Here's my latest with Rocknuts.net, who published my review of King Gizzard and the Wizard Lizard's Murder of the Universe. Go look at it. The full text is archived below.
Murder of the Universe
When King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard announced their intent to release four to five studio albums in 2017, I was filled with a dread I’ve felt all too often. I’ve always distrusted albums whose release dates seemed a little too close together. It’s that creeping menace I developed trawling Wikipedia articles of bands discographies when I was younger. As the years grew closer, the quality invariably declined. Buckethead made me physically sick.
I’d stick it out for the ones I really loved, but at some point I had to recognize that my interest had turned from genuine love to guilty pleasure (looking at you, Dance Gavin Dance).
This year, I’m happy to say King Gizzard proved me wrong. Flying Microtonal Banana used mictotonal tuning, something that almost never appears in Western music. It’s almost impossible to notate on a conventional staff, though composers have invented ways to do so. Charles Ives and Don Ellis – in his absolute banger "Turkish Bath" – used microtones in this past century. Beyond that, it’s hard to find many instances, and especially in rock. Flying Microtonal Banana was an interesting and entertaining experiment, one more flavor on the ever expanding Gizzard palette.
Murder of the Universe abandons this sort of exotic experimentation to delve more into conceptual territory. Murder of the Universe is divided into three sections with three discrete but (possibly) related arcs. The first is entitled “The Tale of the Altered Beast,” the second “The Lord of Lightning vs Balrog,” and the third “Han-Tyumi & The Murder of the Universe.”
Again, this sets off alarm bells for me, if just a bit. Concept albums have their sordid history in prog campiness, and with a name like Murder of the Universe, segmented but somehow holistic narratives, Balrogs, and Han-Tyumi, we’re flying dangerously close to “camp without irony” territory.
Again: wrong! Well, sort of, anyway. Murder of the Universe has its share of camp, but also its moments of lucidity. Most of the album leans into cosmic horror, of all things.
The Tale of the Altered Beast
Murder of the Universe starts with a narration track, starring Leah Senior, a fellow Australian musician. Her voice touches on an ancient horror nerve, mostly vampiress with a touch of something you can’t quite recall.
Instrumental chaos shrouds Senior as she describes, in second person, how you find yourself caked in mud and blood – generally in poor shape to survive the horrifying beast lurking nearby.
Suddenly, Gizzard cuts loose with Altered Beast I, the first real track on the album. It’s energetic chase music with Gizzard’s characteristic penchant for rhythmic games. Both in the distorted vocals and driving instrumentals, listeners get a constant sense of movement.
Eventually, Senior’s voice breaks back through the chaos. The way she delivers her spoken word segments so contests the choppy, Gizzard-style repetition of these tracks that I quickly came to love Senior’s parts. Her legato, prototypical horror sultriness was a welcome addition to the usual Gizzard lineup.
The rest of “The Tale of the Altered Beast” has a structural symmetry to it. We hear how, progressively, the Beast influences the Man, which the track listing reflects. Gizzard alternates between iterations of “Altered Beast [X]” – which are longer, psych jams – and “Alter Me [X]” – shorter pieces generally dominated by Senior’s vocals.
“The Tale of the Altered Beast” makes a good start to the album. I did find, however, that by “Altered Beast IV” I was tiring a bit of the back and forth. “Altered Beast IV” is also the longest track on this third of the album, which exacerbated the pacing.
I understand Gizzard’s desire to play with identity and ego. But these are grandiose themes, and addressing them, I think, takes a vehicle more varied than Gizzard’s songwriting can typically deliver. Seniors spoken voice was a beautiful step in this direction. Even “Life / Death,” the last mini-song of this segment, significantly altered the tone, bringing in some major tones.
I would usually shy away from leveraging “repetitive” as a criticism of Gizzard. Their driving psych jams are not a bore, but a draw. As a horror-concept, I enjoyed “The Tale” greatly. Still, here the purported themes felt like a half-effort.
Lightning / vs / Balrog
“The Lord of Lightning vs Balrog” starts with a cool, 16 second throwback to “People Vultures” from last year’s Nonagon Infinity. It’s title, “Some Context,” suggests that “People Vultures” takes place in the same setting, a destroyed town.
Senior reprises her role as storyteller, and I reprise my feelings toward her delivery – sublime.
Already, “The Lord of Lightning” varies the album greatly. This tune starts with a slower section describing the titular Lord of Lightning, punctuated and then quickly dominated by heaving synths.
Just as soon, the song crescendos into more fiery rock, this time with an extended callback to “Robot Stop” (read: the song on Nonagon Infinity where they first say “Nonagon Infinity” a lot).
After a chromatic rampage on some more “Nonagons” the band crashes down into a raunchy slow section. This gives space for Senior to do more of her narrative work, with the band reprising their calls from the beginning of the song, “Lord of Lightning/shifts his gaze.” Then, just as suddenly, “Lord of Lightning” ramps back up – you guessed it, into more “Nonagons.”
Put simply: “The Lord of Lightning” has more character than the first third of the album.
The rest of “The Lord of Lightning vs Balrog” has some terrific moments. “The Floating Fire” has a ritualistic terror about it, featuring throat singing and pounding war drums. Then, the whole mess explodes. “The Acrid Corpse” is a respite with deep synth and soprano voices, before we launch into “Han-Tyumi & The Murder of the Universe.”
Murdering the Universe
Han-Tyumi (possibly a mixup of the syllables of “humanity”) regales us about its meaningless cyborg life. It becomes obsessed with the two most crucial aspects of human existence: dying and vomiting.
Tyumi’s obsession veers heavily towards the vomit aspect of that paradigm. Listen, vomit kind of grosses me out, but “Han-Tyumi & The Murder of the Universe” forces you to feel this awful retching in your veins.
The cyborg’s voice itself comes across as pained and sickly – the result of its text-to-speech articulation. This is in stark contrast to Senior’s voice, confident and legato. It fits, though the atmosphere of the spoken segments in this last third suffers significantly.
The text-to-speech vocaloid segments don’t have nearly the complexity or vitality that Senior’s parts do, and that left a large part of “Han-Tyumi” lacking, especially because the spoken aspects dominate this third more than the others.
That said, the instrumentals are still great. When the psych-jams take precedence, they drive and explode, syncopate and undulate. When they’re ornaments to Han-Tyumi’s voice, they build with unstoppable momentum. These are the sort of moments that I listen to Gizzard for.
Overall, Murder of the Universe is a good album. As a follow up to both Nonagon Infinity and Flying Microtonal Banana, it’s a bit of a disappointment, though. It falls onto its own hubris at times, and would have benefited from a good bit more self-awareness.
Still, give it a listen – Gizzard love to play with their gimmicks and Murder of the Universe gives fans yet another flavor to their diverse palette.