The band expertly weaponizes niche — again — on ‘PetroDragonic Apocalypse’
NPR | By Matthew Perpetua / Published June 24, 2023 5:00 AM ET
Among the surest ways to feel out of the loop right now is to look at concert listings and notice that artists you’ve never heard — or even heard of — are somehow big enough to play very large venues. These days, it’s a revelation that can strike without warning, no matter who you are or how closely you keep up with music. The streaming ecosystem has created the ideal conditions for lucky niche artists to grow their audience without leaving a cultural bubble, and there are so many cultural bubbles to go around that a few are bound to exclude you.
The Australian band King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard is a prime example: an act with no hits and modest media coverage who nevertheless commands multi-night runs at amphitheaters throughout the United States: Red Rocks. The Hollywood Bowl. Forest Hills Stadium. That it comfortably shares those spaces with household names is even more impressive considering its own name, a mouthful of internal rhyme so egregiously silly that plenty of music critics, curators and journalists still disregard its existence entirely.
The key to understanding the King Gizzard phenomenon is a willingness to imagine disparate categories in dense overlap, well beyond anything our post-genre pop era might have prepared us for. The group’s six musicians live at the center of a very unlikely Venn diagram: stylistic chameleons on par with Beck and Damon Albarn, prolific at a rate that outpaces even the famously hyper-productive Guided By Voices, mounting completely unpredictable live shows with the jam band ethos of Phish. Led by 32-year-old primary songwriter Stu Mackenzie, they have released 24 studio albums since 2010, five of which dropped in 2022. (Two of those, the MGMT-ish Omnium Gatherum and the groovy jazz-fusion opus Ice, Death, Planets, Lungs, Mushrooms, and Lava, are good entry points for the uninitiated.) The records tend to be organized around genre and musical high concepts — garage rock, various flavors of psychedelia, electronic excursions, prog, blue-eyed soul and several albums exploring the possibilites of microtonal tuning.
The band’s latest, PetroDragonic Apocalypse; or, Dawn of Eternal Night: An Annihilation of Planet Earth and the Beginning of Merciless Damnation, is its second foray into full-on thrash metal. As it did on style predecessor Infest the Rats’ Nest from 2019, the group uses the genre and its traditional obsession with death and destruction as a vehicles for envisioning climate disaster — and resulting class warfare as the wealthy attempt to escape.
“Converge,” a particularly brutal cut from the new album, splits its perspective between MacKenzie embodying the fury of nature itself as he describes “a storm of unparalled fright” in a low growl, and multi-instrumentalist Ambrose Kenny-Smith’s falsetto refrains standing in for humanity. Once it has established the destruction of civilization as a given, the record ups the ante by bringing witchcraft and enormous rampaging dragon monsters into the narrative. All the over-the-top action-movie fun, however, is balanced with real-life dread, the tone carefully pitched to avoid winking away the seriousness of actual impending catastrophe for the sake of a thrill.
What’s perhaps most remarkable about PetroDragonic Apocalypse is how fully and authentically King Gizzard & the Lizard Wizard inhabits the target aesthetic. A first-time listener might reasonably peg it as the work of a full-time metal band, studied in the teachings of Slayer and Megadeth. This ability to operate in any of its chosen lanes with maximum commitment, sincerity, and raw skill may be the exact reason the group has been able to grow its audience so steadily. Each new record works like an episode of an ongoing serial, presenting the musicians’ ceaseless whims, experiments and reinventions as the elements of a grand adventure. (Case in point: Petrodragonic Apocalypse is only the first of a two-parter about climate anxiety, the chaotic yin to a forthcoming yang in a yet-to-be-revealed genre.)
And for the listeners, King Gizzard’s instinct to burn through ideas as quickly as possible has its own odd but undeniable benefit: permission, rare among superfandoms, to care only about the creative excursions that suit their own tastes. When new material is in constant and diverse supply, the stakes get a little lower, and a drastic change in direction feels like less of a betrayal. In other words, if you’re not feeling the group in Metallica mode, you can rest easy knowing it’ll probably come back around to, say, funky psychedelia before too long.