Lightning Bolt

For more than two decades, Lightning Bolt has embraced barely controlled chaos as a secret ingredient and ear-shredding volume as an invisible third member of the band.

Legendary in noise-rock circles, the Rhode Island duo made its name by embracing underground principles and pushing them to extremes on both album and, particularly, in performance. Drummer Brian Chippendale and vocalist/bassist Brian Gibson frequently eschew stages in favor of setting up in the midst of the crowd on venues’ floor. They’ve also played kitchens and sidewalks, donned crazy wrestling and serial-killer masks during shows, and generally avoided anything related to convention.

While the group’s non-traditional thinking serves it well during anything-goes concerts—in which the element of surprise, frenetic tempos, and blaring decibels are the only givens—it obscures the band’s talents on album. Ever since its self-titled 1999 debut, Lightning Bolt has refused to record in a studio with proper high-fidelity gear, instead releasing lo-fi material that sounds as if it was captured in a cardboard box. Avant-garde aesthetics aside, the approach seemed to resemble unnecessary self-sabotage.

Peeling back the curtain on the collective’s tumultuous assault and manic array of fuzzed-out distortion, rampaging grooves, and free-jazz-inspired percussion, Fantasy Empire functions as a long-needed lightbulb moment. Recorded at Machines With Magnets studio, Lightning Bolt’s sixth proper album doubles as a deserved breakthrough for two musicians whose terrifying precision, intensity, and rumble can finally be heard full bore. Music that previously came across as a jet-speed muddle of thwacks, thuds, and turbulence now possesses honest-to-goodness detail and dynamics.

Volatile tunes such as the wood-mulching masher “Over the River and Through the Woods” and yowling stomper “King of My World” retain all the madness of previous work, yet also emerge as genuine songs with identifiable structures and (gasp!) textures—not simply abstract excursions into fury and pandemonium. Whether on the electric-can-opener riff that underlines the onslaught dubbed “The Metal East” or the berserk rhythms getting sawed off in all directions during the epic “Snow White & 7 Dwarves Fans,” Chippendale and Gibson maintain a focus and discipline that set them apart.

They’re also wise enough to realize the importance of breathing room, and balance the attack with decelerated intervals. Subtle additions, like loops and reverb, further contribute to the sense that Lightning Bolt has officially transcended art-project status and elevated itself to a band that’s now as good on record as it is on the stage—whatever the latter might represent on any given night. —Bob Gendron

Lightning Bolt
Fantasy Empire
Thrill Jockey, 2LP or CD

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