Over the course of 10 years and some 20-odd albums, Melbourne’s King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard have sketched out a musical universe of Tolkienian complexity. Consider some of the many waypoints that would populate a map of the six-piece psych band’s world: “Barefoot Desert”, “Billabong Valley” and “The Castle in the Air” sit alongside “Shanghai”, “Sketches of Brunswick East”, and, plainly, “Hell”. The band use these place songs to mount complex climate change analogies and as metaphors for stress and unease, as well as just for the fun of, say, writing about a place called “Polygondwanaland”.
This kind of surrealist cartography is itself a neat metaphor for King Gizzard’s career path over the past decade. Since the release of 2015’s Quarters!, the band has taken an increasingly concept-driven approach to making records, with each album hewing closely to a theme or constraint. Flying Microtonal Banana in 2017, K.G. (2020), and L.W. (2021) were all made using microtonal tuning methods, for example, while 2019’s Infest the Rats’ Nest drew inspiration from ’80s metal icons. Butterfly 3000 (2021) foregrounded synthesiser for the first time in the band’s oeuvre, and 2017’s Murder of the Universe was a hero’s journey-style narrative album about a battle between the forces of good and evil.
Aside from a handful of consistent through-lines – strains of Indian and West African influence, a lyrical fixation on corruption of power and climate change – these albums are all dramatically different, postcards from vastly disparate pockets of the Gizzverse. It’s a unique artistic approach that befits a business methodology that’s proved wildly influential over the past decade: without King Gizzard, I doubt that we’d have seen a vinyl revival occurring on the scale that it has, and I certainly doubt that it would be so geared towards gimmicky coloured variants and limited-edition runs.
Early in Omnium Gatherum, their 20th studio album, King Gizzard stumble upon yet another wonder of their world: “Magenta Mountain”, an imposing mirage of a mountain inspired by something King Gizzard frontman and producer Stu Mackenzie once dreamed about. Over a rich, synth-led stomp, Mackenzie sings about the impossibility of his vision: “The mirage is creeping outwards from your dream / Can’t you see you’ve gone insane?”
The Magenta Mountain itself is a cute concept and a neat lyrical conceit, another piece of lore from a band hivemind that’s more adept at world building than some fantasy writers. But it’s the journey that’s most exciting. “Magenta Mountain” signposts the biggest and most intriguing stylistic shift that’s occurred on a King Gizzard record in recent memory: a slight step towards lithe R&B grooves and a return to pop form that’s rarely been seen in the band’s discography since 2015’s hugely underrated acoustic album Paper Mâché Dream Balloon.
Although Omnium Gatherum makes concessions to many of the styles the band has tried out over the past 10 years – camp, outrageous thrash metal on “Gaia” and “Predator X”, exhilarating endurance work on 18-minute opener “The Dripping Tap”, hallucinatory jazz on “Red Smoke” – its most interesting vignettes find Mackenzie and co – most notably Cook Craig and Joey Walker, co-writers on many of the best songs here – leaning harder than ever into experiments in melodic pop.
Mackenzie prefaced Omnium Gatherum’s release by stating that it’s the start of King Gizzard’s “jammy period”, and while that’s occasionally true in a traditional sense – “The Dripping Tap” is one of the most ambitious and ridiculous jam-band exercises the group have ever undertaken – it’s also kind of a feint. These songs are often jams in the way that some dance tracks could be described as jams: songs you can sway and dance to, rather than mosh to. It seems like a tacit acknowledgement of the fact that, although King Gizzard have often chosen to take the densest possible conceptual route with their music, they’re also preternaturally talented pop songwriters, prone to imbuing their songs with brutally catchy melodies. On Omnium Gatherum those melodies are given room to breathe. The result is the first King Gizzard album in a long time that possesses something close to mass appeal.
Not that mass appeal should be – or necessarily is – a goal. But it feels like a rare treat to hear this band make music that’s so simply enjoyable. They lock into a lush, sunny-day boom-bap beat on the dazed “Kepler-22b”, a song about finding salvation on another habitable planet that plays like a blissed-out inversion of Infest the Rats’ Nest’s apocalyptic “Planet B”.
“Evilest Man” begins with the kind of chaotic psych freakout that the band perfected on Nonagon Infinity, before slipping into bouncy, ELO-style pop. The lyrics, about the Murdoch press empire – Rupert is the titular man – are vintage Mackenzie, but it’s a welcome change of pace to hear a King Gizzard song so sprightly in its doomsaying: “I have no choice but to ignore the voices in the newspaper,” he sings. “I feel so sad from what I see / Misinformation around me.”
It’s a paranoid, frankly depressing song that still manages to find humour in its own paranoia:
We’re in his conservative lair
I wonder if he knows this song...
Probably read it before it was done
He probably hacked my phone
That Omnium Gatherum isn’t defined by an overarching concept means that there’s a lot of room for intriguing, often great diversions. “Sadie Sorceress” and “The Grim Reaper” are two surprisingly good rap songs, Gizz-ified tributes to Beastie Boys’ Paul’s Boutique that showcase Ambrose Kenny-Smith’s skills as an MC, and “Candles” sees Mackenzie put his own spin on the yé-yé style of pop. Aside from “Evilest Man”, Omnium Gatherum largely represents a step away from the politically charged lyricism of recent King Gizzard releases, but thematically it’s a change that makes sense – this feels like letting off steam after a series of increasingly dark albums that showcased a rapidly diminishing faith in modern society.
There are flashes of the more personal songwriting that typified last year’s Butterfly 3000. “Presumptuous”, with its references to “kindred spirits at a crossroads” and someone “featherless, shaking in defence”, seems to allude to the band’s rumoured-to-be-acrimonious split from their former manager and label Flightless Records.
But for the most part, this is an album marked by grace and ease, an unburdened sense of fun and experimentalism that bodes well for the band’s next decade. Twenty albums in, Omnium Gatherum suggests that there’s still a lot of map left for King Gizzard to chart out.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 23, 2022 as "Lizard brain".
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