King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard’s KG: sensitive microtonal psych-rock

The 16th studio album by the Australian six-piece, who have experimented in surfer rock, jazz and metal, reflects an entirely different way of understanding music. 

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That it is November and King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard are only just releasing their first studio album of the year is somewhat of a surprise. I realise that sounds ridiculous, but the six-piece Australian psych-rock outfit have set a high bar for themselves. They put out two studio records in 2019: April’s Fishing For Fishies was the sound of the band dipping its toe into Eighties glam; while August’s Infest the Rats’ Nest tackled the climate crisis with heavy metal, the only appropriate musical genre for impending doom. Admittedly, KGLW didn’t release any records in 2018 – but that’s because they needed a rest, to get over the exhaustion of releasing a staggering five albums the previous year.

Just in time to keep up appearances before this year is out, KGLW are releasing KG, a sensitive and complex album composed and recorded as the six-piece lived individually during the pandemic this year. It will be released this Friday, alongside a live album, Live in San Francisco ’16. (They have already put out five other live albums in 2020, so perhaps I should cut them some slack.)

The band, fronted by vocalist and multi-instrumentalist Stu Mackenzie, will by Friday have released an impressive 16 studio albums since forming in Melbourne in 2010. More remarkably, considering this productivity, none of these records sounds rushed or messy. And they certainly don’t all sound the same, keen as KGLW are to mutate at every opportunity. “Psych-rock”, the label they are routinely given, is not an indicator of a particular sound so much as an acknowledgement of their temperament: here is a band that pushes at the boundaries of what rock music can or should contain; a band that is uneasy spending too long in any one sonic environment. Over time, this has resulted in experimentations in surfer rock, garage, jazz, prog and metal. 

KG is built from a different way of understanding music entirely. The record uses microtones, smaller intervals than semitones (the standard distance between notes on Western classical scales), common in Greek, Turkish and Arabic music. In the lead-up to writing 2017’s Flying Microtonal Banana, Mackenzie acquired a custom-made guitar modified for microtonal tuning. But such a guitar can only be played with similarly tuned instruments, and so he gave each of his bandmates $200 to get their kit tuned in the same way. Flying Microtonal Banana was a critical success (if a seemingly expensive one) – and, as is the way when tapping into a whole sonic architecture rarely explored in Western music (the blues dabbles in it, and Radiohead have tried their hand at it) – there was still an awful lot left to work with. No wonder KGLW returned to this exciting aural landscape – and this time they’ve done so with more ease than before.

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The wonders of microtones are best exhibited on “Straws in the Wind”, on which a web of sitar and twanging guitar riffs combine with rolling drums under keyboardist Ambrose Kenny-Smith’s vocals. He finds space for his voice in these in-between harmonies too, and there’s an intimacy to his huskiness, which feels calming, despite the doom-laden lyrics. “Straws in the wind/Is it all ending?” he sings, again and again, before two flutes duel in close, unflinching harmony.

There is a delicateness to proceedings here, one which you would likely not expect from a group with such an outrageously silly name. It’s there in the woozy warmth of the vocals at the beginning of “Some of Us”, reminiscent of early Unknown Mortal Orchestra, and in the hypnotic guitar lines of “Minimum Brain Size”, a rebuke to gang mentality, which addresses a “parasitic mob” and a “himpathetic bro”. It’s evident, too, in the kaleidoscopic romance of “Honey”: “You taste like honey/All warm and runny/Kinder than a candy/Effervescent shandy,” purrs Mackenzie over country-inflected guitars and, later, a harmonica solo. The track moves fast and relies on a hard drum beat, but that does not distract from the sense that these songs have been wrought with great care – despite the speed at which they were written, rehearsed, recorded, mixed, mastered and internationally released.

The nature of white artists sampling music from other cultures or dallying with “fusion” inevitably leaves them open to accusations of cultural appropriation or fetishisation. King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard are a group of white guys whose interest in non-Western music could, if they were not more careful, have opened them up to such criticisms. But on this record, the band do not give in to clichés or take any cultural missteps – they borrow a harmonic Arab tradition and, respectfully, use the opportunities it gives them as the building blocks of their own distorted garage rock. It’s tastefully done, and only serves to open the minds of those of us who are surprised to learn that notes linger between the pitches our ears have grown accustomed to.

Take “Oddlife”, on which Mackenzie sings of the relentlessness of being a musician – “Another car park in the middle of nowhere/Another promoter hanging in your hair/Another backstage green room to prepare/It’s an odd life, gotta be aware” – over bright glockenspiel and jangling guitars. It’s high-energy polyphony that manages to be haunting, too; psychedelia that doesn’t simply rely on an unintelligible wall of guitars with the fuzz turned up high, but carefully considers individual melodies before gently looping them together. The microtuning here is essential: how else would these sounds clang and toll with so much verve, these tricksy guitar melodies interlock and spiral round again, so tightly wrapped up in one another?

This is music that manages to sound both instinctive and intricately mapped. It’s clear King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard have taken the time to think this one through. 

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Ellen Peirson-Hagger is the New Statesman’s culture assistant.

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