Music Reviews
Fantasy Empire

Lightning Bolt Fantasy Empire

(Thrill Jockey) Rating - 7/10

As a teenager first exploring the depths of indie and underground rock after regulation exposure to Nirvana and Sonic Youth, Lightning Bolt were hardly the first band I’d come across to present themselves as “anti-rock star.” They were, however, the first band I’d found that felt so truly subversive that listening to them actually made me physically uncomfortable (I hadn’t quite gotten to G.G. Allen yet). Here I thought Sonic Youth were unconventional for using alternate tunings, but now I find two guys – a drummer who dons a luchador mask with a phone mike duct-taped to the mouth and playing like he has six arms and a bassist whose bass frankly sounds like he pulled it out of a vat of acid – playing the loudest, noisiest, most vitriolic rock music on the floors of grimy punk clubs. They were weird, for sure, and it’s certainly that peculiar weirdness that initially caught my eye and made me oddly infatuated with them. However, the sole reason that they’ve persisted as noise rock lynchpins not just with me, but within the entire music world’s consciousness, is that these two weirdos really do know how to rock.

Not to say that Brian Chippendale and Brian Gibson have ever done anything mildly conventional, but it seems that for the last 15 years, the duo’s jarring eccentricities – in sound, performance, and aesthetics – have largely overshadowed the fact that they've regularly been writing monstrously catchy riffs and hooks that allude to an appreciation for pop just as much as for avant-garde noise. Sure, you’d often have to dig through landfills of squelching bass feedback and maliciously whacked drums to find them, but through their entire discography, memorable tracks like 13 Monsters, Dracula Mountain, Assassins, and Birdy, to name a few, rambunctiously pummel with sludgy riffs complete with punk rock energy and splendor, and are as catchy and colorful as they are chaotic.

But despite being perpetual weirdos throughout, you can’t say they haven’t been remarkably consistent – even a bit predictable at that. Each of their albums, until now, have been strictly guerilla-style recordings, done mostly live, and feature basically nothing but drums, bass, and distorted vocals – and while I would never say all their records are the same thing exactly, none of them ever stray too far from the gene pool. So you can imagine that even the simple announcement that Fantasy Empire, the duo’s 7th LP, marked their first foray into studio recording managed to raise some eyebrows, for better or worse. Could a neutered studio version of Lightning Bolt mean the end of their raucous reign as noise-rock saviors, or will it open up new sounds and innovations never before heard on a Lightning Bolt record and totally reimagine their already hot-tempered sound.

Well, to be honest, neither. Fantasy Empire might be the sharpest and perhaps clearest record Lightning Bolt have produced, but the end result is undoubtedly Lightning Bolt – a savage, sprawling, laser focused drum and bass attack that beats primal riffs over your head like a caveman club until you can no longer see straight. And, as you could imagine, this is in no way a bad thing. Instead of using the studio to temper their sound or reinvent it, the duo uses their added resources to bring their core elements – few as they may be – into radiant high definition, causing riffs and drum fills to sound clearer and more blunt than ever before. This is especially true for Gibson’s bass. For years it seemed that Brian Gibson possessed the most tortured, perverted, and violated bass guitar in all of rock music, and while this is still essentially true, the added production push truly brings the man’s powerful riffage to life, allowing his riffs to stand out over the strange, otherworldly noises his instrument otherwise produces.

Speaking of otherworldly noises, it should be noted that while mutant distortion and feedback is still a prominent element of Fantasy Empire, the band definitely seem much more interested in grooves, riffs, and rhythm here than on any other previous release. Tracks like That Metal East, King of My World, and the exhilarating Over the River and Through the Woods, which careens forward with harrowing punk energy before locking into brilliant sludge-pop splendor, are built on some of the tightest grooves and most distinct, identifiable riffs the band has ever produced, and rather than drowning them in squealing pig-fuck noise, the duo lets these riffs speak for themselves, nakedly bludgeoning you with them with an almost hypnotic effect. Even a purely rhythmic track like Horsepower, which in the past would have probably unspooled into a completely atonal dirge, actually builds and builds on its simple riff with a sense of drama and catharsis that pays more respect to the song's groove and riff rather than simply the volume. Still, tracks like the spleen-bursting Mythmaker reliably crop up to do some damage to your eardrums in true, wonderful Lightning Bolt fashion.

Even with Lightning Bolt sounding pretty much at the top of their game in regards to sound engineering and riff ravaging, it is a tad disappointing that the band’s venture out of their comfort zone didn’t yield more sounds and songs that reflected this. Aside from the strikingly luminous instrumental Leave The Lantern Lit and a few embellishments here or there (The crescendoing bass flutters that pop up in Mythmaker) there isn’t much at all on Fantasy Empire that would have sounded particularly out of place on any previous Lightning Bolt album – even Brian Chippendale's voice is just as muffled and distorted as it’s ever been. But when two musicians come together to so perfectly harness a sound all their own from day one that no other artist could even come close to properly replicating the way these two Brian’s have, it’s pretty hard to fault them for sticking to their guns so closely and put their energy towards subtle tweaks and refinements rather than grand, sweeping departures. And while Fantasy Empire is definitely still more of a tweak than a departure, when you’re still producing albums as monstrously savage and bewildering as this over 15 years into your career, those tweaks can still sound pretty damn significant on their own terms.