It has been said many a time that it’s ‘quality not quantity’ that matters but apparently that saying never reached Australia’s resident psychedelic rulers King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard. In the seven years they’ve been actively recording and releasing music while touring ceaselessly around the world the band have amassed a whopping nine full length albums and, not content with taking it easy for a while, have promised four conceptually unique records due for 2017. Which brings us neatly to LP number 10; Flying Microtonal Banana, whose party trick is nine songs all written and performed using microtonal instruments. Now, don’t be surprised if this seems like an alien concept even to the most seasoned music buffs. Microtonal tuning has for a long time been resigned only to a particular style of folk music from Turkey and other parts of the Near/Middle East; in practice employing instruments with microtonal tunings effectively doubles the number of notes in an octave and creates some ‘out of tune’ sounding ‘in-between’ notes that would be unplayable otherwise. This is far out stuff, even for a band whose last album played on an infinite loop and who once recorded a post-apocalyptic Western soundtrack album, this is something else.
Unsurprising then to find that microtonal music has never really been touched by other rock bands let alone the popular mainstream, it has a devout audience and a long-standing origin based in traditional song; you could argue it’s a mistake to even attempt to use it as a songwriting tool in Western music. Upon hearing the ascending riffs and driving groove of opening track and lead single Rattlesnake however, you might take it all back. With Gizz’s usual lo-fi production style in tow, the serpentine interplay between the three guitars each playing subtle variants on the hook combined with singer/guitarist Stu Mackenzie’s incessant chimes of “rattle, rattle, rattle…” in the bridge turn the near eight-minute track into a hypnotic, krautrock influenced stomper by the close. Much like the looping Nonagon Infinity that precedes it, Microtonal Banana’s tracks move from one to another with scarcely a moment wasted, white noise and held notes stringing these nine spacey jams together as though every second counts and, to completely immerse you in its world it works wonders.
Following this the jerky drum beats of Melting and spidery guitar runs envelope the trippy lyrics, “the Earth is melting down […] the toxic air is here to scare us”, typical overt imagery from Mackenzie but in this context the weirdness never feels out of place. Doom laden hooks abound on the up-tempo Open Water, taking full advantage of microtonal scales to turn the guitar riffs into uncanny distorted lines. The track also features the wail of a Turkish horn called a Zurna that also pushes its way onto other tracks in the breakdowns and here it signals the percussion heavy outro section to take over. After the comparatively subdued yet catchy Sleep Drifter, the bluesy barroom tale spun by harmonica and keyboard player Ambrose Kenny-Smith is the odd one out in a good way, alluring and strange in equal measure.
Anoxia rings with the sounds of Swedish psych Gods Dungen’s good work and the laser guided precision from both of King Gizzard’s drummers is scarcely felt so prominently as it is here, meanwhile Doom City goes as far as to include a microtonal harmonica (no, me neither) alongside the dark blasts of guitar, keyboard and horns that erupt in the choruses. Further single Nuclear Fusion is a late highlight, the tense bass run in the intro giving way to a frankly addictive drone with distorted vocals and gorgeously soupy production; not to mention the climaxing outro that ends, appropriately, with the first real pause in the whole record. Closer and title track mixes the world music back in (traditional percussion, another horn melody) and perhaps answers that debate about the ethics of using microtonality in this context, the band have clearly put the work in and when the finished product sounds this good, this different there’s not much complaining to be done.
And just like that it’s over; only nine tracks and very much an album of two halves, the first subdued and pulsing with motorik beats and tight drum/bass lines, while the second is, if anything, more loose and experimental but perhaps a bit too short; still, too much of a good thing after all. Safe to say this is easily King Gizzard’s weirdest record yet and the least accessible, best after a few listens but a different beast from the adrenaline-fuelled assault that was Nonagon Infinity. Nevertheless, should you find a stranger, more unique rock album this year I’ll eat my Zurna.