Lightning Bolt

'Earthly Delights' (Load) -- 4.5 STARS

Seminal noise rock duo Lightning Bolt—bassist Brian Gibson and drummer Brian Chippendale—play their bone-crunching live shows on the floor of whatever venue is crazy enough to allow it, using only volume to push back the churning crowd of future tinnitus patients that surrounds them. Fueled by Gibson’s two refrigerator-sized speaker cabs pumping out over three thousand watts of distorted bass alongside Chippendale’s drumstick-shattering rhythms, Lightning Bolt’s elusive concerts—frequently announced only days or hours in advance—are an unforgettable experience.

With these primal, high-energy shows that have made them legendary, it’s understandable that Lightning Bolt’s studio efforts have often been overshadowed by their (non-)stage presence. The duo’s albums have historically been defined, and occasionally limited, by their relationship to the incomparable concerts they put on.

Lightning Bolt recorded the bulk of their eponymous debut in a studio, but before the album’s release decided to scrap the meticulously-recorded studio cuts in favor of live 4-track recordings. The result was what one would expect when condensing a room full of pummeling drums and gut-wrenching bass amplifiers down to anemic laptop speakers, tinny iPod headphones, or muddy home stereos: while it reminded a lucky few of that crazy show they saw in a dirty Providence loft, to the rest of us it sounded underpowered and underwhelming. Subsequent releases improved the recording quality, but still sought to capture the spontaneity of a live show, using very little production and emphasizing improvisation over formal composition.

“Earthly Delights,” the duo’s fifth LP, reflects the completion of Lightning Bolt’s transition from grasping at their elusive live sound to crafting a full-fledged studio album. The differences from 2005’s “Hypermagic Mountain” are small but significant, taking the band beyond mere reproduction of a live show. The wider sonic range afforded by proper mic placement and high-end recording equipment gives bassist Brian Gibson’s densely layered effects a bit of breathing room, revealing a textural intricacy that is lost in live performance. On “The Sublime Freak”, Gibson’s feedback-soaked bass rattles the hi-hat before diving into a riff as catchy as you can expect from the borderline noise that is Lightning Bolt. Multiple effects chains are audible above Chippendale’s machine gun drumming, and the latter half of the track features multi-tracking that would have been unthinkable in the band’s early days. The result is a thick tangle of dissonance that can hardly be traced to the single, humble vibrating string from which it emerged.

It’s hard to believe that Gibson’s signature sonic texture comes from a single instrument, but more surprising than the density of Gibson’s tone is the wide range of atmospheres he and Chippendale manage to evoke with their limited palette. The intro to “Flooded Chamber” is crafted from loops of pitch-shifted feedback, coalescing into a mournful seagull cry above Chippendale’s skittering ADD drums. “Rain on Lake I’m Swimming In” is a wash of echoed, harmonized bass melody underneath whimsical, indecipherable processed vocals. Both of these tracks show a marked deviation from the duo’s relentless riffage without sacrificing their signature sound.

With their simple two-instrument setup perfected, the Brians are able to turn their attention towards the fundamental elements of songwriting: motivic development, the rise and fall of tension, and yes, even melody. Tracks like “Funny Farm” show a more formal arrangement, with clearly identifiable call-and-response patterns providing structure to a genre that often lapses into shapelessness.

The compositional techniques guiding each song’s overall development can also be heard on a micro level, with constant subtle variations on otherwise repetitive riffs. This is most evident in Chippendale’s frenetic drumming, which offloads much of its traditional duty as repetitive time-keeper to Gibson’s chunky, rhythmic bass. Chippendale is thus free to play as a soloist in a jazz combo, exploring every possible subdivision and inversion of the dominant rhythmic motif. The drums in “Nation of Boar” heighten tension as they increase in complexity, reaching a frantic virtuosic peak before lunging back into a pounding 4/4 rhythm.

“Earthly Delights” marks Lightning Bolt’s emergence as a fully competent studio act. It is a career landmark, if not their pinnacle, suggesting multiple potential directions for the band: imitate their current successes ad infinitum, explore radically different territory, or walk the delicate line of career innovators such as Sonic Youth and Radiohead. Lightning Bolt has defined their territory and explored its every facet, and “Earthly Delights” is the perfection of their current form.

—Staff writer Mark A. VanMiddlesworth can be reached at mvanmidd@fas.harvard.edu.

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