This noise rock duo has been terrifying the music scene for close to two decades now with their unconventional sound and experimental attitude. Throughout their career Lightning Bolt have stuck with the same recipe that seems to be working so marvelously for them: chaotic patterns, schizoid riffs, intense songs and with a fucking razor sharp edge to them. Fantasy Empire finds them quite close to where their previous full-length, Earthly Delights left things off. A more aggressive and metallic sound that is. But the deal with Fantasy Empire is that they seem to have a much better handle on what they are doing, and as a result the songs seem more inspired and overwhelming.
The manner in which the album kicks off has something of a metal/punk hybrid entity with the powerful and down beating drumming completely annihilating everything in its path. The more metallic influence is apparent in tracks such as “Over The River and Through The Woods,” with the breakdown halfway through especially reminiscent of the heavier genre, and in a more anthemic manner in “Dream Genie.” The heavy rock infusion is also quite apparent in the record with “Horsepower” and its absolute hook of a riff, “Runaway Train” and its huge riffage and “Mythmaster” with its diesel driven heavy rock attitude. Despite having the vocals lower in the mix and fairly distorted, they are able to capture the appropriate feeling for each different part. Especially at moments when you would expect bigger vocals to come in, they deliver quite well, for instance in “Over The River and Through The Woods.” And when a more deranged approach is necessary, they once again get it right, with the insane delivery in “King of My World” and “Runaway Train.”
That of course does not mean that the band has left behind any of the chaos that ensued in their music to this point. On the contrary, in Fantasy Empire they are really out for blood. The mayhem that arises in parts of the opening track is proof enough of that, while the volatile nature of Lightning Bolt is still as unpredictable as ever. The way in which the structure of “Over The River and Through The Woods” can go in and out of a chaotic stage is insane, while in “Mythmaster” it feels like a feral animal is attacking and then retreating before you can even realize what hit you. At other times of course, they keep their erratic nature at bay, with “Horsepower” and “Dream Genie” especially. It is still there, but it never goes full blown on you.
It is simply insane when you consider the modes that Lightning Bolt can go in. Their rhythmic patterns can vary from straightforward to becoming absolutely unpredictable within just a few seconds. That happens with the patterns in “The Metal East,” while at other times there might be a need for more repetition, something that the band indulges in with “King of My World.” On the other hand you get the absolutely insane mode the drums are in with “Dream Genie” and the completely bonkers playing of “Over The River and Through The Woods” which make you feel as you are running through a maze with something chasing after you!
The same notion is implemented with the riffs and leads that the band unleashes. In the opening track, “Horsepower” and “Dream Genie” the parts are pure ear candy, instantly clicking with their catchy style. But that does not slow them down when it comes to throwing some quite dissonant and razor sharp parts, as they do with the ending of “Runaway Train,” in “King of My World” with a more mesmerizing approach and in “Mythmaster” with the blastbeats continuously pummeling down.
And do not even get me started in the final track of the album, “Snow White (& The 7 Dwarves Fans).” The band navigates their experimental side in quite an impressive way in that one, with an insane build up for the track, following circling patterns, still managing to add in variation when that is appropriate. The way in which the song explodes is insane and the drive that Lightning Bolt can give it is terrifying. A roller coaster ride through order and chaos, switches of pace and mind bending material that is exactly what you would want to hear from such a band.
Lightning Bolt is one of these bands that, even though their sound is chaotic and unpredictable, really know what they are after. In Fantasy Empire they are able to fuse their chaotic nature and impulse with great hooks and addictive patterns, unleashing one of their strongest records to date.
