Lightning Bolt makes gorgeous records, and I’m not talking about the music. I’m talking literally about the records and their meticulously drawn sleeves. The cover of Wonderful Rainbow, their third album, features a drawn collage of a dense gray and black clutter, a charmingly hand-written track listing, and a cheerful explosion — the idyllic world at the end of the rainbow — on the back cover. When the music begins, the loud, chaotic and nearly brutal sound that pours forth makes it instantly clear that the beauty of the albums packaging is not replicated in the music. In fact, it might be the antithesis of such childlike innocence.
But it is this contradiction that makes Lightning Bolt essential; the visual aesthetic that accompanies aural aggression makes them all the more compelling. The juxtaposition between their visual and auditory imagery is so severe it begs that the music be listened to not merely as an exclusive entity, but within the context of the band’s entire creative output. Over the past few years, Lightning Bolt’s live shows have become essential. And the immediate question one asks of their third album is, Will they be able to capture the experience of their performance or will they go a different route — offering a companion piece, rather than a portable version of it?
The duo hails from the increasingly prominent art scene in Providence surrounding the Rhode Island School of Design and, more significantly, the now defunct Fort Thunder — the same scene that has spawned similar costumed and/or sonic weirdness wonders Forcefield and Black Dice. Seeing them play live, it frankly astonishes me that just two guys — Brian Chippendale and Brian Gibson — are responsible for Lightning Bolt’s visceral, mind-pounding, eardrum-harming experience. The band uses nothing more than an old drum set, a shitty microphone, a bass, a few pedals and some of the biggest speakers you’ll ever see, often adorning themselves in homemade costumes that look like the patchwork flesh of Muppets, to create their soon-to-be-legendary 3,800 watt onslaught.
The band’s previous effort, 2001’s Ride the Skies, often came close in terms of sheer volume and audacity, but the recorded version still seemed secondary to their live show. Wonderful Rainbow manages to come closer to capturing the nervous energy of seeing the band live, while in turn taking the time to slow things down to offer the gorgeous title track. The song moves in a staccato-like hum for scarcely over a minute while you wait expectantly for it to explode into cacophony. But it gently ends, offering the album’s only real interlude and perhaps the closest thing to the serenity of the album’s imagery.
The kraut, prog, free-jazz and heavy metal influences that have informed Lightning Bolt’s sound from the beginning, while subsequently offering some of the only appropriate reference points for their music, are evident throughout. But some songs find the band exploring their most melodic side. The album opens with a quietly disturbing tumble of bass effects and free-jazzy, spastic drumming before coming together in a screechy, powerfully melodic drive with the second track, “Assassins,” offering Chippendale’s processed-beyond-recognition vocals.
When the band plays thirty minutes of their unrelenting noise rock live, usually with at least a hundred or more sweaty kids pushing for breathing room mere inches from the band, to watch Chippendale abuse his kit or Gibson pound his strings, the music seems appropriate, as if the soundtrack for its very setting. In trying to capture the fury of their live show on record, as well as trying a song they wouldn’t play live, as they did with the title track, the listening experience somehow doesn’t seem fulfilled. The striking visceral and aesthetical impact of the band’s live show, which are so vital, are lost in the recording. This is not comfortable music, and listening to it in a comfortable setting doesn’t don’t do it justice.
Here’s what to do: gather all your speakers and all your friends’ speakers and all the amplifiers you can find. Pile them in a corner in your bedroom and hook them up to your receiver. Then invite all your friends over, crowd everyone into your bedroom, and blast this disc as loud as possible. Jump around and elbow each other in the face. Only then will you come a little closer to how this music should be listened to.