King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard Transform the Fillmore to Defy the Apocalypse

There’s a tight prog-metal vibe here that recalls Iron Maiden in their heyday, but King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard soon show they’re more than just a metal band.

Tropical Fuck Storm
City: San Francisco, CA
Venue: The Fillmore
Date: 2017-10-12

Australian rockers blitz San Francisco with high-concept prog rock and psychedelia

It’s got to be the most enigmatic bill of the year at the fabled Fillmore Auditorium with Australian psyche-rockers King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard rolling in on this autumn Thursday, supported by no less than alleged Australian supergroup Tropical Fuck Storm. The headliners have been building some serious buzz over the past few years, releasing proggy concept albums at a rate that could make Ryan Adams feel like a slacker. Hence this evening’s show is completely sold out. Far less is known about the openers, but just their name alone generates a curiosity factor that practically demands viewing.

The opening act is billed as a “supergroup” consisting of members of the Drones, High Tension, and Harmony, although these groups remain mostly unknown to most American listeners. But then there’s that name. At a time when the shit seems to be hitting the fan on multiple levels across America -- with three hurricanes, the mass shooting in Las Vegas, and the apocalyptic fires right here in the Bay Area in nearby Sonoma County -- a band like Tropical Fuck Storm seems like it could be just what the doctor ordered. But this is sadly not the case. The band makes a loud cacophonous racket, but there’s little in the way of tangible melody or harmonic content to keep listeners interested, and the group sadly turns out to be little more than a curiosity.

King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard will surely be another story. Their new album Murder of the Universe seems like it was destined to provide a soundtrack to Donald the Trump’s assault on the Republic. The group has released three albums here in 2017 and allegedly have two more in the works! How do they do it? The seven-piece outfit features three guitarists, two drummers, bass, harmonica and some kind of magic that enables them to crank out all this material in a mind-boggling display of prolific virtuosity. 2017 has also featured Flying Microtonal Banana and Sketches of Brunswick East. The latter is “a jazz and Tropicalia infused collaboration” with another band called the Mild High Club and provides a real change of pace from Gizzard’s more typically hard rocking sound. It might just make the perfect soundtrack to come down with after a King Gizzard show because it doesn’t take long after the band hits the stage to realize that heavy metal is their forte.

There’s a tight prog-metal vibe here that recalls Iron Maiden in their heyday, but King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard soon show they’re more than just a metal band. Much of the show does rock with a headbanging fury, but they mix it up with some bluesy grooves and mind-expanding psychedelia that recalls acts like the Black Angels and 13th Floor Elevators. The band also scores major points with veteran concertgoers by having their sound dialed in so well that earplugs are not necessarily required, as opposed to the Black Angels who played their entire 2013 Fillmore show at a blistering volume that may have caused permanent ear damage for some listeners.

The show is primarily dominated by the year’s first two albums, with Murder of the Universe providing an all too timely soundtrack for the chaos of this foul year where the entire world seems to be going mad. “We’re living in dystopian times that are pretty scary, and it’s hard not to reflect that in our music,” frontman Stu Mackenzie said in a press release for the album. “It’s almost unavoidable. Some scientists predict that the downfall of humanity is just as likely to come at the hands of Artificial Intelligence, as it is war or viruses or climate change. But these are fascinating times too… While the tone is definitely apocalyptic, it is not necessarily purely a mirror of the current state of humanity. It’s about new non-linear narratives.”

Tapping into non-linear narratives sounds like a great idea at a time when the global narrative seems to be heading in a decidedly bleak direction. Here the band’s cinematic track “Welcome to an Altered Future” gives way to the dark rock of “Digital Black” and the pleading of a lonely android in “Han-Tyumi, the Confused Cyborg” who just wants a genuine existence. Is this meant to tie in thematically with the recent Bladerunner 2049 release? Hard to say, but it sure feels like it. The kinetic rock of “Lord of Lightning” keeps the energy pumping along with the band’s dramatic light show, featuring a screen behind the stage that spins into a variety of psychedelic vortex visuals to make attendees feel like they are truly being pulled into a genuine alternate reality.