Though much attention relating to 2015’s Austin Psych Fest (a.k.a. Levitation) was directed towards the reunion of the legendary 13th Floor Elevators, one of the biggest surprises in the lineup for me was the appearance of Rhode Island’s Lightning Bolt. I guess I never really thought of this aggressive and abrasive noise duo (made up of Brian Gibson who plays a specially-rigged bass and drummer Brian Chippendale who also does vocals of one sort or another) as being “psychedelic,” but maybe I should considering the sound of the group’s latest album, 2015’s Fantasy Empire. Seeming more deliberate than some of the group’s previous albums, this one may tread the closest to being accessible to the mainstream - at least partially due to the fact that Chippendale’s drumming seems relatively restrained (by his standards anyway). Furthermore, the crisp sound quality of Fantasy Empire ensures that it's a far cry from the group’s early lo-fi recordings for Load Records.
It seems fitting that album opener “The Metal East” starts off with a repeating and almost nagging bass riff that seems to signal impending destruction much as a fire whistle sounding as a storm rolls into town would. By the time Chippendale joins in with a straight-forward, cracking rhythm, a listener is already smack in the middle of a furious cyclone of relentless, flatulent low tones and high-pitched squeals. Chippendale’s heavily-distorted vocals bounce around a playfully menacing nursery-rhyme verse before the track is, at the halfway point, reduced to sounding like feeding time at the baboon pen due to an overload of digitized effects. Despite the opener’s trashing momentum, it’s actually the second track “Over the River and Through the Woods” which immediately sounds more like quintessential Lightning Bolt. A violent opening riff paves the way for Chippendale to unleash a full-on assault of spastic drumming over which Gibson mercilessly pumps out a series of downright mean, repeating arpeggios. Topped with a psychedelic cocktail of echoed, swirling vocals, the hypnotic piece abruptly shifts into a slowed-down and frankly irresistible second section that’s more likely to inspire pronounced headbanging than aggressive slam dancing.
Third track “Horsepower” is the first of a few here that seems an appeal to more mainstream listeners. Full of warped, warbled, disgusting bass progressions from Gibson, the track is highlighted by lyrics that are – gasp! - almost understandable and a rhythm that halts for nothing. Arguably the most repetitive offering on the album (which is saying something), “King of My World” is somewhat more fanciful in terms of its tone, playing like an extended exploration of basic riffs while the grungier “Mythmaster” alternates between brutally aggressive sections and comparatively relaxed ones. The aptly-titled “Runaway Train” comes across almost like Lightning Bolt performing a Death From Above 1979 track - minus the rock-oriented vocals. Gibson proves he can really wail on his rig when he wants to, and it almost seems like he and Chippendale are slamming parts of traditional songs together into a cauldron of chaos – which only makes the brief but pleasant interlude track that follows all the more disarming.
As the album draws to a close, “Dream Genie” presents a mixture of banshee vocals, wah-infused melodies, and grimy low-pitched honks before a listener is presented with the lengthy, jam-like concluding piece “Snow White (& The 7 Dwarves Fans)". Is this a reference to the legendary punk group? It’s anyone’s guess, but the track does find a shuffling introductory groove being tossed aside in favor of growling bass and continual snare rolls. Later, a slithering and almost industrial bassline pops up, luring the listener into a trance before an especially bombastic final minute or so. This closer proves that Lightning Bolt haven’t completely abandoned their “anything goes” free jazz sensibilities, and though it may be a take it or leave it track for some, I was OK buying into what the two Brians delivered.
It’s always been a struggle to capture the essence of Lightning Bolt in a studio setting. This is a band which, let’s face it, is most known and most notable for their out-of-control live sets, and over the years, Lightning Bolt albums have ranged from being improvisational juggernauts to blasts of brutally loud but primitive songs. Admittedly, I’d more or less given up hope of this duo producing another classic – not only had they all but dropped off the radar in recent years, but it seemed like the players simply weren’t interested in a more focused effort. The six year hiatus between 2009’s Earthly Delights and Fantasy Empire seems to have brought a new energy to the project and the result is a slightly less harsh but undeniably exhilarating and surprisingly listenable album that may just be Lightning Bolt’s best overall. Even if Gibson and Chippendale have mellowed out a bit over time and may be attempting to achieve some cross-over success two decades into their music career, this band still kills in a live setting and seems to be as good as ever when it comes to crafting their unique brand of madness in the studio.
8.2 / 10
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