Lightning Bolt is 21. Lightning Bolt is living on its own, balancing school and work. Lightning Bolt can drink, vote and smoke with no consequence. On their seventh album, they embrace being 21 as an actual 21 year old might – by accepting the rigidity of adulthood, accepting the routine of routine, but not embracing it.
The band, still comprised of just Brian Chippendale on drums and indecipherable vocals, and Brian Gibson on bass guitar, gives the impression they’re cleaning things up. The songs on Fantasy Empire feel more rehearsed. They’re more rhythmic, more practiced, more worn-in. The band even recorded in a proper studio for the first time in years. This is a trajectory most bands tend to follow – they’re crazy while they’re young, but once they get a taste of success they straighten themselves up. But, Lightning Bolt has been unpredictably successful for many years, so to hear a more straight-forward, repetitive version of the duo is surprising, to say the least.
Or at least, that’s what they want us to think. Lightning Bolt’s rigidity on Fantasy Empire is only surprising because we’re used to their wild inconsistencies. Their songs weren’t improvised, but they sure damn sounded like it. 2005’s Hypermagic Mountain, one of the albums that got me into noise music, is an hour of Chippendale beating the drums into submission and Gibson shredding wildly. On Fantasy Empire, there’s central rhythms and tempo changes. The vocals are rhythmic and coordinated (if not still wholly indiscriminate.) But they’re still the same band. On opener “The Metal East,” the band rages on like an ambulance driver in a snowstorm – an experienced one.
The Brians were really just growing tired of the recording process and wanted a change. Fantasy Empire is their first album since 2009, and some of these songs have been in their concert rotation since 2010. Musical maturity is a different route for the band. Sometimes, it works, like the sudden tempo change and crescendo on “Mythmaster.” Other times, like on “Horsepower,” the lack of insanity leaves them focus-less. More often than not, things come together. The band nods to metal, like on “Runaway Train,” and to pop, like on the surprisingly rhythmic vocals of “Over the River and Through the Woods.” They’re more leveled, letting you know when you’re going to be assaulted and by which instrument. Things come together more; there’s a semi-structured cohesiveness. And the level to which the listener finds it either off-putting or a breath of fresh air, is really up to the listener. It does leave a hole as they begin to sound like the bands they’ve inspired. But it’s a small hole, because even in its maturity, Lightning Bolt is still a 21 year old band – not yet rid of a few pranks, a few tricks up its sleeve, and a whole lot of energy.