Wait, there are notes between notes?
Australian psych-rock band King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard are no strangers to experimentation. Even in their early days, the band experimented with out of the box recording and production techniques such as recording an entire song with an iPhone’s built in microphone, but in 2016 they took the experimentation to a new level with their album Flying Microtonal Banana: Experiments in Microtonality Volume 1.
But what is microtonality? Essentially, it’s the concept of notes between notes. For example, the smallest distance between two notes on most modern instruments is a half step (ex. A to A sharp), but if you were to add a note directly between half step, you would have a quarter step (ex. A to A half-sharp).
In early 2015, frontman Stu Mackenzie began work on an album focused on a traditional Turkish microtonal instrument called the baglama. After discovering he could modify his guitar to include additional frets to achieve the same microtonal notes, the band began to put together an electric version of Mackenzie’s concept (Standfield).
Much of the album keeps the middle-eastern influence from the initial demos, using techniques such as quick hammer-ons and pull-offs between the normal (or “macrotonal”) and microtonal notes (a technique called trilling), used prominently in the song “Sleep Drifter”. Microtones are also used to add tension in songs, turning the idea of the traditional chord progression or riff on its head. Songs such as “Doom City” use microtonal notes to lead into a resolution, or the I chord. The microtones add a tension that can’t be found using the traditional twelve note scale, and since our ears aren’t used to the extra notes, it draws the listener into the music.
The band expanded on their microtonal catalog with their 2020 album KG and their 2021 follow up LW, acting as Experiments in Microtonality Volumes 2 and 3 respectively. While Flying Microtonal Banana was focused on its middle eastern influence, KG and LW take inspiration from other cultures and genres such as heavy metal and acoustic folk. Despite the variety of genres explored, microtones are used in very similar ways in both albums. The trilling and added tension carry over from Flying Microtonal Banana, but the context shifts.
In “Honey,” similar techniques such as trilling between macrotonal and microtonal are used to invoke the sound of Eastern European traditional music while also taking stylistic inspiration from western folk music. The acoustic guitar paired with percussion gives the song a laid back vibe, contrasting greatly with the next song on the tracklist, “Hungry Wolf of Fate.”
“Hungry Wolf of Fate” takes inspiration from heavy metal music, a genre famous for using dissonance. By using microtones and note intervals not common to our ears, the band is pushing the dissonance even farther, creating an even heavier feel.
All three albums use microtones in interesting ways that pull listeners into the music. The combination of unique musical styling and techniques makes for a listening experience unlike any other.
Listen to Flying Microtonal Banana:
Listen to KG:
Listen to LW:
Standfield, Geoff. “Tape Op Podcast: Episode 52: Stu Mackenzie,” episode 52, Tape Op Podcast, 2021. https://soundcloud.com/tapeopmagazine/tape-op-podcast-episode-52-stu-mackenzie