It’s a glorious experience, individuals subsumed into one convulsing mass of arms and legs and hair, a single churning organism on the floor, bound by perspiration and spilled drinks.
The instant I heard King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard were releasing new material, even before I gave the album a listen, I crossed fingers and toes that this meant U.S. tour dates. I had the good fortune of seeing them at Austin Psych Fest in 2014 (the final year before its name change to Levitation), and they’ve returned to the U.S. since, but primarily on the festival scene: There was Bonnaroo 2015, Levitation 2016 (which, sadly, was canceled due to weather, though it appears the band made the most of it and played smaller venues for some really lucky festivalgoers). So I had accepted that would only see them via the festival loop. The good news: The Australian septet was bringing its psychedelic jazz creations to the U.S., with a dozen or so stops along the way! The sad news: None of these stops were scheduled in St. Louis, where I live. But no matter: A few hours’ drive is a small price to pay for the rare opportunity to witness their unparalleled genius.
Released in November 2015, Paper Mâché Dream Balloon is the band’s experiment in all-acoustic, standalone “songs.” Wind instruments float the light and airy sound, while falsetto and piano move the melody along. But while groovy (in a more Simon & Garfunkel–y than funk sense) and mellow rhythms open the album with some sunny pep in their step, King Gizzard has a knack for spoonful-of-sugaring their dark and disturbing lyrics. So while you may feel you’re leisurely bopping along to some easy-listening woodwinds and cheery flute, in fact, you are musing along with Stu Mackenzie about real-world problems like people’s tendencies toward hypocrisy, the struggle to connect emotionally, and existentialist views of the afterlife. The single “Trapdoor” marks a change in tone on the album, with the tension in clarinet and keys now aligning with the internal struggle of the lyrics: “Everybody goes to great lengths for sure/ to hide themselves away/ and keep the beast at bay.” The video is a must-see, with homemade production quality and aesthetic reminiscent of Monty Python’s “Camelot Song.” (The DIY approach allows for a wealth of videos, all equally absurd and entertaining.)
The album continues in this depressive lyrical tone, while maintaining a deceptively chipper sound. I counted the weeks until I could see the live production of “Cold Cadaver” or “Bitter Boogie” on stage, and before my eyes. I watched some older live performances but nothing too recent, not wanting to spoil the surprise of what awaited me at the sold-out show. Had I watched some of those recent recordings, I might not have been so gobsmacked to see, just a few days before the show, a new single on Spotify. What’s this? Another new album? According to the record sleeve, Nonagon Infinity, the even later release from King Gizzard is dedicated to “the road crew who put up with us in our big black bus while we were writing/playing/recording this album.” And, judging by the pile of instruments sprawled across and the stage—in vertical stacks around amps and a pile of guitars in the corner, just behind/below the synthesizer—as well as the pile of people onstage—drummers facing off from opposite ends of the tiny space, more suitably sized for three rather than seven—one can only imagine the legwork required to ferry this force of nature cross-country and across continents.
In their five years as an album-generating entity, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard has released no fewer than eight albums and a couple of EPs. While each has a distinct flavor, some are more similar than others. The two most recent albums, however, are like night and day: in tone, composition—pretty much every aspect save the progressive storytelling. Where Paper Mâché Dream Balloon is cut into neatly delineated tracks, Nonagon Infinity (streaming infinitely on their website) feels more like three long tracks, with the final looping back into the first like an unstoppable Snowpiercer train of progressive rock. And while the first release from the new album, “People-Vultures,” sounds like the polar opposite of Paper Mâché Dream Balloon, it actually harkens back to (relatively) olden times and the band’s first album, 12-Bar Bruise, a fuzzy, screechy delight of garage-surf reverb and yowl. The album conjures alchemical dark ages, reeling just short of enlightenment, lingering in the delirious search for the keys to the universe. It brings classic elements of Sabbath’s philosophical and bass-heavy dread, dizzying and frenetic keys and guitar of Yes, together with contemporary touches like the relentlessly driving drums of Thee Oh Sees, punctuated with vocal outbursts fit for a Batman speech balloon.
