If nothing else, one has to admire King Gizzard‘s work ethic. Constantly touring across the world throughout 2017, while writing and recording material for a whole five albums is a lot to cram into a single year. And yet, here we are, and they have done it. Not that I had any doubt they would – having seven members in the band certainly helps, not to mention all the other personnel involved, but it is certainly still an impressive feat, considering the albums themselves have all been good to great in quality.
After the four albums Gizzard offered to us in 2017, each with its own unique identity and sound (or specific concept or gimmick, however one may see it), Gumboot Soup acts as a summation of them all. Coming off as a sort of Oddments Vol. 2, Gumboot Soup collects a number of songs that have slipped through the cracks throughout the year, whether directly intended for any of the previous albums, or simply recorded between albums and not fitting to any of them. However, the album is more than a mere compilation, as effort is actually put into sequencing the songs to run as a proper album, despite the difference in styles and approaches between some of the songs.
While many of the songs are not specifically tied to the previous four albums, there are several songs that make themselves distinctly known as album outtakes. The microtonal songs, “Greenhouse Heat Death” and “All Is Known” are easily identifiable not only from their microtonal guitars but their driving, desert/wasteland rock sound. The former is one of the darkest numbers on here – a (post)-apocalyptic number whose lyrics read as a mantra, or rather a requiem for an Earth scorched and decimated by greenhouse gases, tying it thematically even to Murder of the Universe. Musically, the song shares much with its counterparts on the original album, with a propulsive feel that gives the impression of reveling in this wasteland. The microtones also give the song an Eastern world feel, which ties in well with the mantra-like delivery of the lyrics. “All Is Known” was played live by the band throughout the year – and while its great energy can’t be faulted, it is also the song which arguably has the least to offer. With little variation and not even the microtones adding much, it sadly runs out of steam well before the end of its brief run.
The de facto centrepiece of the album, “The Great Chain of Being”, is also its hardest rocking song, and apparently the singular outtake from Murder of the Universe. With its heavy, doomy guitar work and horror fantasy lyrical themes, the song is a character depiction in the same vein as “The Lord of Lightning” or “The Balrog”. It presents another super-powerful creature intent on dismantling the chain of being that places God at the top. Unusually, its verses feel more intense than the choruses, as the choruses work to build tension, which is released on the verses with a fantastically violent riff.
The remainder of the songs, for the most part, are much mellower, sharing more with the progressive-psychedelic feel of Polygondwanaland or the laid-back jazz of Sketches of Brunswick East. Songs like “Barefoot Desert”, “The Last Oasis” and “Superposition” have ties to parts of Polygondwanaland, and could well have fit with the middle two suites of that album. “Barefoot Desert” brings to mind “Deserted Dunes Welcome Weary Feet” from that album, as the weary traveler Ambrose Kenny Smith sings with joyful abandon, as if trying to forget his predicament of walking through the desert. The song is comprised of several different sections, each perhaps signifying different parts of the journey, with a key change in the bridge and ominous vocal effects. “Superposition” may be the most unusual song on here, referring to the superposition principle and quantum physics. There is a rather celestial-sounding vocoder effect applied to the vocals, giving them a very mechanical and otherworldly feel, which is reinforced by the constant drum machine insistently hammering away behind the more laid-back and sparse live drums. “The Last Oasis” meanwhile, is one of the most relaxed songs on the album, though it is really a more weary feeling, as the desert traveler finds an oasis that plays tricks on his mind, with rattling marimbas and a lush mellotron lulling him along. A frequency sweep effect is applied in the third verse, giving it an eerie and disorienting feeling, as the mirage makes itself apparent.
“Muddy Water” is one of the more urgent songs on here. With its circular guitar riffs, busy drumming and very catchy refrain, it would not have been out of place on the first half of I’m In Your Mind Fuzz (2014). “Beginner’s Luck”, on the other hand, opens the album on a buttery smooth note. A psychedelic and jazzy musical backing evokes the smoky and alluring setting described by the lyrics, which concern a first-time gambling situation and an attempt at cheating. There seems to be more emphasis placed on the vocals, and while the lyrics are a little clumsy, it is at least intriguing to hear the band step outside of their comfort zone. “Down The Sink” is the most overtly funky song on the album, with a loose shuffle feel in the verses augmented by groovy guitar lines. But the song really takes off during its busy and intense choruses, which highlight the mind-numbing bustle of the big city that Cook Craig is singing about. “I’m Sleepin’ In”, fittingly for its title, feels more like a disorienting, sleep-deprived fragment of a song, with a queasy descending melody and drums that continuously distort and crack.
Finally, “The Wheel” brings a conclusion, not only to the album, but also to their output for the year. A hazy but confident song in which they accept the ever-turning wheel of time which has taken them to this point, and will continue to carry them into the uncertain future. The waltz-like feel reflects the unstoppable motion of the wheel, with dreamy keyboards and dashes of funky clavinet colouring the journey. The song in fact features vocals from both Stu Mackenzie and Smith, who are in many ways the band’s two main songwriting forces. It seems fitting that they both contribute, in not so much as a victory lap, but as a reflection of their achievements and acknowledgement and acceptance of whatever the unknown future may hold.
So, all in all, if all the albums King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard gave us in 2017 are a lavish, grotesque Pandora’s box of a gift, then Gumboot Soup is the equally lavish, grotesque and pretty ribbon that ties it all together. Now here’s to 25 albums in 2018! In all seriousness, though, one can only guess what they have in store for the year, and it wouldn’t be unreasonable to expect them to take a step back and perhaps take more time to work on crafting a more singular masterpiece. But what is clear now is that over the past two years, King Gizzard have come into their own as an unstoppable creative force. They’ve captured the attention of the music world, and they surely have only greater things awaiting them.