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Review: Lightning Bolt, 'Fantasy Empire'

Fantasy Empire
Courtesy of the artist
Fantasy Empire

About 15 years ago, Lightning Bolt's members set up on the floor in the living-room area of a fourth-floor residential loft in Brooklyn. Sweating in full-body knitwear and ski masks, they rolled out stacks of amplifiers and a massive drum kit, then proceeded to blast the 50- or 60-person audience through the sheet rock. Even at that early date, they'd fully harnessed their sound, with a harmonic buzzing noise so loud it'd obliterate most rational thought, and a rhythmic assault engineered to make you move in time to every jump and skip. Here was a confrontation of maximalist proportions that pulled off the trick of threading itself back around, linking everyone in proximity with the band itself.

The physicality of their music extended beyond the performance; since they wouldn't play on a stage, you could feel the air being displaced by Brian Gibson's bass cabinet. You'd blink from each strike of Brian Chippendale's snare drum, tuned high to sound like a dodgeball hitting a brick wall. If you were up front with them, it was as if you were magnetically linked to Lightning Bolt, and to the people around you. This wasn't a mosh pit. This was a commune built around sheer force; a way to bring people together that the standoffishness of punk and the posturing of indie rock couldn't accommodate.

Not long afterward, Lightning Bolt was getting booked at clandestine venues and in basements across the country, and with much greater frequency. Being up front suddenly felt like a rugby scrum, and a look down at the floor revealed Birkenstocks, Steve Maddens, loafers and even chunky lace-up boots among the sneakers. The sound had reached out and pulled in people from different walks of life; it opened up from chaos and brought in melodic frequencies and folk-inspired compositions, electrified through the rig and made to jitter with the drums. Lightning Bolt's visual style grew, as well, and the talents of its Rhode Island brethren came through in their own work, which grew to include side projects (Megasus, Mindflayer, Black Pus, Wizardzz) and opened doors for Chippendale to record with Bjork and the Boredoms. Through it all, Lightning Bolt became an event band operating on its own terms: It made records when it wanted to, all on the same small label, and refused to perform on any stage or platform, no matter the risks.

Lightning Bolt takes a few steps toward modernity on Fantasy Empire, which finds the duo moving away from congested, low-fidelity sounds in the pursuit of studio clarity. Listening is akin to the scene in The Wizard Of Oz where a sepia tone gives way to Technicolor; it opens up new vistas to the sound, while giving the band an opportunity to exhibit more involved musicianship. It's less a blur and more a detailed map of planned aggression.

"Horsepower," "The Metal East," "Runaway Train" and "Mythmaster" signal Lightning Bolt's most committed stance toward heavy metal since its inception, as each song displays an innate knack for laying down a stern, masterful riff and lighting the fuse behind it. Elsewhere, the band continues to bleed rainbows. The ecstatic blast of guitar and keyboards that reverberates through "King Of My World," the stutter step of prog-rock in "Over The River And Through The Woods," and the brief tape composition of "Leave The Lantern Lit" show that the lessons of Lightning Bolt's past are still being practiced. When its different approaches come together in the 11-minute "Snow White (& The 7 Dwarves Fans)," the effect is akin to having the rug pulled out from under you and watching someone else use it as a flying carpet.

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Doug Mosurock