Graded on a Curve: Lightning Bolt,
Sonic Citadel

I can think of a lot of great reasons to love Lightning Bolt. For starters, the Providence, Rhode Island duo play noise rock, which everyone, with the exception of just about everybody, loves. Further, they play it at the velocity of a high-dosage DMT trip. What’s more, singer guy and drummer Brian Chippendale’s vocals are almost as unintelligible as Curt Kirkwood’s on 1982’s Meat Puppets, which scientists have concluded is a physical impossibility. Finally, Lightning Bolt have a great sense of humor as they prove on 2019’s Sonic Citadel, which features song titles along the lines of “Van Halen 2049,” “Don Henley in the Park,” and the simply unbeatable “Hüsker Dön’t.”

Instrumentally, Lightning Bolt are hardly your average distortion-happy power duo. They eschew the guitar, for example—Brian Gibson prefers a bass tuned to standard cello tuning, and as of late he’s been using a five-string job with two banjo strings. As for Chippendale, he prefers to sing with the microphone from a household telephone receiver in his mouth, if only because it simplifies calling his grandmother. Needless to say, Lightning Bolt sound like no one else, and they don’t behave like anyone else either. If you’re looking for a band to play at your house or in your local strip mall parking lot, they’re your guys.

Gibson has been quoted as saying “I hate, hate, hate the category ‘noise-punk’” and he doesn’t want Lightning Bolt to be labeled as such. So let’s just call them a country rock band, which could be why they’re hanging out with Don Henley in the park in the first place. Speaking of which, “Don Henley in the Park” differs from most of its companions on the album insofar as it doesn’t proceed at hyperspeed, although its dissonance quotient increases as it goes along. And it’s one of the rare songs where you can make out at least some of what Chippendale is singing, although things get sketchy after the opening lines, “Don Henley in the park/The Muppets see it’s dark.”

Album opener “Blow to the Head” is more characteristic. It pummels along like a jackhammer funny car, Gibson’s bass sounds nothing like a bass, and Chippendale is buried so far back in the mix he sounds like a man singing transcontinentally through a soup can on a string. “USA Is a Psycho” is even more unhinged—Chippendale’s drums provide a solid pounding and he does his level best to be unintelligible (although he does go “oof! a couple of times), while Gibson’s bass does the funky psychosis. As for the noise metal and meth-influenced groove that is “Air Conditioning,” Chippendale opens with a great “Di di di di di di di” stutter, screams some, then actually enunciates, while trying his hardest to out-shout Gibson’s very un-sexy bass bump and grind.

“Big Banger” is a fuzzed-out space rocker which may (I doubt it) have something to do with the origins of the universe. What I can tell you is no one out there is doing what Gibson is with the bass guitar. He’s achieving all manner of noises with it, and many of them in the same song. These songs are nowhere as linear as they sound upon first listen; Chippendale is always changing things up, and the tempos shift from fast to faster and the other way around with jarring frequency. “Halloween 3” opens with some almost decipherable Chippendale vocals, then veers back and forth between his slower vocal passages and nuclear-meltdown Armageddon, before seething its way into a long, full-moon lunacy jam.

“All Insane” throbs like a banged thumb while Chippendale steps right up front on vocals and takes care to be sure you can’t make out a word he’s singing; he opens “Tom Thump” with a “1,2,3,4!” as the song goes from anvil-drop drumming to gonzo bass shred to complete chaos. Gibson tosses a pseudo-baroque riff into the mix, and while he’s spoken to the press about working with an “extremely limited palette” his bass on this one belies his claim.

“Bouncy House” is a demonstration of percussion bedlam over which Gibson tosses in a deviant and repetitive bass figure. Once again you get barely reined-in havoc, although the song isn’t as anarchic as the nine-minute slice of sonic pandemonium that is “Van Halen 2049,” on which Gibson does things with his bass that should be impossible, or at least illegal. Which brings us to “Hüsker Dön’t,” on which Gibson’s bass sounds (at least at points) like an actual bass, that is when it isn’t embedding a circular and baroque melody within the general tumult. Meanwhile Chippendale sings what sounds like a football chant from the bleacher seats.

I would say that Lightning Bolt’s tweaker-operating-a-nail-gun approach to music isn’t for the anxious, but I suffer from a severe anxiety disorder and I love Sonic Citadel. Their music is like Ritalin in that respect. I just happened to be run into Don Henley in the park the other day and asked him what he thought about their song in his honor. He replied, “It doesn’t exactly give me a peaceful easy feeling, but I have to admit they take it to the limit.” He then added, “That said, if they’re the new kid in town, we’re all fucked.”

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A

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