The concept record has always been an odd duck. A strange fit for most linear genres, something usually reserved for progressive rock and metal or even fusion acts. Trying to tell a complex narrative through music and lyrics is, as it turns out, quite tricky, but done well such a project can be the defining moment in a band’s career; Mastodon certainly spring to mind. So, having already established they’re not a band to shy away from a challenge after promising four or five albums this year, here we are for round two of the King Gizzard power hour: Murder Of The Universe. Written partially in response to the world’s rocky political climate as of late, Stu Mackenzie (vocals/guitar) and co. set about making an album that reflected this darkness and anxiety but, in typical fashion, they haven’t exactly gone the full Billy Bragg. Instead, Murder Of The Universe features mythical beasts, post-apocalyptic wastelands, vomiting cyborgs, black holes and (between the heavy amount of spoken word) a unique view on where the world is heading.
One thing that becomes apparent pretty quickly is that this is not your usual concept album for two reasons. One, it comes in at 46 minutes and most prog bands have written interludes that long in the past. Two, King Gizzard opt to tell the majority of the record’s ‘story’ as it were, through spoken word dialogue via two narrators. These monologues are a constant throughout the album’s three parts and, unfortunately, seem to end up either as the white noise to a more interesting instrumental that the band are currently tearing through or even worse, drowning out such an instrumental with vague ramblings about the subject of the moment. The first part of the record concerns an “Altered Beast”, a kind of mutated Lovecraftian horror and how our first protagonist sees themselves reflected in its grotesqueness. After a brief intro, A New World, the doomy guitar lines rapidly increase in speed and we’re straight into Altered Beast I. Incessant guitar and keyboard codas punctuate the dramatic vocals from Mackenzie, exclaiming at the end of every chorus “I met an Altered Beast!” This first part of the record swaps back and forth between the beast (Altered Beast I-IV) and its prisoner (Alter Me I-III). There are several recurring motifs and codas across all these tracks and as a result they do rather blur together. Still, there’s something in the thrilling drum rolls and jilted verse rhythms of Altered Beast II that allow it to stand on its own. By Altered Beast IV’s propulsive finale our protagonist has become the altered beast they’re running from and we have the short Life/Death interlude to reflect on how they’ve “lost their humanity” as an almost sunny synth melody escalates in pitch and then bursts into noisy oscillation. End of Act one.
Hilariously following this is a seventeen second instrumental called Some Context which features only a crow squawking and the roar of some distant monster over a riff from the band’s album Nonagon Infinity that dropped last year, before churning into part two of the album: an epic battle between the Lord of Lightning and the Balrog, while the same female narrator intervenes with voice over between some of the best instrumentals on the record. Opening track The Lord of Lightning features positively unhinged harmonica and synth playing from Ambrose Kenny-Smith, while Stu whoops and shouts over the appropriately super charged proto-metal riffs and crashing drums. The Balrog covers the other contender in this mighty battle; stabs of guitar and keyboard noise bound to thundering drums painting more adrenaline fuelled imagery. Sadly, the two tracks that follow are much shorter and only serve to tie up the story in this part which, with instrumentals as strong as this, was always going to take a backseat much like the voice over. Nevertheless, the band charge on to the closing part of the album regarding a dissatisfied cyborg and the end of time itself. End on a high note, guys.
After another short intro track sets somewhat of a scene, Digital Black launches out of the gate with distorted gloomy guitar riffs from all three of King Gizzard’s axe men as Stu sings “Illusion, confusion, last human, digital black”. The tone here gets weird fast, with a new narrator in the form of a disembodied voice processor speaking as Han-Tyumi the cyborg expressing his desire to vomit and later to die, as humans do. It’s like one of those four A.M low-budget sci-fi movies you occasionally catch the first ten minutes of; as Han-Tyumi builds a machine like himself to achieve his goal of finally throwing up, Vomit Coffin perfectly nails the strangeness of this story with guitar riffs Tony Iommi would be proud of. Absurd it may be but it’s the sort of absurd rock King Gizzard do best. Closing track Murder of the Universe has Han-Tyumi vomiting outwards across the entire universe, across time, describing the grim process as the epic instrumental builds and climaxes as everything collapses in on itself. A heavy conclusion indeed, even if it isn’t a happy one.
I find myself having gone through this strange puke covered wormhole King Gizzard have made several times now and, ultimately, still unsure on it as a record. As always, the compressed, lo-fi production and tight performances balance out with the oddities or misfires in the lyrics; and in the case of this album most of the spoken word as well. The narrative is really a mess, one for the Reddit forums to pore over and decide where it fits into the Gizzard canon (the album art for instance is the last few album covers the band have released merged together so that’s significant somehow). In the end, nothing is really fleshed out enough to be truly brilliant. There are standout tracks but perhaps they would have been best as individual releases, while a concept album this short fails to pull together anything that really sticks with you. But it’s hard to stay on the cutting edge after all, and right now King Gizzard remain one of the few rock bands anywhere near it. Even if they are a bit obsessed with being sick.
Picks:Altered Beast II, The Lord of Lightning, Digital Black