Sunday, May 12, 2019

album review: 'fishing for fishies' by king gizzard and the lizard wizard

So I'll be honest, I'm always a little tentative to tell any sort of artist that what they're looking to pursue is a bad idea. Because you never know, right - I've been surprised time and time again by acts who are willing to make wild pivots and stick the landing with their experimentation, and who the hell am I to say otherwise?

And I say this because... well, when I heard the buzz that King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard were going to make a shuffling blues rock project with an emphasis on 'boogie', I had concerns. Not that it was inherently a bad idea or something that the band couldn't pull off - they've jumped across genres with aplomb and going back to the roots of the groovy garage rock tones where they've pulled inspiration has promise, especially if they took a year off in between this and the five albums they put out in 2017. Granted, the critical reception has been more mixed than normal, but again, no guarantee of what could connect - and while several critics were highlighting the increased environmental themes as a point of contention, that's been in the lyrics going back a few albums anyway especially on Gumboot Soup, so I was ready for that. So what did we get on Fishing For Fishies?

You know, I know that I'm asking for trouble whenever I make a more mixed King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard review, and this might be one of my more contentious to date - because not only was my suspicion that this venture was going to be a bad idea proved correct, it was done so in a way that's kind of agonizing to highlight because you can see where it could have worked and yet... doesn't. And while I'm not about to call Fishing For Fishies the worst album this band has made, it is absolutely their most misguided, and one that I can bet will test their cult fanbase to the absolute limit.

Granted, I'll admit to a certain bias i have before entering this review, and it requires a bit of historical context that I guarantee most classic rock fans either don't know, have forgotten, or just refuse to acknowledge: most of the garage-driven "boogie rock" that was released in the golden era of classic rock between the late 60s and early 70s - I'd like to say between 1968 and 1974 - just flat out sucked. Part of this was driven by residual turbulence coming out of the late 60s that few people knew how to contextualize, some of it was driven by proximity to legitimately great classic rock acts who drew upon similar textures, and at least some part of it wound up in the classic rock canon by a succession of predominantly white critics who were looking to displace and ignore the successes of the boundary-pushing soul and funk of that era. But between the growth of progressive rock and proto-punk, the explosions of glam and arena rock, and the richer cross-section of southern rock and country, there was an ocean of acts trying to find the sweet spot between it all to make scuzzed-out, swampy grooves between CCR, Deep Purple and the Allman Brothers and rewrite 'Spirit In The Sky' for the hundredth time, and a lot of it was really bad, especially lyrically. And yet being classic rock kids at heart, I can absolutely see why King Gizzard wanted to target or even celebrate this territory...

And thus it's kind of alarming how quickly they strike out, and immediately you can point to two main factors: drum production and vocals. The first might seem surprising, but given how much of this sound is driven off of fat basslines, scuzzy guitars and jaunty pianolines, and blasts of sizzling organ and harmonica, you want your drums as razor-tight support and foundation - what you don't want is a gated pickup where the drums sound compressed and hemmed-in which paradoxically only draws more attention to their choppy stiffness, especially given how loud they are in the mix! But what gets worse are the vocals, and let me give some brief credit to the acts in this era that made this sound work: they had huge, raw, howling delivery that had soul and power to command the mix and give it an emotive core of swagger and machismo. So when King Gizzard provides an increasingly rigid and drowned out vocal pickup with harmonies that are either louder than the main vocal line or nonexistent where there's nothing close to genuine firepower or punch, it gives you the impression they've either completely misunderstood the appeal of the best acts in the subgenre or are taking the piss out of it - and that's not counting 'Cyboogie' that drowns itself in vocoders. Now the overlooked problem that comes out of this is that with more developed bass grooves, many of the lead guitars default to hammering on the same abortive chord loop while the harmonica or synths or arranged elements take the melodic lead, and considering that King Gizzard has always had a knack for the prog side, you can feel them struggling to find ways to develop and twist these tracks in a way where they're as catchy as their best, and the results don't so much feel effective and bluesy as they do overcooked, watery, overlong, and not particularly flattering. And all of this is before the final two songs of the album, which dissolve into synth-heavy progressive pop rock that somehow show even less momentum or groove, which makes many of the ideas feel half-baked.

And here's where things get ugly, because remember that theme of environmentalism that critics took initial issue with and that I said has really sliding between the margins of previous King Gizzard projects? Well, when we get to the writing, I can see how it can become an issue for two big reasons, and the first is the framing. The opening title track is an anti-fishing song, but it's all framed as being 'sad' that the fishies are taken away from their natural habitat - yes, that's the extent of the commentary and wordplay we're getting here, and it happens again with the limp observations of what various animals see of human inventions on 'The Bird Song', and then actively gets worse by embracing the same sort of 'your real isn't real' psychedelic gunk on the song of the same name that I hated when Lil Dicky brought into 'Earth' for many of the same reasons, not made better by the over-arranged and weirdly joyless murk of 'This Thing' which seems to be uncomfortably succumbing to nihilism! But what's worse is that there's no real vigor in their defense of anything - the watery vocal layering is so lifeless and devoid of firepower that some of the songs defending the environment feel almost pitiful and the songs emphasizing the more wild, chaotic boogieing or even more dangerous natural world like 'Acarine' feel more energetic and dynamic - and that's before you get the weirdly depressed robot who cares nothing of anything because it's all going to die out on 'Cyboogie'. Which might make sense if King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard were trying to take the piss out of environmentalism, but I'm not sure that's what this is, because then you get songs like the more riotous 'Plastic Boogie' criticizing our overuse of plastic that wind up as probably the most upbeat and best cuts here... and even then, any subtext or deeper insight is flimsy as all hell. I'd try to shoot them a bit of bail with 'The Cruel Millennial' who is trying to take the piss out of someone who plays the whole 'born in the wrong generation' crowd, but an album like this wouldn't exist in this form of sonic worship without at least some of that attitude, so I'm not sure I'm buying the self-awareness either. Overall, more of the feel is reminiscent of the weirdly curdled fatalism about environmental catastrophe that was on previous records, but the arc to get there is too joyless and inert to be thrilling - which is about the last thing you want when you say boogie more often than the Silver Convention!

So overall... it's a bizarre feeling that after putting out five albums in a year, most of which were pretty damn solid, King Gizzard took a year off to put out this, a curdled retro-genre experiment that feels half-baked, tentative, and utterly unconvincing. Yeah, the songs will always be just catchy enough to be recognizable and I do respect them trying slightly more diverse ideas - to make this sort of idea work nearly fifty years past its sell-by date is a daunting task for any act - but this didn't work at all, netting a very light 5/10 and I can only recommend it for the diehard fans. If you're going to bring back swampy boogie rock, the least you could do would be to keep it loose and fun - not make this.

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