The fact that it all starts with a single-word verse and a deceptively simple beat is a good omen for how the album will unfold. If you know anything about King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard – the Australian psych rock band who are now one LP into the projected five they’re planning to release this year – you know just how far they can take a single theme. Flying Microtonal Banana, released just last Friday on Flightless Records, takes things satisfyingly far, but it’s so much more than just a wild trip. There’s great subtlety to the way they construct the vibe.
Right from the start, their repetition of the word “rattlesnake” (also the name of the first song) is somehow melodic enough to get stuck in your head, but percussive enough to sink into the background. Something about it is deliciously elusive, and yet they drive it into your consciousness until it no longer sounds like a real word – or even an arrangement of syllables. Through the sinuous 7:48-long track, it’s merely a reassuring fixture, as constant as a row of boards on a long picket fence. But what that fence is holding back – an experiment on wax, etched in the strange, scintillating facets of microtonal tuning – is quite a beast.
King Gizz aren’t ones to half-do something, and their strict commitment to the form is part of what makes Flying Microtonal Banana so alluring. When frontman Stu Mackenzie’s friend Zak gifted him a custom-made guitar (banana yellow, in fact), tuned to incorporate what Stu described as “secret notes,” he reportedly paid each of his bandmates $200 to adapt their instruments to play within the same key.
With DIY modifications – like adding extra frets to mimic the movable ones of the Turkish bağlama, and re-tuning both drummers’ sets – his bandmates soon joined him in the unfamiliar territory of microtonality, ultimately rigging 3 old guitars, a bass, a keyboard, a harmonica, and a mouth organ for the project. In their own studio in Brunswick East, Melbourne, all nine songs came to life, moving within intervals smaller than a semitone, a far cry from the 12-note Western tuning most ears are accustomed to on this side of the globe.
Equally arresting on Banana – outside of the mind-bending, pure-genius guitar solos we’ve come to expect from them – is King Gizzard’s measured use of the Zurna, a Turkish horn with a wayward, almost unhinged wail (integrated swimmingly on “Billabong Valley,” “Doom City,” and the closing title track). As the opening “Rattlesnake” slithers away, the album grows more and more mystical – and, as we instantly hear in the Calypso-like “Melting,” remarkably chill for the mesmeric acid rockers.
Topically, though, it’s a firecracker. Almost hidden in plain sight is a tumultuous storyline around the fragility of our planet, with strong lyrical (and even titular) hints at global warming (“Melting”), receding coastlines (“Open Water”), air pollution (“Doom City”), and other modern-day terrors (“Nuclear Fusion”). It’s all right there in the open, and yet it may take a few spins before you pick up on the weighty subject matter, simply because the music itself is so magical. And that’s a brilliant, Trojan-horse sort of way to instill a dire message. King Gizzard say it themselves in the penultimate track; “The devil’s inside all the detail.”
Order your very own Flying Microtonal Banana here, and don’t miss King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard in NYC this month. They’ll be playing Webster Hall on Friday, 3/31 (tickets are sold out, but clearly, these guys are worth Stubhubbing).
Article: Olivia Isenhart
Cover Image: Shayne Hanley