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When Brian Chippendale and Brian Gibson formed Lightning Bolt as an improv-noise project twenty years ago at Rhode Island School of Design, I wonder did they envisage that they would still be assaulting us with their coruscating music so many years later. Their sixth album after a five year break - and their first release for Thrill Jockey - Fantasy Empire sees some subtle changes to their style.
Chippendale's drums still rattle with a fury not many can match, and his bee-trapped-in-a-jar vocal delivery - an effect achieved by gaffer taping a contact mic to his face - is present and correct. Gibson still has all manner of effects on his bass, equally capable of filling the duo's sound out yet also creating illogical sounding high-end squeals.
What is different about Fantasy Empire is that the band has moved away from their older analogue gear to work with digital recording equipment at Machines With Magnets studio. It means that this time around they sound a little more precise. Although some of the songs have been part of their live sets of the last few years, for this album they worked with digital loops so their repetition has more stamina and precision. There is separation between Chippendale's drums and Gibson's guitars and the overall sound is less of a chaotic fuzz and more a precise attack - as if they are taking their band name literally. You could say that they had gone for clarity, but strictly that isn't true, because for the whole 48 minutes Chippendale's vocals are as unintelligible as ever.
This new approach is strikingly evident comes on the crisp and precise riffing on album opener 'The Metal East'. This is punctuated with high pitched bursts of guitar amongst the wall of bass and clattering, intense drums, but it's the breakdown that really grabs you with its incredibly low bass solo.
However, the piece which illustrates how well they have come to grips with their new approach is 'Horsepower' which has a cracking looped guitar riff, coming on like a metal band having a blast through My Bloody Valentine's 'Soon'. Another highlight is 'Dream Genie', which is Gibson's tour de force as he cranks out some huge sounds from his bass rig and then seamlessly switches into some brilliant, intense riffing.
Whilst the overall sound will still be familiar to fans of their other records - the massive repetitive riff and maniac hi-frequency squeals of 'Runaway Train' and the rhythmic pounding of 'Mythmaster' are both classic Lightning Bolt - there are some surprises.
'Over the River and Through the Woods' changes pace and lurches into almost funky section halfway through, and 'Leave the Lantern Lit' is an odd rhythm-free noise interlude, with some tracks running backwards in the mix. The epic eleven-minute closing track 'Snow White (& the Seven Dwarves Fans)' builds slowly before they ramp up the intensity. The strong melody line has some subtle echoes of 'The Metal East' and it's as if the whole album has come full circle.
In the five years away from the studio they certainly haven't stagnated. Fantasy Empire is the sound of a band modifying their sound rather than totally changing direction and whilst their spontaneity may have been tempered by their new ways of recording, their intensity and creativity remains very much intact.
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