by Ryan Fine
Author’s note: Since I’m coming at this from a pop/rock background and I’m no expert on microtonal music, I wasn’t surprised to learn that I missed a couple of important details. First and foremost, this album was hugely inspired by the scales of several Anatolian/Turkish rock artists from the ‘70s with a similar sound, such as Erkin Koray and Moğollar. Second, the words “microtonal” and “xenharmonic” are not completely interchangeable. “Microtonal” does mean using notes outside of Western scales, but “xenharmonic” means sounding strange or wrong to our ears because of the extra notes. Since its use of microtonality is pretty mild, many people don’t consider Flying Microtonal Banana to be very xenharmonic at all! Big thanks to Steven Weigel (fearless leader of the BSU Xenharmonic Music Alliance) and Tolgahan Cogulu (microtonal guitar expert whose version of Âşık Veysel’s “Kara Toprak” was the basis for “Sleep Drifter”) for all the new information!
As you may be able to tell from their name, the Melbourne psychedelic rock band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard are maybe the most deliberately bizarre musical group around right now. Even though they don’t go out of their way to make their music hard to digest, they experiment in very calculated ways to make sure they show a different side of themselves with each new release.
With Flying Microtonal Banana, their ninth studio album in only five years (and the first of at least four that they’ll be releasing in 2017), the band is dipping its toes into microtonal tuning, also known as xenharmonics. Rarely ever used in rock or pop music, microtonality simply refers to using pitches that cannot be found on a piano. The way these tones are used on Banana is obvious enough that they might jump out at the listener, but subtle enough that there’s no need to worry about it being too weird to stay interesting.
Melodically complex, structurally simple
Flying Microtonal Banana opens with the chugging desert jam “Rattlesnake”. Right from the starting gate, this song showcases some of the record’s biggest strengths, and reveals some of its biggest weaknesses. Like most of the songs that follow it, “Rattlesnake” is built on a strong classic rock groove as its foundation. This gives it an unrelenting energy for the whole track, which, while respectable, actually ends up being a part of the problem. It is the longest song on the album at nearly eight minutes, and I find myself wishing it would throw more curveballs to fill up the time.
That said, this is easily one of the catchiest songs on a record full of earworms. The other two singles, “Sleep Drifter” and “Nuclear Fusion”, as well as the bossa nova-influenced “Melting”, are also great songs that linger long after the album is over. The unconventional tuning only helps to ensure that their beautifully sculpted melodies will not be forgotten.
The only major structural flaw of the album is its relative lack of dynamic contrast. Nearly the entire 41 minutes is allotted for songs that are just as driving as the first one. The only slightly calmer moments are “Billabong Valley” and the closing instrumental title track, neither of which can really be considered highlights. King Gizzard has never been known for their ballads, but since they’re exploring new territory anyway and they’re not getting any louder, they might as well start getting quieter.
The lyrics: reading between the notes
From the drowning narrative of “Open Water” to the Beijing smog described in “Doom City”, the common theme of this album’s lyrics is urgency. The earth is melting. Fire is sucking all the oxygen out of the air. There is a rattlesnake following me. It seems like in many of these songs, there’s always something that needs to be done before it’s too late. And how do they make sure we know that it needs to happen right away? They repeat it over and over again.
Now, repetition is not necessarily a bad thing, and there are definitely spots where it works on the album (“Open Water”). Other times, like in “Rattlesnake”, it might be preferable if the band had something new to say. The repetition is really just a result of the simplicity, though, and simplicity is never really a flaw in itself unless you’re the drummer for The White Stripes.
The bottom line is, the lyrics in Flying Microtonal Banana are no work of poetry, but they’re not necessarily meant to be. The music is king, and the lyrics simply do what they need to do to bring the attention back to the music. They’re not meaningless, but they are clearly not supposed to be the focus.
Xenharmonics: Great experiment or just a gimmick?
If the word ‘microtonal’ was not in this album’s title, it might not always be obvious that there is something unusual about the tuning of these instruments. There are certainly a couple of tracks, like “Open Water” and “Billabong Valley”, where the rogue pitches are very out in the open. For many of the other songs, the band tries to make it all sound as natural as possible. I’m not sure there’s a note in “Anoxia” that couldn’t be played on a piano.
Could King Gizzard have done more to show how unique microtonal music can be? Absolutely, but it’s hard to say whether that would have improved the album or not. With a couple of small exceptions, the band uses xenharmonics as an aid, not a crutch. Coming from a band that has made very conceptual albums in the past, it may have been nice to see them have some sort of unifying vision other than microtonality, but it’s also good to see them celebrate an overlooked area of music with an infinite amount of potential.
If you enjoyed this, look out for the band’s next album Murder of the Universe to drop within the next couple months.
Recommended if you like:
Queens of the Stone Age
All Images From: Spill Magazine
King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard – Flying Microtonal Banana
Even though Flying Microtonal Banana uses notes you didn’t even know existed, it’s still a fairly standard psychedelic rock album at the heart of it all. For the most part, King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard have done a great job on this record of mixing innovation with conventional wisdom. A couple of less-than-spectacular tracks toward the middle stop it from being a full-on masterpiece, but this is a great first foray for the band into an alternate universe of music, and there’s every reason to believe that if they return there, they can make something even more unique.