Ecstatic Rock: King Gizzard at Crystal Ballroom

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Illustration by Aaron Ughoc

As I sat in bed listening to the most recent King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard album, Sketches of Brunswick East—a collaboration with Mild High Club released this August, KG’s eleventh album overall and third album this year—and contemplating their upcoming show on Oct. 8 at McMenamins Crystal Ballroom, I suddenly recalled having read somewhere that KG would not be playing a ton of material from this album, but from the two before it, June’s soul-destroying Murder of the Universe and February’s ear-bending, intonation-exploring, catchy-as-fuck Flying Microtonal Banana. I guess when you put out three albums in one year (with, apparently, two more on the way in the next three months) you have to make some choices when you go on tour.

I decide to keep listening to Sketches anyways. It is a relatively tame affair compared the torrid one-two punch of the other two, a psych-folk Miles Davis-inspired tribute to the Melbourne suburb they call home. I feel most of the band’s casual fans (like me) found this one a little meh on first listen, a little too A Moon Shaped Pool, but it’s actually a pretty rad album. The vintagey vibes (in some cases literally vibraphone) and saxy jazz-folk stylings make me think of Nick Drake, Vashti Bunyan, Buffy Sainte-Marie, Comus, the first Genesis album, TV’s Matt Berry, and of course KG’s own earlier folkish albums Quarters! and especially Paper Mâché Dream Balloon. Eventually, though, the KG-ness kicks in, microtonal guitars and odd meters and all.

Like the other psych-garage bands in vogue right now—Tame Impala, Ty Segall, The Black Angels, Pond (not the Portland one, sorry), and of course Oh Sees—King Gizzard makes music for both dancing and tripping. It’s not enough to just turn on and tune in: the ass-shaking quality of all this neo-psychedelia (an element largely missing from the pre-retro psych rockers) earns these bands their own unique designation. I call it Ecstatic Rock.

It’s really insane how quickly KG has come to dominate my listening world. A year ago I was digging on their 2014 album I’m In Your Mind Fuzz, considering it their weirdest ever and wishing they had more like it (this was slightly before the progfest of Nonagon Infinity). Mind Fuzz had been recommended me by the bass player of the surf-stoner-post-punk band I play drums in, and it is—or rather was—one of their more overtly strange albums. Nonagon is excellent driving odd-meter psych prog, and remains one of their most popular, but it never quite goes down the rabbit hole to get all deeply strange in the way MF does. MF’s varispeed-tape-style time warp grooves over driving bass and paired drummers remind me of CAN and This Heat, and it’s no surprise that KG joined the “bands who have their own studio” club in 2015.

It was only maybe six months ago that I hopped into the same bassist’s car and was offered the choice of “the new Meatbodies or the new King Gizzard.” I told him I’d heard the new Meatbodies, let’s get into the KG. He put it on, and just before the music started up I noticed the title (it was Flying Microtonal Banana) on his stereo’s display. I think Harry Partch, Omar Souleyman, Secret Chiefs 3. I think, holy gods, they didn’t.

The music starts. They did.

I later learn that, after playing around with a microtonal guitar (the original flying banana), KG’s Stu Mackenzie got the rest of the band on board. Everyone’s on microtonal instruments now. They haven’t done the Partch thing (just-intoned intervals, forty-three to the octave) or the Secret Chiefs thing (SC3 uses a “proprietary Pythagorean tuning”). No, they’ve done the punk thing and gone with the simplest, dirtiest microtonal approach possible: a 24-tone equal tempered octave which is identical to the ubiquitous equal temperament 12-note chromatic scale used in 99 percent of Western music for the last 200 years or so, but with the addition of all the notes halfway between the notes. These equal-tempered quarter tones keep KG in more or less familiar intonation territory while granting them access to a bunch of notes you don’t usually hear in rock-and-or-roll: softened major thirds and extra bright major sevenths; raised sixths and sevenths that aren’t quite minor; nasty superflattened seconds that are Extra Fuckin Flat.

Plus, because they’re KG, they’re using all kinds of extra effects and weird instruments like the zurna, a central Eurasian relative of the oboe. Even the harmonica and the sweet vintage synths are microtonal. It all sounds vaguely Near Eastern, vaguely Medieval, vaguely menacing, and massively, unabashedly poppy as all get out. I ended up having these songs stuck in my head for the next six months. I’m humming one to myself right now.

As for Murder of the Universe—well, you know what? I’m not even gonna tell you about Murder of the Universe. Why ruin the surprise?

King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard performs with openers Tropical Fuck Storm at McMenamins Crystal Ball on Oct. 8. Visit www.crystalballroompdx.com/events/171424-King-Gizzard-the-Lizard-Wizard for more information.

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