“It is worse, much worse than you think.” David Wallace-Wells began his book The Uninhabitable Earth with this warning. It’s the sort of necessary alarmism found throughout scientifically informed discourse on climate change. Ruthless politicization ranging from denial to doomsaying has caused many people (including me) to feel nearly powerless in confronting it. Sure, we can eat less meat or try to organize for a Green New Deal, but our personal choices and legislation only go so far when capitalism itself is predicated upon an endless growth that requires environmental destruction for survival.
If it’s the artist’s duty to reflect the conditions of the world around us, addressing the withering state of our planet must be a primary concern. How, then, to make art about climate change that’s both urgent and, well, good? One of my favorite examples is King Gizzard and the Lizard Wizard’s 2019 Infest the Rats’ Nest. The seven-member Australian psychedelic outfit has a style that’s as eclectic as it is energetic, and the group is known for releasing truly staggering amounts of music (dropping no fewer than five albums in 2017). In 2019, they released Fishing for Fishies and Infest the Rats’ Nest, both of which address climate change. The former, a sweet and whimsical album that forays into the blues, was criticized as the most boring of the otherwise boundary-pushing band’s oeuvre. But the latter is—somewhat shockingly—a thrash-metal record, and in my opinion, one of the best albums of the year.
It opens with “Planet B,” a vigorous call to action that utilizes the visceral conventions of metal dotted with Aussie cues like “Open your eyes and shoot the dingo / All this shit goes out the window.” Like much of the album, the track features heavy guitar distortion and double-bass drumming; it also bears resemblance to the full-throttled aggression of hardcore punk. The result is a jolting dogmatic takedown of the capitalist machine that has exploited the climate crisis in the absence of meaningful political action: “Only way through is colonization / Acclimatization / Population exodus / Monetization / Civilization / ....There is no Planet B.” The track has become something of a protest anthem. In the wake of our fruitless outcries and our inability to curb human consumption, King Gizzard mourns our collective inaction: “Sin is our greatest / You hear / Baby Jesus sheds a tear.”
“Planet B” leads into the steady banger “Mars for the Rich,” a track carried by Lucas Harwood’s stunning fuzz-bass line. Vocalist Stu Mackenzie denounces the classist extraterrestrial ambitions of Elon Musk and his ilk: “I’m just a poor boy / Living frugally / I see Mars on TV / I see people happy / I work fields with / Blistered fingers / I look starward / That world has no place for me.” The inequalities of capitalism have worsened public health and destroyed human life, but it can seem as though “Resistance is futile,” as Mackenzie croons in “Superbug,” a slow-tempoed chug that feels particularly prescient in a pandemic. The track warns of an impending illness that will imminently wipe out humanity due to antimicrobial resistance; COVID-19 began just four months after its release.
In “Self-Immolate,” the band sings, “Like a bird in a cage / Airostat habitat / To motion, I am slave.” King Gizzard suggests that we dig our own graves with climate denial and life in late capitalism. The album ends with a song literally titled “Hell.” “God, it’s pretty hot down here,” Mackenzie wails, followed by exaggerated, surreal imagery, a fatalistic wake-up call to the dystopia in which our current trajectory culminates.
Infest the Rats’ Nest is an unsettling departure from the band’s usual psychedelia, a disruption that draws attention to a critical issue—a classic case of form following function. Sure, the masterwork rejects feel-good fuzziness, but it does so to admit that only structural change, not individual choices, will really make a difference. And there’s nothing saccharine about the destruction of our planet, which Pope Francis made clear in Laudato si’. He describes the earth as a sister who “cries out to us because of the harm we have inflicted on her by our irresponsible use and abuse of the goods with which God has endowed her.” The nature of thrash metal feels particularly fitting as it evinces the unrest and general malaise caused by, as Laudato si’ puts it, the “violence present in our hearts, wounded by sin, reflected in the symptoms of sickness evident in the soil, in the water, in the air and in all forms of life.” As the earth “groans in travail,” King Gizzard unsentimentally decries capitalism’s destruction of our common home.