The band flips back into Microtonal Banana for “Rattlesnake” to keep things rocking with an infectious vibe that has some fans looking for mosh pit and crowd surf action. “Nuclear Fusion” finds the group shifting gears into a retro-rock number with an Eastern type melody, some psychedelic organ and a groovy beat that’s danceable. “Doom City” has some of this more groovy vibe as well, as the band’s sound seems to dip back into a melange of ‘70s rock instead of the ‘80s metal fury that dominated the opening of the show. The set then moves into a furious sequence from Murder of the Universe featuring the “Altered Beast” and “Altered Me” tracks that conjure visions of David Naughton wreaking havoc in American Werewolf in London.

As the show steams toward a finish, the deep cut “Hot Water” provides a funkier groove that Austin Powers might dig. One groovy number finds the band making strategic use of the Fillmore’s disco ball to make a double vortex along with the action that’s happening on screen for a moment that truly dazzles the senses. “Lonely Steel Sheet Flyer” provides a similarly groovy psychedelic catharsis, mixing some ambient vibes and a flute solo into the sonic stew as the band stretches out beyond expectation for a big conclusion that defies expectation.

The show has centered mainly around metal and hard rock, yet King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard have many sonic tricks up their sleeve and are a band that aspires to more than being pigeonholed into the metal genre. They certainly have the ambition, as their recorded catalog attests. One can’t help but feel that their breakthrough masterpiece is still to come however and when it does, the rock world may never be the same…

In the wake of Malcolm Young's passing, Jesse Fink, author of The Youngs: The Brothers Who Built AC/DC, offers up his top 10 AC/DC songs, each seasoned with a dash of backstory.

Editor's Note: Originally published 30 July 2014.

10. “Bedlam in Belgium”
(Flick of the Switch, 1983)

This is a massively underrated barnstormer from the boys off the much-maligned (unfairly, I think) Flick of the Switch. The album was missing Mutt Lange, but the Youngs did have his very capable engineer, Tony Platt, as co-producer in the studio at Compass Point in the Bahamas. Tony’s a real pro. I think he did a perfectly fine job on this album, which also features the slamming “Nervous Shakedown”.

But what I find most interesting about “Bedlam in Belgium” is that it’s based on a fracas that broke out on stage in Kontich, Belgium, in 1977, involving Bon Scott, the rest of the band, and the local authorities. AC/DC had violated a noise curfew and things got hairy.

Yet Brian Johnson, more than half a decade later, wrote the lyrics with such insight; almost as if he was the one getting walloped by the Belgian police: He gave me a crack in the back with his gun / Hurt me so bad I could feel the blood run. Cracking lyrics, Bon-esque. Unfortunately for Brian, he was removed from lyric-writing duties from The Razors Edge (1990) onwards. All songs up to and including 2008’s Black Ice are Young/Young compositions.

Who’ll be writing the songs on the new album AC/DC has been working on in Vancouver? AC/DC fans can’t wait to hear them. Nor can I.

9. “Spellbound”
(For Those About to Rock We Salute You, 1981)

"Spellbound" really stands as a lasting monument to the genius of Mutt Lange, a man whose finely tuned ear and attention to detail filed the rough edges of Vanda & Young–era AC/DC and turned this commercially underperforming band for Atlantic Records into one of the biggest in the world. On “Spellbound” AC/DC sounds truly majestic. Lange just amplifies their natural power an extra notch. It’s crisp sounding, laden with dynamics and just awesome when Angus launches into his solo.

“Spellbound” is the closer on For Those About to Rock We Salute You, the last album Lange did with AC/DC, so chronologically it’s a significant song; it marks the end of an important era. For Those About to Rock was an unhappy experience for a lot of people. There was a lot of blood being spilled behind the scenes. It went to number one in the US but commercially was a massive disappointment after the performance of Back in Black. Much of the blame lies at the feet of Atlantic Records, then under Doug Morris, who made the decision to exhume an album they’d shelved in 1976, Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap, and release it in-between Back in Black and For Those About to Rock.

In the book Phil Carson, who signed AC/DC to Atlantic, calls it “one of the most crass decisions ever made by a record-company executive” and believes it undermined sales of For Those About to Rock.

