are more evocative of heavy metal than perhaps any previous song that King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard have put their name to. What’s arguably even more odd is the fact that the conclusive title track strikes some genuinely beautiful symphonic textures, courtesy of the utilisation of looming flutes and choral synth patches, whilst the ceaseless swells in the song’s timbre cogently reflect Han-Tyumi’s dramatic narration of his expansion as he begins to engulf the entire universe in his vomit-riddled being, providing an appropriately explosive ending to this epic portmanteau album.
Out of all the ambitious undertakings that King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard have committed themselves to for the course of an entire album throughout their career, it would be easy to view Murder Of The Universe as perhaps their boldest. It may not be an eternally looping record or a fully-fledged foray into microtonal music, but its anthological arrangement is arguably much more fundamental to the band’s compositional foundation than these examples. Whilst the internal fluency of each chapter shares structural similarities to Nonagon Infinity, the fact that this format has to be altered and framed around linear narratives has a much greater underlying impact on the group’s songwriting style, with the task of attaining a consistent sense of cohesion likely being even more of a challenge . Yet, once again, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard have proven themselves to be as versatile as ever, with the offbeat omnibus structure of Murder Of The Universe being no hindrance to their ability to convey their kaleidoscopic psychedelic concoctions of universal proportions.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8.5/10