To say the least, 2017 was a big year for King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard, if not the year. Yes, it’s an understated question: how did they do it? Take the sheer nature of the band as the indicator. Imagine a seven-headed psychedelic Australian devil borne out of Jim Morrison’s peyote desert trip—diabolical to the core, but the most kaleidoscopic excursion on record. From their jazz-infused and pun-intended collaborative effort with Mild High Club on Sketches of Brunswick East to their more all-inclusive approach on Flying Microtonal Banana, Murder of the Universe, and Polygondwanaland, the creative juices were working overtime in 2017. It’s fair enough to say the juices were working plenty while coming up with the album names alone, and they only do the releases justice for what’s in between the vinyl groves. Five full-length releases later (and possibly counting), and 2017 is undeniably looking like one for the annals for King Gizzard. It’s almost an anthology that belongs all together on a shelf in chronological order: “2017, The Year of King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard”. It’s a year that will go down in history in classic King Gizzard fashion.
Home is truly in the heart of Tinariwen. Even after exile, through struggle and strife, and after a few close brushes with tragedy, Tinariwen continuously defies their shortcomings through community in music. They walk the walk, chant the chants, and create some of the deepest and most dynamic sounds originating from the sand dunes of West Africa. They don’t do it alone and they don’t always do it at home, but they’re heritage and history is heard in every thump of the djembe, pluck of the string, and harmonizing chant.
Elwan in particular is true to the customary Tinariwen sound with intricacies of new sounds, rhythms, and purpose. Engrained with traditional composition, Elwan branches out into different signatures and structures that aren’t necessarily African in derivative. Yes, this is a new benchmark for the group, but the true magic lies in bridging the gap between traditional West African music and western arrangements. Not only does this paint a landscape of the sounds and roots of their homeland, it layers and interjects the vastness of their capabilities and depth of composition. The rhythmic possibilities are an open plain, and this is a group that searches every crack and crevasse to distinguish their art. But let’s leave talent aside, since low and behold the core group is grounded on a decades-old basis that thrusts the term “veterans” to mind (hint- they aren’t new to this game). And after all, they’re veterans of true roots music…
On Elwan in particular, the group is quite customary in nature. By enlisting the guitar assistance of the great Kurt Vile on “Tiwàyyen” and “Nànnuflay”, soundscapes expand into seemingly uncharted waters (or sand dunes?). But this is not quite a departure from their old selves. The prior releases of Tassili (2011) and Emmaar (2014) procured the ranks of collaborators ranging from Josh Klinghoffer from Red Hot Chili Peppers and the Dirty Dozen Brass Band to Tunde and Kyp of TV on the Radio and Nels Cline from Wilco. Expansive horizons, eh? But the group doesn’t stop there. Elwan also includes the help of Matt Sweeney, Bonnie ‘Prince’ Billy, and many others to provide subtle yet incredibly powerful and contemporary undertones. With their true West African base, the group goes above and beyond their capabilities, and layers on top of their sound like layering a cake. Just check out “Nànnuflay” for example. This number includes key elements of Kurt Vile on guitar (tone and instrumental, especially towards the end) on top of the signature bass and djembe foundation. It’s almost as if you’re riding in a caravan across a sea of sand with Kurt Vile throwing accents of his own into an already-pristine landscape. Magic.
They take a worldwide holistic view of sound and apply to what they know best: the music of their homeland. Home lies in collaboration. For Tinariwen, home is home. Elwan is no different.
The sand dunes blues if you’re unfamiliar with West African music. Here’s a take: trade black water swamps and porches for caravans and sand dunes. The strife, the raw spiritual yearning, and emotion are all the same. In fact what’s truly fascinating about the group is their ability to channel these emotions and physical states through dynamic composition. Low and behold, Elwan translates to elephant, and Tinariwen couldn’t have translated it better.
Generally speaking, genre lines are hints and nodes of flavors that mix well with some and not so much with others. Transcending the lines history defines as dogmatic is certainly ambitious, but Rostam’s release in Half-Light surpasses ambition for a natural medium of instinct, culture, and disposition. Where aspiring endeavors oftentimes flutter in the face of significance, Rostam brings grounded focus to genre-bending ventures. And rather than throwing anything and everything into a conglomerated leap of faith, Half-Light magnifies a sound that is very “Rostam” from beginning to end.
As a founding member of Vampire Weekend and Discovery, it’s no secret that Rostam Batmanglij knows a thing or two about the sounds of the world (perhaps everything?). And with a producing resume that spans from R&B heavyweights like Solange and Frank Ocean to the pop icons of Haim and Charli XCX, Rostam’s rolodex grows deeper still on top of the bedrock production credits for every Vampire Weekend release to-date. Add the seasoned veteran producer Ariel Rechtshaid (Adele, Brandon Flowers, and Madonna) on a handful of tracks, and eclectic suddenly starts humming a different tune, especially if you thought Vampire Weekend were eclectic (granted, they very much are, and for good reason…).
