ightning Bolt, for lack of better terms, will kick your ass. In the live environment, bassist Brian Gibson and drummer Brian Chippendale unleash a torrent of hyper-kinetic hell from a ceiling-scraping stack of amplifiers and a kit of beat-to-death drums. The duo delivers – always at hemmorhage-inducing volume -- a tangled mess of Ruins-esque prog as filtered through the trebly nihilism of the Rhode Island hardcore movement. They shun the stage in favor of setting up in the middle of the club so that the audience can share ground zero and the subsequent hearing loss that comes with it. The show is a mix of noise frenzy and spectacle – Gibson’s hand race over the bass’ neck to emit a stream of chainsaw-tone arpeggios and feedback shrieks while Chippendale relentlessly pummels his drums and shouts through the homemade Mexican-wrestling-mask-cum-microphone-harness obscuring his face. It’s the sort of thing that could inspire dancing if the audience members weren’t so busy checking their ears for blood. On their most recently recorded album, Ride the Skies , the band plays up the technical precision and skittering breakbeats buried beneath the noise. Granted, the album features maniacal racket aplenty – only these noise bursts reside among stretches of extra-nimble fretwork and metronome-precise rhythmic shifts. The ear-splitting roar of bass is refined to its effects-processed core and the drums are crisp, clean, and perfectly audible throughout. The record is loud, for sure, but complex enough to send the more prog-loving listeners back to their rooms to practice scales for a few more hours.
For many, the reissue of Lightning Bolt’s self-titled first album may represent the merger of the two halves of the Lightning Bolt equation. Recorded live at the band’s Fort Thunder headquarters between 1997 and 1998, Lightning Bolt finds Chippendale and Gibson splitting their attention between thrash-and-bash noise and airtight precision. Most of the signifiers of the band’s distinct sound appear intact on these earlier recordings – the bass shrieks and buzzes, the drums pulse nonstop in ever-shifting patterns, and the incomprehensible vocals still squeal beneath the surface. True to their live origins, the structures tend to be more open-ended and improvisatory than latter-day Lightning Bolt while retaining a portion of the mathematical complexity found on Ride the Skies . The album’s “recorded live” nature is also the source of the record’s other defining factor – its astoundingly variable recording fidelity. The best-recorded tracks should be filed under “murky,” while the worst recorded tracks sound a little like a shoelace peppered with iron filings being dragged across the tape heads. Fortunately, the majority of the tracks burst with an agitated energy that not even poor recording could suppress.
Album opener “Into the Valley” begins with a brief round of applause soon muted by a surge of processed bass and furious drumming. For ten minutes, the bass methodically pounds the opening motive into the ground with rigor and exactitude. The single theme crumbles under countless variations, pitch-shifting treatments, and rhythmic displacements as Gibson unfolds minimal material into a pulsating blur of fuzzy sound-shapes. Chippendale’s drumming performs a similar act of serialism by exploring every possible permutation in his endless sixteenth-note barrage. Only the all-too-common tape warbles manage to desynchronize the duo’s clockwork timing. The first track’s final feedback squeak segues into the appropriately named “Murk Hike,” a two-note trudge with none of the energy or invention found on the first track. Trapped in a dull low-end buzz and mired by plodding drums, “Murk Hike” seems more like incidental music than an essential piece – a conclusion supported by its seemingly arbitrary ending. “Caught Deep in the Zone” begins with a half-humorous, half-unsettling taped statement about “alternative music” as delivered by a nervous-sounding man with a bizarre accent. The ensuing onslaught eschews any scrap of melody for blasts of treble squeal, percussive bass stabs, and distorted grunts and groans. The result is an invigoratingly brutal inner ear scrape unlike anything else in the Lightning Bolt canon. “Fleeing the Valley of Whirling Knives,” by contrast, is an exemplary model of the Lightning Bolt formula. The track begins with Gibson and Chippendale in a locked groove of satanic funk, complete with the shrieks of the damned hovering above the bass growl. The track later explodes into a flurry of chainsaw-hum arpeggios and endlessly mutating drum cycles every bit as agile as they are visceral. The track is an appropriate representation of Lightning Bolt stumbling upon their mature – if the word can be used in relation to such a band – sound after a few tracks of mixed experimentation.
The bonus tracks found on the CD reissue, unfortunately, appear to be no real bonus at all. “Zone” emerges as the most glaring example of the aforementioned “trebly nihilism” gone wrong. Beginning with an uncreative tape mangling of the spoken introduction from earlier in the album, “Zone” introduces a series of unidentifiable clangs and croaks panned through the sound-field and drowned in tape hiss. The events increase in density for six minutes, growing increasingly fascinating and increasingly tense until a landslide of tape-saturating noise buries these relatively delicate sounds. Although initially cathartic, the din soon grows completely uninteresting as its texture flattens under the strain of severe recording limitations. Peaks of interest do emerge from beneath the wreckage – thus indicating that the actual performance may indeed have been very gripping – but the majority of the track’s thirty-minute duration comes off as a masturbatory bleat poorly recorded. The final track, “And Beyond,” suffers from a disparity of interest and boredom, replacing the noise wankery of “Zone” with an unfunny series of pointless in-jokes. In the end, both of the bonus tracks come off as inessential add-ons included for marketing, rather than musical, reasons.
For those unfamiliar with the chaos and complexity of Lightning Bolt, Ride the Skies offers a much more accessible picture of the band as they are today. The reissued self-titled, although possessing of an infectious energy and fearlessness, remains too hindered by the occasional stretch of aimless noodling and by the texture-sapping nature of its muddy recording. For those already indoctrinated, Lightning Bolt presents a number of brain-bashing diamonds hidden in the rough and proposes new ways to torture the neighbors already acclimated to the band’s more refined efforts. In the end, Lightning Bolt distinguishes itself as a genuine mess – a loveable mess, but a mess all the same.
Reviewed by: Joe Panzner
Reviewed on: 2003-09-01