Beyond Good & Evil: Breaching Lightning Bolt’s Sonic Citadel

Twenty-five years and seven albums in, Sonic Citadel finds Lightning Bolt making some of the best music of their career, says Bernie Brooks

Photo: Nick Sayers

So, is the new Lightning Bolt any good?

I’ve always thought of Lightning Bolt as a lifestyle as much as a band. I first saw them perform in the early aughts. It was a weird time for me. In 2002, I had just finished my undergraduate studies, and had rather unwisely moved to Boston. There was a relationship, and initially I thought I might go to graduate school there. I dropped that idea after getting waitlisted, realising that even with student loans, I’d never be able to afford the tuition. Over the course of the next couple of years, I moved back and forth between Boston and Detroit two or three times, bailing to my hometown whenever the cost of living in Massachusetts became too much to bear.

Consequently, I can’t remember where I saw Lightning Bolt for the first time. Most likely, it was either at the Detroit Art Space or TT The Bear’s Place. I don’t actually remember much about the show at all to be honest. And what I do recall is almost certainly tainted by the eight hundred times I’ve watched that live clip of ‘Colossus’ on YouTube, and by the live doc The Power Of Salad. Anyway, none of that matters, really. What matters is what I remember, and that is this: I remember leaving that gig feeling like I could do anything as long as I had enthusiasm and friends and we did it ourselves. It might sound naive now, but everyone leaving that gig probably felt the same way.

For a lot their fans, myself included, the idea of Lightning Bolt has always been much bigger than a bunch of records by a band. It’s a tent that encompasses a DIY ethos and a way of living, and because of that, bodies of work beyond the world of music. It seems impossible to separate Lightning Bolt from Brian Chippendale’s comics or his visual art, or from Thumper, the videogame Brian Gibson co-designed and scored. It all ties in. And maybe that’s unfair, but it all winds up in the tent, and has done for upwards of twenty-five years now.

Twentty-five years! How many bands manage that? It’s even more impressive when one considers that the entire concept of Lightning Bolt seems unsustainable. How does the body endure such intense sonic violence over two-and-a-half decades? How does such a seemingly limited palette produce a surprisingly varied and nuanced discography? I think it all boils down to working entirely on your own terms, at your own pace.

Which brings us to album number seven, Sonic Citadel, their second recorded at Providence, Rhode Island’s Machines With Magnets. For the unfamiliar, Lightning Bolt are a duo consisting of the aforementioned Brians, Gibson and Chippendale. Gibson plays a bass tuned to standard cello tuning, with a banjo string or two tossed in for good measure. Chippendale drums and sings into a telephone receiver wired into a mask. His vocals are distorted and often unintelligible. Both are prodigiously talented players. Both play loud. Like, really, really loud.

It’s been an open secret for ages that Lightning Bolt are pop savants disguised as a noise band, and they lean hard on those instincts throughout Sonic Citadel. Album opener ‘Blow To The Head’ sounds like being inside a speedbag. Maybe it’s being pummelled by a boxing kangaroo, and you’re bouncing around in there, getting knocked about in the best possible way. It’s also catchy as hell, setting the tone for the LP as a whole. Later, ‘All Insane’ proves itself to be perhaps the sweetest, most straightforward pop song Lightning Bolt have ever written – at least by their standards. Chippendale’s hooky vocals, clear in the mix as the song chugs anthemically along, are eventually overcome by squelchy, squeaky, weirdly touching noises from Gibson.

When I say that, to these ears, Sonic Citadel is Lightning Bolt at their most poppy and accessible, or that Fantasy Empire was their most overtly metal record, I’m talking about matters of degree. Sonic Citadel is gnarly. ‘All Insane’ is followed immediately by ‘Van Halen 2049’, a thrashing, caustic slab of noise that runs for over nine minutes. Elsewhere, ‘Big Banger’ grinds relentlessly, feverishly forward like a rampaging bulldozer run by a maniacal gabber fan. As usual, Lightning Bolt seem unconcerned with wholesale reinvention. Instead, they tease out aspects of their sound that were already present and focus on them in different ways. They evolve while remaining resolutely themselves.

If I’m honest, at this point I have no idea what a bad Lightning Bolt song might sound like. Their consistency is almost unparalleled. Sonic Citadel can easily stand alongside their best work – it might even be their best work. But it’s also entirely plausible that their work exists outside of the realm of good and bad entirely. You either open your heart and embrace it all or you don’t.

By 2005, I was in grad school back in Detroit. I’d been putting together DIY art shows for about two years by then. A few times a week, my cohort and I would head over to the dirtbag bar down the street from our studios for beers. The bar’s still there, but it’s not the same. You used to be able to get a haircut there, or your important documents notarised, or both. Anyway, they had an incredibly great, incredibly ill-advised jukebox. It had a Lightning Bolt record on it. I’d play that every time. In the end, I spent over a decade curating DIY art shows and events. 

So, is the new Lightning Bolt any good?

Hell yeah, it is. Lightning Bolt are the best. Lightning Bolt changed my life.

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