8. “Down Payment Blues”
(Powerage, 1978)

This is one of the best songs off Powerage -- perhaps the high point of Bon Scott as a lyricist -- but also significant for its connection to “Back in Black”. There are key lines in it: Sitting in my Cadillac / Listening to my radio / Suzy baby get on in / Tell me where she wanna go / I'm living in a nightmare / She's looking like a wet dream / I got myself a Cadillac / But I can't afford the gasoline.

Bon loved writing about Cadillacs. He mentions them in “Rocker” off the Australian version of TNT and the international release of Dirty Deeds Done Dirt Cheap: Got slicked black hair / Skin tight jeans / Cadillac car and a teenage dream.

Then you get to “Back in Black”. Bon’s dead but the lyrics have this spooky connection to “Down Payment Blues”: Back in the back / Of a Cadillac / Number one with a bullet, I’m a power pack.

Why was Brian singing about riding around in Cadillacs? He’d just joined AC/DC, wasn’t earning a lot and was on his best behavior. Bon had a reason to be singing about money. He was writing all the songs and just had a breakthrough album with Highway to Hell. Which begs the question: Could Bon also have written or part written the lyrics to “Back in Black”?

Bon’s late mother Isa said in 2006: “The last time we saw him was Christmas ’79, two months before he died. [Bon] told me he was working on the Back in Black album and that that was going to be it; that he was going to be a millionaire.”

7. “You Shook Me All Night Long”
(Back in Black, 1980)

Everyone knows and loves this song; it’s played everywhere. Shania Twain and Celine Dion have covered it. It’s one of AC/DC’s standbys. But who wrote it?

Former Mötley Crüe manager Doug Thaler is convinced Bon Scott, who’d passed away before the album was recorded, being replaced by Brian Johnson, wrote the lyrics. In fact he told me, “You can bet your life that Bon Scott wrote the lyrics to ‘You Shook Me All Night Long’.” That’s a pretty strong statement from a guy who used to be AC/DC’s American booking agent and knew the band intimately. I look into this claim in some depth in the book and draw my own conclusions.

I’m convinced Bon wrote it. In my opinion only Bon would have written a line like “She told me to come but I was already there.” Brian never matched the verve or wit of Bon in his lyrics and it’s why I think so much of AC/DC’s mid-'80s output suffers even when the guitar work of the Youngs was as good as it ever was.

But what’s also really interesting about this song in light of the recent hullabaloo over Taurus and Led Zeppelin is how much the opening guitar riff sounds similar to Head East’s “Never Been Any Reason”. I didn’t know a hell of a lot about Head East before I started working on this book, but came across “Never Been Any Reason” in the process of doing my research and was blown away when I heard it for the first time. AC/DC opened for Head East in Milwaukee in 1977. So the two bands crossed paths.

6. “Rock ’N’ Roll Damnation”
(Powerage, 1978)

It’s hard to get my head around the fact Mick Wall, the British rock writer and author of AC/DC: Hell Ain’t a Bad Place to Be, called this “a two-bit piece of head-bopping guff.” Not sure what track he was listening to when he wrote that -- maybe he was having a bad day -- but for me it’s one of the last of AC/DC’s classic boogie tracks and probably the best.

Mark Evans loves it almost as much as he loves “Highway to Hell". It has everything you want in an AC/DC song plus shakers, tambourines and handclaps, a real Motown touch that George Young and Harry Vanda brought to bear on the recording. They did something similar with the John Paul Young hit “Love Is in the Air”. Percussion was an underlying feature of many early AC/DC songs. This one really grooves. I never get tired of hearing it.

“Rock ’n’ Roll Damnation” was AC/DC’s first hit in the UK charts and a lot of the credit has to go to Michael Klenfner, best known as the fat guy with the moustache who stops Jake and Elwood backstage in the final reel of The Blues Brothers and offers them a recording contract. He was senior vice-president at Atlantic at the time, and insisted the band go back and record a radio-worthy single after they delivered the first cut of Powerage to New York.

Michael was a real champion of AC/DC behind the scenes at Atlantic, and never got the recognition he was due while he was still alive (he passed away in 2009). He ended up having a falling out with Atlantic president Jerry Greenberg over the choice of producer for Highway to Hell and got fired. But it was Klenfner who arguably did more for the band than anyone else while they were at Atlantic. His story deserves to be known by the fans.

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