A guide to King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s absurdly prolific 2017

Feb. 20, 2018, 1:50 p.m.

Loads of artists released better albums last year, but there was no better band in 2017 than King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. For the past eight years, the down-under rockers have fashioned themselves as something of an Aussie Flaming Lips, approaching every new album with a mix of playfulness and experimentation. Their breakout album, 2016’s “Nonagon Infinity,” was a nine-track opus whose songs formed a continuous loop of music that you could play for 42 minutes or 42 hours. Before that, they released an album with four songs, each of them exactly 10 minutes and 10 seconds long, aptly named “Quarters!” They’re also one of the most prolific bands in recent memory; “Nonagon Infinity” was their eighth album in five years, but it was also a rare instance where King Gizzard put out only one album in a calendar year.

But I don’t think anyone could have predicted what would follow “Nonagon Infinity.” Near the end of 2016, King Gizzard announced that they were gearing up to release five albums in 2017. (The only other artist I can think of who can put out music as fast, often faster, is Gucci Mane). They cut it damn close, but they came through, releasing their fifth LP with just hours to spare. While that’s plenty impressive in and of itself, the most remarkable thing about King Gizzard’s endeavor is that all five albums have their own distinct flavor and that they’re all worth a listen. If you were following King Gizzard’s efforts, you already know what the fuss is about; if you’re new to the band, read my rundown of the five albums, then set aside three and a half hours to hear for yourself.

King Gizzard’s 2017 run kicked off with February’s “Flying Microtonal Banana,” a hilariously-titled foray into microtonal music. In Western music theory, tones separate the notes of the scale, with semitones indicating sharp or flat versions of those notes; King Gizzard utilized special instruments that could play the quarter tones between tones and semitones, allowing them to tap into a wider — and, for want of a better word, more exotic — set of sounds. Opening track “Rattlesnake” is a good example of the sounds they were going for. Coiled and ready to strike like the reptile for which it was named, it maintains its jittery groove for nearly eight minutes. The tension doesn’t let up even on slower numbers like the slinky, sinister “Sleep Drifter.” Even if you don’t know a thing about microtonal tuning, “Flying Microtonal Banana” is a wild musical thrill ride. But you’ll want to pay attention to the lyrics, which have a haunting focus on impending ecological catastrophe brought on by humans. “Doom City” is rendered uninhabitable by pollution, rising sea levels threaten “Open Water,” and climate change wreaks havoc on “Melting” (“Vanishing ices / Worse than ISIS / Worse than the most deadly virus”).

The band followed that up with “Murder of the Universe” in late June. While King Gizzard have always centered their albums around concepts, it’s possible that “Murder of the Universe” is their first proper concept album. You actually get three concepts for the price of one: There’s a fable about an “Altered Beast,” a climactic battle between light and darkness and a very strange tale about a vomiting cyborg that causes the titular event. The problem with this album is that the concepts get in the way of the songs. This is worst during the final chapter, when an annoying text-to-speech narrator distracts from some of King Gizzard’s best musical compositions of the year. (It’s also, frankly, pretty disgusting to listen to the narrator go into detail about how much he wants to vomit). “Murder of the Universe” is the hardest-rocking album of the five, and when the band keeps the storytelling to a minimum, as on “Altered Beast IV” and “The Lord of Lightning,” it makes for great, high-octane rock. But it’s also the worst album of the five, wasting great riffs on songs that are too short to effectively use them or pitting them against the narration. Simply put, “Murder of the Universe” is a conceptual album that crosses over into conceptual overload.

“Sketches of Brunswick East,” a collaboration with Mild High Club, came out two months later. “Brunswick East” dials back the aggression and yarn-spinning that hampered “Murder of the Universe,” instead embracing the sounds of jazz and folk. (Microtonal instruments even make a return on some tracks). It’s an album that is as mellow as it is melodic, to the point where some may write it off as elevator music. (To my ears, it’s more cantina music). King Gizzard meshes beautifully with Mild High Club’s softer woozy brand of psychedelia, and it pushes the band into musical ground that they don’t often tread. “Countdown” and, well, “Rolling Stoned” are the kind of woozy tunes that sound great around 4:20, while “You Can Be Your Silhouette” and the three title tracks recall Stan Getz’s work with João Gilberto or the Miles Davis-Gil Evans team-up “Sketches of Spain,” the inspiration for this album’s title. It makes me wonder what kind of songs King Gizzard would come up with if they decided to recruit some jazz musicians and try making a bona fide jazz fusion album; if “Brunswick East” is any indication, they could pull it off.

