King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard's experiments with microtones are ambitious, strange and dense.
Snake charming is a dying art in India. It was an art form based mostly on deceit in the first place -- snakes can’t even hear, they only feel vibrations -- but nevertheless, the practice has always been decidedly linked to the mystical and the divine. The earliest charmers were likely also holy men and healers and their relationship to their animals, that intimate balance of fear and respect mirrored depictions of the gods who were also connected to nature and the world in a way that the common person simply wasn’t.
The cover art of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s ninth studio album (and the first of five slated to come out in 2017), Flying Microtonal Banana, shows a snake charmer of sorts. The instruments are deliberately tuned to microtones that sound odd to the average Western listener, the melodies are doubled and redoubled over multiple instruments, and the core of the rhythm section is often droning, mesmerizing and constant. This is what snake charming music sounds like, and this is perhaps what modern snake charming is. The method and the kind of danger inherent in the practice have been updated for the times we live in, but perhaps the band is seeking similar motivation. Wild showmanship with a hint of deceit, just to turn heads and get people hooked, but ultimately a view into something beyond this world and this plane of existence.
They are a psychedelic band after all.
As previously mentioned, Flying Microtonal Banana is one of five experimental albums that the band plans to release this year, and this first one seems a fitting introduction to what to expect from a year of these guys. This first one is an exploration of microtonality or notes that exist between the 12 semitones we commonly know and hear in popular Western music. The band designed custom micro-tuned instruments most clearly heard in the intros to “Rattlesnake” and “Sleep Drifter.” To most, the pieces probably sound out of tune and ugly. It’s not something we are used to and often it is one element that sticks out as "wrong".
But the intentional nature of this sound becomes clear every now and again on the album. “Melting” contains an instrumental section involving a synthesizer and a microtonal guitar playing the same wonky solo line over a simple walking bass line. If only one of the two elements were out of tune, it would sound strange and distinct, but all the "wrong" notes exist in both instruments which means they aren’t "wrong" notes at all. That moment -- and many similar moments when singer Stu Mackenzie’s odd vocal lines are doubled by harmonica or guitar -- can be hard to fit into one’s common understanding of musical constructs, but the clear intent can begin to make sense of the noise.
All of the weirdo tones and notes of the album will certainly be a point of divergence in opinion on Flying Microtonal Banana. Some will find it interesting but not necessarily pleasant. Some will hate it. And maybe a fair few will truly be awed by the band’s melding of Western rock constructs and traditional Eastern musical ideas. There are no objective value judgments to be made about the concept of this experiment. But in the execution, while ambitious and interesting, the band could have gone further and broader. Once the real crux of the album, and of each song, is revealed and made clear, the evolution stagnates a bit. Four minutes into the almost-eight-minute “Rattlesnake”, the listener gets it, and there is the expectation that some further experimentation and diversion will take place. But it doesn’t. Instead, it starts to repeat itself. This happens with most of the album’s longer tracks. They reach a point where they stop expanding the concept.
The same is true of the album at large. There are a hundred ways to infuse modern western music with microtones, but King Gizzard stick to a small handful of tactics that, about halfway through, start to sound repetitive. Make no mistake, they are cool and weird sounds, but too much of the album simply retreads the same territory over again. For such an experimental concept, Flying Microtonal Banana still finds a box of safety and doesn’t try to get out of it too much.
The album does, it seems, have some intention of ushering listeners from a more comfortable place to a strange new place. It opens by sounding very similar to much of 2016’s Nonagon Infinity but starts to sound very different over the course of its 41 minutes. There are plateaus here and there, but the album finally gets around to what seems to be its thematic core: the title track, “Flying Microtonal Banana”. It is a droning track devoid of vocals and driven by a screeching zurna, a Turkish wind instrument very similar to traditional snake charmer’s flutes. It’s as though this first of five albums is setting the stage and guiding fans slowly and gradually from what they know to something new. And that is where they leave us -- in a musical landscape where the strangeness is normalcy and experimentation is commonplace. This is the invitation to allow King Gizzard to pull you in deeper, get you hooked, and show you something you haven't seen before.