Fantasy Empire captures Lightning Bolt's primal essence in high-definition
Stalwarts of the American noise rock scene, Lightning Bolt are made up of Brian Chippendale on drums and vocals and Brian Gibson on bass, and that has been the case for over twenty years. Theirs is a furious breed of fuzzed out, pummelling, lo-fi punk, mostly akin to the band’s name, that has barely changed over the course of their lengthy career. Consistency is their hallmark, and although their newest record Fantasy Empire finds the duo making slight deviations to their well-defined sound, the band still maintains their well-branded weirdo, outsider vibes with skill and panache.
Previous records of Lightning Bolt’s, such as their breakout 2003 album Wonderful Rainbow, stuck to a pretty strict diet of Chippendale’s volatile drumming and Gibson’s rumbling, furious bass forming a backbone by which liberal pepperings of psychedelic, effects driven guitar and vocals unpredictably scatter across. Rarely have they ever required a shake-up of the formula, mostly because they are just so damn good at it. Their manic, tweaked-out sound is theirs and theirs alone, and you’d be hard pressed to find another band, outside of Hella perhaps, that can replicate exactly what Lightning Bolt do.
Fantasy Empire then understandably adheres to the Lightning Bolt template for the most part, and as much as it’s successful within those parameters, it certainly might overstay its welcome by the time the record comes to a close. Where Fantasy Empire differs from its predecessors is in the approach to capturing the band’s music, a point of inquiry that circles any discussion of their philosophy and aesthetic.
I had the pleasure of seeing Lightning Bolt perform back in 2009 in a small, underground room that held approximately 100 or so people. Chippendale and Gibson were barely a breath away from the crowd and me, playing in as intimate a scenario as possible. There were multiple times when people fell over the cymbal stand and Gibson’s bass amp blew out at one point. It was one of the most exhilarating live shows I’ve ever attended. As would be expected then, Lightning Bolt have always strived to bottle that energy, and their DIY, cellar recordings have oftentimes reflected that attempt. With Fantasy Empire, however, the band have utilised a studio recording space for the first time and the result is essential to the reception of the album.
Fantasy Empire is like Lightning Bolt in 1080P. It’s cleaner, punchier and more attentive than anything the band has recorded in the past without losing the edge of recording on the fly. The great tragedy of Lightning Bolt (and other bands like them who thrive on the live performance) has always been that their sound can never be as visceral on record as it is in the flesh, but at least the band are getting better at offering alternate experiences, which results in the high definition version of the band contained within. Fantasy Empire thus feels like a transitional album. It isn’t quite at the stage whereby Lightning Bolt’s curious, psychedelic explorations have taken flight, but their flirtations with the idea of a widescreen presentation are more than welcomed.
This is most clear on the track “Mythmaster”, perhaps the album’s absolute centrepiece and manifesto. A sprawling song that skirts around the frictions that noise and punk music thrive on, the track also finds the duo randomly diverting towards other sonic fascinations, be that in the form of a synchronised choir of high frequency guitar melodies or isolated, earth rumbling bass passages. The drive and force of Lightning Bolt isn’t lost in the mix, it’s just complimented with a more colourful palate of sound.
“King of this World” is yet another example of Lightning Bolt 2.0, with one of the fuzziest basslines this side of Electric Wizard (although with a measure of ADHD in the mix) that gives way to a whirlwind of strange guitar hammer ons and offs resembling an out of tune violin in an orchestra. The dissonance is alienating and weird, but in this context such a fissure is strangely enlightening. “Over the River and Through the Woods” finds itself a regular Lightning Bolt romp until Gibson’s monstrous bass chords permeate the sound spectrum while Chippendale furiously dismantles his tom with his sticks. The resulting sound is vintage Lightning Bolt but only bigger.
There are of course a number of tracks that don’t particularly benefit from the improved sound, namely “Runaway Train” and “Snow White (& The 7 Dwarves Fans)”. “Runaway Train” at least adheres to a blistering speed and aggressiveness, a call back to the simplicities of metal and punk’s powerful essence. “Snow White” on the other hand is a tonally singular piece that somehow stretches itself out to 11 minutes, and effectively lets the mind wander beyond it; perhaps not the best way to end a record that thrives on spontaneity and immediate energy.
In a recent interview, Chippendale was quoted as saying:
The focus needs to stay on the loud musicality in that realm. I really don’t want to step into the world of storytelling. That’s prioritizing something else, something less primal. We try to keep it primal. There were drums before there were words.
His is an approach that illustrates just how much he comprehends exactly what makes Lightning Bolt tick. Their focus and individual sound are at the core of what makes them attractive. With Fantasy Empire, Lightning Bolt have managed to “keep it primal” while moving towards a kind of storytelling that unfolds in sonic depth rather than narrative. That’s quite a feat for a band two decades deep. They’re not quite where they need to be yet in terms of re-inventing or refining their craft, but their current sound and set up at least has them taking the right paths to get there.