King Gizzard had a month and a half left in the countdown when they dropped “Polygondwanaland.” “Murder of the Universe” and “Polygondwanaland” have something of an inverse relationship as far as progressive rock goes. While the former succumbs to that genre’s predilection to narrative overload even as it sticks to simpler, heavier guitar riffs, “Polygondwanaland” has practically no narrative, instead placing more emphasis on instrumental technicality. The album’s 11-minute opener, “Crumbling Castle,” is a truly epic number that, in defiance of its title, spends the first eight minutes building only to tear it all down in the remaining three. It’s a clear peak of the album, but it’s also a bit of an anomaly, as eight of the remaining nine tracks are over in less than four minutes. Speaking of time, these songs do amazing things playing around with time signatures; the drumming is simply fantastic. You might be able to pick out that “Loyalty” runs in 5/4 time, but trying to follow along with “Crumbling Castle” and “Deserted Dunes Welcome Weary Feet” is a lost cause. (I know the former starts in 7/8 time, but I lose track of it within minutes). “Polygondwanaland” also balances two of prog rock’s seemingly contradictory tendencies — the title track and “Tetrachromacy” lean toward the more pastoral side of the genre, even bringing in a flute, while “Loyalty” and “Searching…” feel cold and metallic, borrowing Vangelis-style synthesizers from the “Blade Runner” soundtrack.


Which brings us to King Gizzard’s final album of 2017, “Gumboot Soup.” Released on Dec. 30 — Dec. 31 in King Gizzard’s native Australia — “Gumboot Soup” consists of songs that were tinkered with throughout the year or didn’t quite fit on any of the album’s predecessors. The good news is, these songs are more consistent in terms of quality than in style. Sometimes it’s obvious which album a song was initially written for — the Black Sabbath-with-microtonal tuning death march “Greenhouse Heat Death” is musically and lyrically of a piece with “Flying Microtonal Banana” — but some of the best tracks, like the slippery funk of “Down the Sink” or the eerily jazzy “The Wheel” (which sounds quite a bit like Led Zeppelin’s “No Quarter”) sound like totally new creations. It’s the lighter tracks that are a bit of a mixed bag. “Superposition” is a strange trip with vocoders and flutes, and “I’m Sleepin’ In” is fortunately dreamier than it is sleepy, but the drifting “The Last Oasis” sounds kind of like a deflated Flaming Lips cut. But pretty much every track on “Gumboot Soup” serves as a reminder: King Gizzard is an incredibly talented band, and they can play a lot of different styles of music really, really well.

Then again, that was pretty much the whole point of their year-long exercise. Not many artists have it in them to record as much music in one year as King Gizzard did, let alone as much good music. When I first heard the band’s proclamation well over a year ago that they were going to drop five albums in 2017, I reacted as if they’d announced their intention to eat their instruments: Yeah, I don’t think this is gonna end well, but it’ll be fun to watch. Now I’m convinced King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard can do anything, but where could they possibly go from here? Play an entire concert underwater? Record an album to be played in reverse? Whatever they do next, I’ll be listening.

Final Ranking:

  • “Flying Microtonal Banana” — B+
  • “Sketches of Brunswick East” — B
  • “Polygondwanaland” — B
  • “Gumboot Soup” — B-
  • “Murder of the Universe” — C

Contact Jacob Nierenberg at jhn2017 ‘at’ stanford.edu.


Jacob Nierenberg '17 is a coterm pursuing an M.A. in Communication on the Journalism track. The program is very busy and often precludes him from writing for The Daily, but he enjoys contributing stories and music reviews when he is able to. Prior to beginning the program, he completed a B.A. in American Studies. His hobbies include spending time with friends and listening to music, and he is always delighted to meet people as enthusiastic about music as he is.

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