Despite being a country of only 20 million people, Australia has probably produced the largest amount of quality psychedelic rock per capita in recent years: Tame Impala, Pond, GUM, Psychedelic Porn Crumpets, The Murlocs, and last but certainly not least, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard. In what will be an eventful and busy 2017, King Gizzard plans on releasing five albums this year. The first of this series, “Flying Microtonal Banana,” offers an uncanny but ultimately fulfilling listening experience.
This album is unique because it uses microtones, which are musical notes with intervals smaller than a semitone, the standard musical note interval. Although many Western musical artists have experimented with microtones, King Gizzard is still breaking new ground by producing an entire album with microtones. In order to accomplish this feat, all of the instruments used on the album needed to be modified to be microtonal, and the vocalists, Stu Mackenzie and Ambrose Kenny-Smith, also had to learn how to sing in microtones. This is no easy feat.
At first, it appears that the usage of microtones is just a gimmick. “Rattlesnake,” “Melting,” and “Open Water,” the first three songs on the album, seem to last just a little too long. Of course, they all contain cool, upbeat riffs with driving drums, but the criticism to levy against them is that they are too repetitive. The microtones are unfamiliar and confusing to listen to, and after five minutes into the nearly eight-minute “Rattlesnake,” it’s easy to become a little bored.
Even if this is the case, then there is still reason to laud King Gizzard. Microtonal music is cool and different, and employing it for an entire album shows a commitment to experimentation, which is crucial to creating top notch music. Without musicians trying new things, we would all be stuck with the robotic, emotionally uninspiring songs that make up modern pop music.
However, it would be unusual of King Gizzard to be trying out a new psychedelic drug and only take half of the suggested dosage. In the same way, I find it hard to believe that the band would learn how to play microtonal music only to produce an album of ultimately monotonous songs. The point of this album is to be weird, wacky, uncomfortable, and even kind of scary – especially with songs titles like “Anoxia,” “Doom City,” and “Nuclear Fusion.” But as you listen to the album more and more, you start to realize that these weird, unusual, and frightening things are actually kind of cool.
My initial reaction to the microtones is that they’re a little strange and uncomfortable to listen to – they all feel slightly out of tune. In fact, the entire album is full of tracks. “Rattlesnake” employs drums that sound like the name of the track, driving bass and guitar lines, and repeating lyrics. With every vocalization of the lyric “Rattlesnake” you feel closer to the peril that the animal inevitably brings. Even when the lyrics do change, it’s only to identify how futile your situation is when you’re standing next to a snake: “Snake is smiling/Whips his tail/Leaves you writhing.”
“Melting” doesn’t reference a conventionally delightful experience either. As a child, I distinctly remember the shame and sadness that accompanied having let my ice cream melt and become inedible. The same feeling accompanies the lyrics, which decry the carbon emissions heating up our planet: “Thawing ices/Worse than ISIS/Worse than the most deadly virus.” The same driving drum beat continues on from “Rattlesnake,” but this time the bass line is a little lighter and there is an odd undulating synthesizer during the verses. When the chorus finally returns and the synth stops, there is a short period of relief, but again it returns, building tension with each listen.
On the two following songs, “Open Water” and “Sleep Drifter,” this uneasiness persists both musically and lyrically, but it slowly diminishes as the album plods on. About half way through “Sleep Drifter,” something clicks: the microtones cease to be jarring or uncomfortable. Instead, it feels as if they were an integral part of the creation and then release of tension in each of the songs. What seems to make the most sense is probably that the first three songs on FMB help condition and acclimatize the listener to microtonal music in the context of psychedelic rock. They are deliberately a little repetitive and less overwhelming than the other songs because they are teaching you how to listen to the entire album. As a result, with every subsequent listen, the album becomes more enjoyable.
The album’s greatest highlight is “Doom City,” which begins with a slow but imposing bass line. Just when you feel about to crack under the weight of the bass, however, the lyrics begin and it lightens up. “I think I’ll die/When Doom City air this way comes,” sings Stu Mackenzie, King Gizzard’s vocalist, before Lucas Skinner comes back in with the powerful bass. Intermixed is the cry of a zurna, a Central Asian flute-like wind instrument, the bass dominating over the zurna, which poses almost as the dying screams of Skinner’s victims.
The album’s final song, “Flying Microtonal Banana,” for which the album is named, stays true to the goal of being wacky but cool. The zurna, sounding more like a bagpipe than in “Doom City,” initially takes control of the melody, before being overtaken by a synthesizer and then a harmonica. Although unusual, the song is a fitting ending to an album that aims to show how different and bizarre things can still be cool. By my count, the King Gizzard and their magical lizard associates do just that.