But what sets Half-Light apart from his previous releases and other ambitious attempts at wide-ranging sounds is it’s holistic core. It’s certainly no fools errand to throw in an Indian folk song, Reggae tune, or electro-specific number to create a varied blend of sound (even though Rostam does exactly that), however filling in the empty space is something else entirely. What stands out on Half-Light as the “blended sound” is Rostam’s ability to incorporate all of his experience and knowledge on each song as if his all-inclusive view never gets out of focus. Rather than a blurred mess of mixed genres or sounds intertwining and going in every which direction, Rostam takes a wide-view angle of worldly genres and adds bits and pieces to a very defined foundation. For example, “Rudy” is a very focused Reggae-ish number, and he intertwines electronically modified lyrics and layers in the vein of a vamp. On “EOS”, Rostam builds chant-like vocals and synths on top of a soulful piano ballad that rises and falls with orchestral strings. And on “Bike Dream” he adds fuzz synths to compliment a tried and true pop testimonial in driving percussion and melodic bass. As the sentimental salute to his previous band and its city of origin, “Bike Dream” sits comfortably as both the radio-friendly song and missing link to brings Half-Light full circle as both a universal and unashamed release.
Erase the genre guidelines and definitions that pigeonhole sound. There is no snug slot to compartmentalize Half-Light, other than a genre-bending release by a proven artist that exemplifies a track record of quality in the ability to master countless genres. Rostam created a release that displayed true culture, knowledge, and ability, and Half-Light stands as example to prove exactly that.
At 69, most music legends are either rousing around the house, perusing through the remnants of fame since past, hitting repeat on stage like a broken nostalgic record, or languishing from a worse fate than the preceding. And yet at 69, some relish in the instinct of looking forward rather than back or dusting off shelved pieces of prominence (though there’s nothing wrong with revisiting in moderation, of course). But what Robert Plant has created in the past decade or so isn’t necessarily a cataclysmic feat of humanity as much as a display of sheer artistic exertion, and it’s separated him from the pack of legends that have seen their day come and pass. At 69, he displays an ability that almost delineates from legacy and places him on an ethereal pedestal that speaks more of a contemporary icon rather than a mythic legend. More likely than not, it’s because there’s nothing left to prove, and the only way to go is up or down, so he continues to go up… at 69.
As a follow up to 2014’s Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar, Plant’s self-producing chops are on display again on Carry Fire. And no wonder that a true and hardy veteran like Plant soaked up the aptitude and aura of decades-long music making and applied it to his own art, but Carry Fire goes far beyond sheer experience and dives into a life-long dedication to worldly rhythms. Certainly, a rock star of Plant’s caliber should know a tidbit about his trade by pure association, yet his two self-produced releases in Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar and Carry Fire speak of changing tides and sheer cultural intuition rather than exploring new possibilities and similar sounds derived from the anthology of a seasoned rock god (though, it should be noted that renditions of “Black Dog” with the Sensational Space Shifters do exactly that).
Much like how Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar was driven by the sounds of Africa and roots music, Carry Fire makes ground on a medium by intertwining worldly rudiments and complementing a comfortable base through universal perspective. And where this comfortable base laid the groundwork for an interstellar and cosmic aura on Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar, Plant zeros in on a holistic approach rather than a more experimental endeavor of incorporating a wide spectrum of genres. In the corners where Plant seemed to get a bit off kilter on his previous release, Carry Fire is undeniably focused and precise as if his intentions upon recording were on par with the rest. All throughout the record, he subtly utilizes his natural vocal qualities as a dynamic uplift through climbing and vamping instruments. On songs like “New World…”, “Dance With You Tonight”, and “Keep It Hid”, his voice rises from a soft whispering hum with the building music behind him (sounds like a familiar tactic, huh?). And as if the innate instinct to parade his legacy takes hold, Plant incorporates the origin of rock n roll roots while maintaining cultural stature with numbers like “Bones of Saints” and the all-inclusive “Bluebirds Over the Mountain”.
Where Lullaby and the Ceaseless Roar explored a universe of new rhythmic and sound possibilities and a whole new gamut of instruments as a follow up to Band of Joy, Carry Fire goes past a worldly approach and rounds off the edges for a complete picture. Plant nestles into comfort zone where he bounces the qualities and range of his vocals against the resonance of sound created from the wide cast of instruments, all while never wavering from the end goal. Song structure is substituted for a slew of worldly noisemakers on Carry Fire, even though it incorporates just as many cast members as its predecessors. Where that may have seemed ambitious before, but nonetheless significant, Plant solidifies himself as a contemporary visionary that transcends the confines of both genres and popular culture.