A Return to Psychedelic Power: King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard at Union Transfer

If you didn’t manage to get your hands on a a ticket to the sold-out King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard show at Union Transfer last week, you messed up. This psychedelic act from Melbourne, Australia is the embodiment of epic in every sense of the word, in their music, their performance, and their being.

Fellow Melbourne-natives Amyl and the Sniffers performed their opening set with a combination of punk and classic rock. Headed by lead singer Amy Taylor, the main takeaways from this act were their ragged mullet hairstyles, shredding guitar solos, and punchy rebellious chants. Commenting on trying cheesesteak (the classic Philly equalizer) and the cheap prices of cigarettes over here, they ended the set with Taylor spraying a bottle of champagne over the already rabid crowd.

Not long after that, the room went black, save for a projection of the bright red nonagon from King Gizzard’s “Gamma Knife” video, onto a floor-to-ceiling screen behind the stage. The band emerged with a casual air, plugged in their guitars, sat down at the drum kits, looked around at each, and counted off into the rip-roaring “Digital Black.”

There’s no short way to explain what this first opening moment felt like. Equipped with a pair of dueling drummers, three main guitarists, one bassist and one keyboard-synthesizer-maraca-tambourine-harmonica-vibraslap-ist, this septet has so many layers that it’s almost hard to believe when listening to their recordings alone. But in a live setting, they drip with the excess of their rhythms, each sound carefully considered so that it perfectly complements the whole. As impressive as their discography is, it’s almost more impressive how they can go from silence to a 300mph frenzy of rock in mere milliseconds to reach an unparalleled sound of power that echoes the likes of Frank Zappa, Genesis, and AC/DC.

Until that first note, I hadn’t quite realized what I’d gotten myself into on this overbearingly humid Monday night. Surrounded on every side by hippies old and new, I felt as if I had been launched into a past I’d long since thought impossible to recover. I let the smell of weed, trippy lighting and seductively Hendrix-like guitar solos pour what can only be described as a pure nostalgic bliss into the part of my soul that inexplicably loves every last element of this style of music.

Maybe these descriptions are a bit overindulgent, but then again, so is this band. Lead vocalist Stu Mackenzie has the same hair and figure as Jim Morrison, and the crowd worshipped him as if he truly were the Lizard King reincarnated. Though smiles among the band were rare, their sharp focus still made it obvious that they were having the time of their lives. Absorbing the band at no more than its face-value of being excellent live performers is easy and sufficiently satisfying in such a wild setting. But they give us so much more to take in that it would be unfair to ourselves to stop there.

Having the advantage of hindsight, King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard know which qualities of classic and psychedelic rock have stood the test of time, and more importantly, they know which have not. They take the best bits of their older influences and use them to make music that is often more diverse and increasingly more impressive in technique than that of their predecessors. My head swiveled back and forth to watch the face-to-face drummers counter each others’ rhythms at each new measure. At other times I would be mesmerized by multi-instrumentalist Ambrose Kenny Smith as he seamlessly switched from guitar to harmonica to synthesizer, singing all the while. And every now and then, I would glance at the back of the stage, where bassist Lucas Skinner stood stoic, keeping the pace of the notorious lightning speed at which this band plays.

Any attempt to fully translate the experience of this concert would be futile. I could speak, as I have been, of the quality of the music. I could detail the colorful and fuzzy visuals on the backdrop that would sometimes display live video of the band playing, only to distort them into psychedelic patterns. I could share my experience in the community of the crowd, all of us enduring the sweltering heat of the pit with an uncommon kindness and respect for one another. I could even describe a few of the onstage gimmicks of the band, like how Mackenzie spat water like a fountain onto the crowd, or how they all infrequently licked their lips with effort, much like actual lizards.

Perhaps the best way to put it is that they put on a show that over-stimulated four of the five senses, giving the audience so many different ways of connecting to the music in the same vein as the fabled rock concerts of yore. Part of a growing mass of great music from down under, the sound and style of this band is unlike any other I know of from today. Given King Gizzard & The Lizard Wizard’s prolific reputation (they put out 5 albums in 2017 alone), I have no doubt they will return to Philadelphia within the next couple of years. Until then, I’ll be listening to Nonagon Infinity on its never-ending loop.

Photo courtesy of Lee Vincent Grubb.

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