Sunday, November 12, 2017

album review: 'sketches of brunswick east' by king gizzard & the lizard wizard + mild high club

So before we get into this in earnest, we need to start with a certain Facebook meme I've seen spreading around - no, before you click away, there's a point to this, I swear. Basically it was one of those twin pictures with bottom text that shows what you think you're doing versus what you're actually doing, one with a guy sensitively explaining at length something... and the other a picture from It's Always Sunny In Philadelphia with Charlie losing his mind next to his conspiracy board from the episode 'Sweet Dee Has A Heart Attack in Season 4. The tagline was guys talking about music, and the band referenced in a speech bubble for such a sensitive explanation... was King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard.

Now one could argue it's a meme that is targeted at how music nerds will try to explain at length music nobody knows to the indifference of male or female company alike - which yes, of course I've been there - but to offer a counterpoint, I'm not sure there's an easy way to explain King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard to anyone without sounding insane. They're a seven piece Australian psychedelic rock act that has put out eleven full-length records since 2012 that have careened from garage punk to progressive rock and all manner of high concept wildness - the sort of band that almost demands the sort of nerd-heavy cult following and at some point will disappear directly up their own asses if they don't burn out. And since over the past few days I've marathoned through their discography, what do I think? Well, as I've said in the past, I'm a sucker for great psychedelic rock and tacking on elements of blues, country and desert rock will only hook me more, and while I might hold a pretty big soft spot for the spaghetti western-inspired concept album Eyes Like The Sky, the essentials here are the heavier grooves I'm In Your Mind Fuzz, the remarkably charming folk weirdness of Paper Mache Dream Balloon, and of course the pretty damn terrific and ridiculously catchy psych-metal powerhouse of Nonagon Infinity, which probably would have had a shot to make my year-end list last year if I had taken the time to actually review it. But King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard was aiming even higher for 2017, aiming to release five records this year - and look, I get nervous whenever an artist threatens to release two albums a year, and as much as I like this band, I was not remotely convinced they could churn out that much consistent quality that couldn't be crafted into one stellar record. And here's the weird thing: early this year in February they put out Flying Microtonal Banana and I actually really liked it - maybe a shade away from true greatness, but the usage of microtones gave the record really fascinating melodies and for a band that has such a strength for hooks as they do, it opened a wealth of potential going forward. But then Murder Of The Universe happened and was a lot less structured or interesting, and when I heard that they were collaborating with Mild High Club and it was trending towards 70s AM rock... look, that's a genre I tend to appreciate more than I probably should but that's not really what I want to hear from King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard! But who knows, it could be another Paper Mache Dream Balloon, so what did this translate to on Sketches of Brunswick East?

Ugh... I wish I reviewing one of the other two projects that King Gizzard & The Wizard Lizard, because of their projects that I have heard, this is arguably one of their weakest. I don't think it's their worst - Oddments probably remains their least likable to me - but I gave this multiple listens and of this band's experiments, this is not one I can really support. And for a change of pace, it's remarkably easy to tell you why, and some of you might have already guessed it: this is a record where King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard are working with Mild High Club - and Mild High Club sucks.

Yeah, probably should have brought this up earlier - probably should have seen it coming - but in addition to relistening to King Gizzard's massive discography I also went back to hear the albums from Mild High Club... and I'm not a fan at all. For one, there's a very distinctive difference between the microtonal tuning that King Gizzard uses and just bad tuning and production, and when you back it up with underwhelming melodies, incredibly inconsistent vocals, and some of the most slapdash production I've heard all year, the impression I get is someone trying for Ariel Pink's retro blend and failed miserably. So going into this you have the situation where a collaboration has to make up for the severe shortcomings of one act, or at best elevate them to the same level... and that doesn't happen. Instead, we have King Gizzard stooping not quite to their level but a considerable downgrade when it comes to composition and tonal choice, and that's before you factor in some of the awful vocals from Mild High Club frontman Alexander Brettin, who I'm not remotely convinced can sing or even carry a track with his limited charisma. Seriously, take a song like 'The Spider And Me' which is trying for a certain mid-70s sunny, jaunty vibe... and yet with Brettin's sloppily mixed vocals at the forefront, there's just no presence, and it's even worse where he tries to carry 'Countdown' all on his own - including mixing the track, and man, you can tell, it's not remotely a good cut in terms of its tonal balance. 

Now thankfully Stu Mackenzie takes back control for the majority of the project in production and arrangements, but even then, he's catering to much slower, more lethargic arrangements that have more in common with languid smooth jazz with the muted keys, firmer bass, touches of horns, and gentle tapping cymbals. And yeah, for the most part it's pleasant and textured and there's certainly a commitment to deeper atmosphere that I appreciate, but it's very telling that when King Gizzard's rhythm guitarist Cook Craig comes up for the more late 60s folk-inspired vocals on 'Dusk To Dawn On Lygon Street' with the firmer main guitar line, he's more of an interesting presence than Alexander Brettin is! It's followed by 'The Book', probably the closest this record comes to halfway decent psychedelic rock with the seedy organs and firmer groove for the hook, and it's easily the longest song, but that also highlights structural issues that have carried from Murder Of The Universe, because over half of this record are instrumental fragments that rarely build to a satisfying hook or instrumental motif  - good atmosphere, sure, and I dig the keening tones and blasts of harmonica that add to the chaos of 'A Journey To (s)hell', but then you kneecap the momentum a song later on 'Rolling Stoned' in a muddier mix with terrible tonal choice - can you tell that Alexander Brettin wrote this one - and the best part of the record is suddenly over! Yes, the bubbly touches of languid funk on 'You Can Be Your Silhouette' are passable, but the meandering sense of instability never really pays off... which is what I would say about the majority of tracks here!

And do I even have to talk about the lyrics this time around? Now normally I'm pretty forgiving of King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard - they go for some high concepts, they aren't afraid to get weird, and like most psychedelic rock bands they can tap into some fun poetry, especially on the darker, more twisted side. And this might be where the juxtaposition with Mild High Club's influences fall the most flat, believe it or not, because it can feel more than a little obnoxious when writing about global catastrophes is paired with glazed over 70s-inspired elevator music! Granted, this record is trying to be more meditative, buck against those who would dictate the path so you can embrace all parts of yourself, light and dark. The one genuinely inspired metaphor comes on 'You Can Be Your Silhouette' - a shape of yourself that is a blank canvas that has accepted the darker edge instead of hard religious proselytizing on 'The Book'. But beyond that... man, this record feels lyrically underweight - I didn't always think the short stories on Murder Of The Universe worked, but it was trying harder than this!

But that raises a bigger question: if King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard weren't trying to put out five records in a year, would this have ever had a need to exist? Some critics have actually praised this for 'mellowing the band out', and I don't know if they could miss the point harder, because I have no idea who wants a more watered down King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard! The intensity, the go-for-broke weird goofiness of the songwriting, that underscores their primary appeal, so why cut that with utterly mediocre at best 70s soft rock elements? As a collaborative experiment to fill a record slot on their schedule, I guess I see a purpose, but I also see King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard maybe stretching themselves too thin, and that's not a good sign. As for this... light 5/10, go listen to Flying Microtonal Banana instead, and you'll very quickly forget this exists, and be better off for it.

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