Album Review: Sonic Citadel by Lightning Bolt

by Ruairí McCann

The seventh and latest album from noise rock duo Lightning Bolt is the rough next step in two trajectories. One is relatively easy to draw and the other less so. The former is that following on from their previous album Fantasy Empire (2015), it is a product of a hi-fi recording set up, making clear and mixed a sound that is maximalist through minimalist and DIY means. They are restricted to a bassist, Brian Gibson and drummer/vocalist, Brian Chippendale, out of which they play extremely fast and loud noise rock with influences taken from punk, metal, progressive rock and even free jazz (via Chippendale’s virtuosic and detailed drumming) – all funneled through a home configured slate of techniques and equipment. For example, Gibson’s bass uses a cello tuning, a fifth, additional banjo string and a bevy of effects pedals and both plucking and finger tapping techniques to play a bass that often sounds like it is an electric guitar or something less definable. In recent years Chippendale has added his own effects pedals, which are hooked up to his long-lasting odd job of a microphone; a contact mic and a telephone receiver combined to make his voice sound like a detuned radio. This higher degree of fidelity is a far cry in not just aesthetic but principle from their first album, much of which isn’t just lo-fi but live recordings drafted to fill in the gaps left not only by limited funds, but an impatience born out of a live band ethos that is still at the forefront of their identity.

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The other narrative is that after over twenty years they have made their pop album. Or at least there is an accessibility, as something distinct from commerciality, that has been tentatively in the making since WonderfulRainbow (2003) which contains sustained stretches of relative calm and extended melody, like the first half of “Longstockings,” where Gibson offers a conspicuously clean bass line and Chippendale with tempered, rather than his usual arms-a-blur, drumming sings a strong melody. In general, that album and its follow-ups contain catchier riffs and less instances of freeform freak outs which swallow up entire tracks. Yet the most abundant cache of pop can be found outside their main discography in Chippendale’s solo project Black Pus, particularly on the albums Black Pus 4, All Aboard The Magic Pus (2008) and All My Relations (2013), which rely on simple noise loops and a greater focus on his vocals to fill in the space left by Gibson’s absence.

Black Pus wields the most influence over this new album, the most compact and structured container of their music so far, in terms of putting a limit on sonic experimentation and shortening the length of the songs. For on their previous albums, though not to the same extent when they play live, they have a tendency through repetition or the pull of zonked out improvisation to run long. Here, save for the manic nine minute closer “Van Halen 2049” and “Hüsker Dön’t,” everything stays under six minutes. Yet this is not a short album (it’s longer than the last) primarily because of the lack of pint-sized noise-driven interludes. Instead, most songs play out in three to five minutes. Perfect vessels for the band to exercise their pop muscles like on “USA Is A Psycho” (in name a confirmed nod to fellow Load Records alumni The USA Is a Monster) with its bop-along drumbeat and Chippendale hoo-hahing in between pitch shifting a croon to the tune of Gibson’s hoedown. (It is a requisite for a Lightning Bolt album to feature at least one track that sounds like a demented country jamboree). There is All Insane, which – apart from Gibson’s bass distorting and stretching like taffy near the end – is perhaps their most straight forward rock song, with the highest number of legible lyrics attached to the most complex melody Chippendale has ever sung.

Both how wonderfully structured and catchy these songs are, and the two Brians’ combined capability to function as a single unit reaches a mid-point apex with the album’s best song, the appropriately titled “Big Banger.” It’s five minutes are neatly divided in two halves, the first dominated by Gibson’s playing, and how it can flit from something experimental like this odd distorted bassline – so fuzzed out and simple it sounds more like a techno throb, programmed rather than plucked – to a more straightforward line like an overdriven, but relatively clean, speed metal riff which he interpolates not only within this song but throughout the album. Meanwhile Chippendale is in the rare position where he is in support, his kick acting in time with the throb while he lays down a soundscape of mouth sounds and cymbal rushes. Then there’s the switch, with Chippendale’s drumming expanding to include his full kit and his vocals take more of a lead while Gibson drops the fuzz for a slower, doomier riff which is then laid over the aforementioned speedier one.

The album’s relative pop breeds an optimism that is most concentrated on two of its standout tracks. “Halloween 3” opens with Chippendale gathering steam with his kick and his characteristic playground-chant style singing inspirational lyrics such as “My fear’s like a wall, I don’t need no walls at all. Like the shining sun, the shining sun is so much fun.” He then repeats it as he is joined by a chiming, delayed bassline. This bit of sun-kissed psychedelia gets a full outing with “Don Henley In the Park,” which features Chippendale playfully warbling and laying down a robust but tempered beat over which Gibson delivers a series of glistening, ascending notes that sound like they are tripping over one another to be heard. The song runs this beautifully accumulative course, as Chippendale starts to delay his vocals and belt out an explosive series of snare hits, which Gibson responds to by layering notes on top of each other and dropping to downtempo. On other songs this would lead to a double-timed finish but instead everything drops save for the bass and vocal echoes swirling around one other in a haze.

Though as if to declare, with finality, how elastic a style they have developed, there is the closer, “Van Halen 2049,” which dispenses of both the poppiness and the positivity. The track is an outlier not only because of its length but because of it is sinister, anchorless sound. Erupting freeform as Gibson – showing how in comparison to Chippendale’s full on, lead-like drumming he is often the band’s base – throws it all into chaos by eschewing a stable, easy to follow rhythm and instead generates and adds to a hive-like din of pitched up and down lines, being looped and layered manifold while Chippendale’s playing is equally rootless and scattershot. The track finds tact though, just short of the seven minute mark, when Gibson settles on a grimy, rock-bottom tone riff matching the tempo set by Chippendale’s playing, which reaches a speed and texture that feels like it’s right up to the limit when it comes to pulling off a flesh and blood imitation of breakcore. This race to the finish is accompanied by a host of shrieking loud effects, including the ghost of the metal riff and spurts of what sounds like someone slamming the horror chord on an organ. For the life of me I cannot tell if the latter is a by-product of Gibson’s intricately arranged pedals or Chippendale’s vox box but it hardly matters for it goes to show how symbiotic these two are at this point in their noisemaking and their commitment, even on their most accessible record, to experimentation. The said effect also provides an immensely satisfying full stop, drowning out all other elements and closing an album that is one of the mavens of noise rock’s highs. 

Ruairí McCann is a graduate of English Literature with Film Studies (BA) from University College Dublin and Fim Studies (MA) from Queen’s University Belfast. He sits on the board of the Silgo Film Society and has written for Photogénie and Berlin Film Journal.

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