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Review: Lightning Bolt Add Pleasure to Expressionistic Thrash on ‘Fantasy Empire’

lightning bolt
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: March 18, 2015
Label: Thrill Jockey

Our brief time on earth offers few pleasures greater than listening to Brian Chippendale play drums. The Lightning Bolt drummer/vocalist’s skin-tight snare and the rest of his spartan kit reflect boundless mania and curiosity. Along with bassist Brian Gibson, the pair already have a bunch of lo-fi albums under their belts that put speed and noise above everything else. In the eyes and hands of Lightning Bolt, music is largely a tool for sanding skin down to the bone, rather than constructing anything resembling a crossover hit. But on Fantasy Empire, their first album for Chicago’s long-running eclectic institution Thrill Jockey, they up the fidelity and the sensory output of their sound, resulting in the most pleasurable version of their expressionistic thrash they’ve ever done.

Which is to say that while they did pay a bit more attention to the production, the schematics of Lightning Bolt haven’t changed much on their seventh LP. They are still as primal as they’ve always been, just a drummer and a bass player with only a few overdubs and pedal looping throughout, jackhammering away at riffs under a network of drums. This new development in fidelity, however, exposes the band for what they really are. The ruse of Lightning Bolt is that what first feels like a blitzkrieg wall of noise is actually Chippendale and Gibson engaging in a ritual dismembering, something far more calculated. Their music, especially on the crystal-clear Fantasy Empire, is a well-choreographed silat knife fight: balletic and violent, never formless.

The clarity and hidden structure of their sound makes it all the more brutal this time: “Mythmaster” shifts back and forth from meaty riff-rock to a galactic noise pit, but it all builds to a fine point at the end, and the six-minute-plus “Over the River and Through the Woods” shapes its chaos into a dirtbike rally beneath a one-man drum’n’bass cover band. For all of the duo’s obsession with noise and inscrutability, they cherish the idea of a beginning, a middle, and an end, and build songs modularly, if not unconventionally. Unlike the tinny wash of their earlier albums, Fantasy Empire never makes you feel like you’re lost.

The sonic definition unlocks new observations: Gibson’s playing is just as expressive as Chippendale’s it turns out, like an unearthed Cliff Burton. You can hear the bass in his bass now, and his tasteful overdubs here and there add a welcome depth to the forward motion. Together they come closer to Anthony Braxton playing with Max Roach than any band in the rock idiom, really, though the pentatonic riffs of “Runaway Train” steer dangerously close to Death From Above 1979 and (heaven forbid) early Muse. But they’ll move in this direction one moment only to dismantle it the very next. Listening to Lightning Bolt isn’t always the kind of thick-necked dual exhaust of the American metal experience, but Fantasy Empire equally splits its time between the physical and metaphysical. It belongs as much in a musty basement as it does in an art gallery. Listen to the crack of Chippendale’s snare against Gibson’s bass on a cosmic level, or get in the pit and try to love someone; Fantasy Empire cuts both ways and leaves you bloody.