Staying fresh as a band for 20 years is difficult, no matter what you sound like. But when you're a band like Providence, Rhode Island duo Lightning Bolt—with all their frenetic, high-energy sounds coming from just bass, drums and vocals—the challenge grows all the more daunting.
After five full-length records of blistering, adrenaline-surging noise rock, drummer/vocalist Brian Chippendale and bassist Brian Gibson found themselves pushing a boulder uphill in their attempts to write and record album number six, Fantasy Empire. On past albums, like Hypermagic Mountain and Earthly Delights, the two Brians mostly recorded everything live in a bare-bones, homestudio environment in Providence, with engineer Dave Auchenbach. But when it came time to tackle this one, the duo found their tried-and-true method of making an album was becoming a hindrance to their creative process.
"It took about five years" to make Fantasy Empire, says Chippendale, on a phone call between tour dates. "We were slowly starting to realize that maybe we were never going to finish it.
"We were doing it the same way we recorded the last two records," he continues. "And it worked then, but... we started to realize maybe we had exhausted that way of making a record. It was a little daunting and slowed us down a lot—not feeling like sonically things were happening in a way that felt fresh and new. So after banging our head against that wall for a while, we switched directions. It's a hard shift but once we worked with the new studio, it felt really exciting, really fast. And, four-and-a-half years had gone by and it was weird to realize, Oh my god,' we were going to actually finish the record."
Chippendale and Gibson put Fantasy Empire to tape in a professional studio (Machines with Magnets) for the first time in their career, and the end result is considerably different. On one level, it still very much sounds like the hyperactive noise makers of classic records like 2001's Ride the Skies or 2003's Wonderful Rainbow. The one-two punch of "The Metal East" and "Over the River and Through the Woods" still bash and sear with a relentless intensity, not to mention the kind of giddy fun that inevitably results from songs that hit with such an impact, or boom with deafening distortion.
But Fantasy Empire sounds a lot different than their earlier records in that the chaos has been ever so slightly reined in. The songs are still loud, still manic, but cleaned up in a way that puts a more defined accent on each individual element. It's by no means a kinder, gentler Lightning Bolt—just one that strikes with greater clarity and efficiency.
Lightning Bolt play May 5, at The Casbah
"What we wanted was more control," Chippendale says of tackling the new album. "Like a new setting and a new process, and we'll see what we can do with that. I think a lot of it is just having the separation of elements, not having one microphone pick up every sound at the same time—which is usually how we do stuff. It's a little more polished We're pretty satisfied with how it came out."
For how much thought went into the creation of the new album, Lightning Bolt still spent a lot of their last five years performing live, both in clubs and on the festival circuit. Their music is designed for the live stage, simply because of how visceral it is. You almost feel it more than you hear it. And though Lightning Bolt changed their M.O. in the studio, they're still quite at home in front of an audience.
"We do see ourselves as a live band first," says Chippendale. "There's a kind of freedom that a studio recording gives us. But the album is still, for the most part, a document of our live show. There's something about our relationship that's based on walking into a room and playing together, whether it be a show or at practice. Our relationship is just kind of built that way. It's not always interesting for us to work in other ways. That door is open to us now, so we'll see where it leads. But Lightning Bolt will always be based on the energy of a live creation."
Lightning Bolt is aging gracefully—or at least whatever their own definition of "graceful" is—though they haven't lost their edge or energy. And while Chippendale concedes that some things have to change in order for Lightning Bolt to stay vital, that frenetic and furious core will always be a part of who they are.
"We get along better than we ever have, really," he says. "We're very much on the same page. As the band ages the challenge is to find new territory within our setup. And we don't stray too far from our setup. We just like finding new ways to translate energy into our music. It's been 20 years. So we've physically changed. But Lightning Bolt remains a constant in all that.
"It's not nostalgic—I don't feel like it's 1993 and I'm in college still," he adds. "But this is a system we set up early on that remains integral to who we are."