It’s been six years since Lightning Bolt’s last proper album, Earthly Delights, which has been time enough for the band to have had three attempts at recording a follow up, and for drummer Brian Chippendale to release several solo albums under the name Black Pus.
Fantasy Empire finds the band at a time in their career where they seem to be making steps towards what some might consider a more “professional” approach. For their live shows they’re playing on a stage, rather than on the floor, as has been traditional over the years. This is, in part so that more of the audience get to experience the full force of a Lightning Bolt show. It’s not just to keep the short and the last through the door happy, it’s a move that’s reflective of the band’s increasing popularity.
This album also marks the first time that the Brians (Brian Gibson – bass, Brian Chippendale – drums and vocals) have utilised hi-fidelity recording techniques. Their previous albums were exercises in fuzzed up, energised sonic assault, and whilst Fantasy Empire is no different in terms of attack and intent, there’s a clarity to it that makes it more effective. The band wanted the album to reflect the immediacy of their live shows, so whilst it is no longer possible to attend a show and find yourself draped over a bassdrum or bellowing at whichever Brian takes your fancy, the sheer immediacy of Fantasy Empire does, to a degree, harness that live barrage of sound.
Bands featuring just bass and drums are quite common these days (just ask Royal Blood or Death From Above 1979) but nobody does it quite like Lightning Bolt. They’ve had 20 years ploughing their own peculiar furrow, honing their craft and expanding their sound beyond what should be possible with what appears to be, at face value at least, a fairly simplistic set up. Fantasy Empire is perhaps the most accurate documentation of Lightning Bolt so far as well as their most accessible.
The album opens with The Metal East, a feral beast of a song that might not offer any surprises to anyone already familiar with the band but that does at least indicate that they’ve has lost none of their ferocity in the recording process. Gibson’s bass runs the gamut between incessant high-end niggle and rumbling low end menace whilst Chippendale’s frantic drumming is as impressive and unhinged as ever. Over The River And Through The Woods maintains the intensity initially, before suddenly switching pace at the midpoint and dabbling in something that could almost be described as prog-metal, were it not swamped in such terrifying amounts of distortion.
Indeed there are a number of nods to metal’s influence across Fantasy Empire, not least on Horsepower which reins in the distortion a little yet still manages to sound like the bastard offspring of Ace Of Spades. Of course part of Lightning Bolt’s strength is that they throw all their influences into the mix, apply their molten fuzzy logic and the results are rarely less than stunning. Mythmaster is a prime example of the band’s ability to switch dynamics and tempo with terrifying dexterity. Initially a portentous stomp, it suddenly breaks into life with a sudden explosive blast beat and briefly settles into a rolling groove. From there, it’s a mix of death metal drumming, swirling loops, and claustrophobic bass lines all apparently designed to crush and dismember Chippendale’s howled vocals.
The closing behemoth of Snow White (& The 7 Dwarves Fans) is a 12 minute exercise in brutality, dynamic flexibility and experimentation. The song’s ebb and flow is expertly handled, with Chippendale and Gibson exchanging lead roles frequently as the narrative unfolds before eventually becoming a loose and riotous jam. It’s evidence, if any were needed that Lightning Bolt are still pushing at the edges, and are still exploring their own dynamics, it’s just this time around, it’s possible to hear every thrilling nuance.