Mackenzie, the pied piper of these mad occultists, opened the set by saying, “We’re going to try something we’ve never done before.” Perhaps this was in reference to opening the show with guns blazing, diving headlong into a seamless tirade of the first four tracks off the new album, the singer setting aside his bedazzled 12-string guitar to assemble the flute that flickers throughout “Robot Stop.” Their set list tends not to linger too long on the past, with the emphasis definitely on the fresh and new, with a few solid standbys. But the new material was comfortable enough that the band glided through the opening set like a perfectly orchestrated, but free-flowing, well-oiled machine.
Live, King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard is a kinetic experience. The solid 20 minutes of nonstop energy effectively sorted out the wheat from the chaff, the ecstatic fans from the static wallflowers, those in front to hang on the band’s every note from those in front to take selfies with the band in the background, who gradually sifted further back from the stage, leaving a core of soggy, sweaty fans in the pit. In the thickest dredges of the soup, one has to make a concerted effort at remaining upright without getting pulled under by the current. Like so many blades of grass blowing in the wind, if you don’t sway in groove with the rest of the floor, you’ll find your feet swept out from under you. Or an elbow in the eye. Or a shoulder to your teeth. So the action onstage is all glimpsed between heads shaking and hands flailing. It’s a glorious experience, individuals subsumed into one convulsing mass of arms and legs and hair, a single churning organism on the floor, bound by perspiration and spilled drinks.
“Trapdoor” slowed the train a bit, perhaps because the undergirding of Ian Anderson–like flute leads demanded more concentration, or constricted Mackenzie to assume an immobile, at-attention pose behind the microphone. Though I had wanted so badly to see a Paper Mâché Dream Balloon tour, especially this song, it made for an awkward and sterile interjection into the set list. I wonder if the contrast between the two albums is so great that any selection would have fared the same.
Following this brief departure, King Gizzard revived another epic song-in-several-movements from 2014’s I’m In Your Mind Fuzz. By the time “Cellophane” ended, Mackenzie stopped to breathe for a brief minute between spiels and marveled, “We’ve never been to Indianapolis before; didn’t really expect this turnout.” The crowd joined Ambrose Kenny Smith on backing vocals during “The River” from Quarters!, released earlier in 2015. Maybe it was just my imagination, but I thought I saw a smile bust through Mackenzie’s earnest intensity at the unexpected audience participation.
“Hot Wax” from Oddments was a treat, the only contribution from this album of homeless bits and pieces, despite someone (okay, me) persistently screaming “Vegemite” in the rare interims between songs. And this closer was the farthest reach back through their catalog. After a gracious, “Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you. Thank you,” the band filed off the stage, followed by the travesty of the evening: stage cleared, lights on, at 12:08 a.m. on a Saturday night.
I blame the brevity of the set for the absence of dazed meanderer “Head On” from 2013’s Float Along – Fill Your Lungs, a relative classic at only three years old. The travesty that was a bare hour-long set cannot be pinned on time spent with opening bands, both of them quality acts. Local talent Chives and band brought a healthy crowd to fill the house early, chugging with gusto through a collection of short and sweet garage-punk tunes. The Murlocs, fronted by King Gizzard’s furious harmonica/keys/vocals man Ambrose Kenny Smith (proudly donning a Toby Keith America t-shirt), could easily hold down their own booking with their dazed and bluesy reverberation and the echo of those coarse and scratchy vocals. So no grudges to bear there. Besides, maybe the glaring omission of “Head On” was more by choice than by time constraint. After all, that was five albums (and three years) ago, which may feel like eons in the grand scheme of their songbook. Maybe they’re done playing anything older for now? Regardless, no one was ready for the evening to end, with calls for an encore rising well above the house music.
We were a fortunate audience to have seen Nonagon Infinity at this ideal stage of development, before it, too, is dated and buried under the embarrassment of riches King Gizzard gives us. Here’s hoping they continue touring at an every-other-album pace, and also keep up their superhuman rate of production, so we can all look forward to whatever their restlessness and experiences bring in the next 12 months. | Courtney Dowdall