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Lost and found
The dynamic duality of Lightning Bolt
BY JAMES PARKER

The older one gets, the less tolerance one has for the high-decibel purgatory of the conventional rock show. For the stodgy standing around. For the dreadful longueur between bands. For the stooped roadie treading on cables and going "two . . . two . . . " into the mike or bleakly tapping at the snare drum or even (poor bastard) laying out little towels. And for the predictable bluster of performance. Can’t something be done about this? Who will arise to annihilate this boredom?

"I guess when a lot of rock bands think about putting on a show," says Brian Gibson, the bass-playing half of Providence bass/drums duo Lightning Bolt, on his cellphone, "they assume that they’re gonna go to the venue, talk to the soundman, they’re gonna get all their stuff plugged in, and they’re gonna do it a certain way. Which is amazing, because when you’re putting on a show, you’re putting on a performance, and every aspect of that performance can be considered, or reconsidered — and you’re kind of better off if you do consider it. I mean, what is the purpose of a show? That’s the question. What are you trying to give people? Because I think when people come to a show — and they forget this — but what they really want is to get lost."

You could say lost, or you could say found. The light in the eyes of the kids at a Lightning Bolt show, as they press in with blazing faces on the two players, is the light of thrilled recognition or rediscovery: at last, thank God, here it is. Lightning Bolt set up on the floor, or on the ground, or anywhere apart from the stage, and their set will generally begin before the previous band’s final chord has fully decayed. You’ll hear some itchings of drum and cymbal, some throat clearings of bass, heads will turn, and then it will be as if all the oxygen in the room had gone up in a single wallop of flame. Free hardcore, riot metal — call it what you want, it’s total.

"There’s parts on the Who’s Live at Leeds," says Gibson, "where Pete Townshend is hitting all the strings kind of open and Keith Moon’s going crazy, and I love the sound of everything just open and washed-out and frenzied. I love that feeling — treble, frenzy, all the high points of rock and roll, none of the downer parts."

Lightning Bolt were formed 11 years ago by Gibson and fellow RISD student Brian Chippendale. They flailed and splurged through many drastic hours of overspill before achieving their current state. "Someone told me Brian was this wild drummer, so I called him up," Gibson recalls. "I had this little tiny amp with a 15-inch speaker, and I turned the treble all the way up ’cause it was the only thing you could hear over his playing, and we just made this kind of explosion sound. I don’t know what I was trying to get to . . . "

The band come out of the anything-goes papier-mâché-and-feedback Providence scene that coalesced around the now-demolished performance/living space Fort Thunder, and their show includes some distilled elements of performance art — so distilled, in fact, that these elements now seem organic and almost accidental. Chippendale, otherwise attired unremarkably, in knackered shorts and almost invisible T-shirt, wears a home-knitted cloth mask over his head. It’s a gimp mask, sometimes with horns or tassels; it’s a wrestler/jester/hoodlum mask — whatever it is, the archetypal energies are in a whirl around it, and sewn into a compartment over the mouth is a telephone mike through which he "sings." The contrast between the needling, telecommunicated voice thus produced and the huge slobberings that surround it is but one of the Lightning Bolt punch lines.

Another one is a sight gag: Chippendale’s non-stop activity coupled with Gibson’s stolid immobility. Chippendale will hop impishly off his drum stool to drag his kit farther into the crowd, for more contact, more of the thick human surge, more cymbal topple and noise smother, as if hoping that the kids might fall in on top of him and release him from the torment of his uncontrollable playing. Gibson stands motionless, head down, his back to the gale of noise he’s creating. Huge cabinets stand behind him, topped by his Ampeg pre-amp and his two 1200 watt Crown power amps. He has four pedals in front of him: the Boss Overdrive, the Boss Super Overdrive, the Boss Octave, which splits the signal into two octaves ("with a fifth in between"), and then the "whammy," which can oscillate the pitch like a siren. The sound emerging from these stacked gizmos is both primal and uniquely complex: demented fanfares, chordal onslaughts, heavy-metal hammer-ons, frequency wars, bliss. Mash it into Chippendale’s drumming style — his shuddering kickdrum and the spindly clatter of his fills — and you have something so alive it’s almost painful.

There’s a splendid innocence to Lightning Bolt, from the musical tantrums to the nagging, nursery-rhyme chanting of Chippendale’s vocals to their Day-Glo song titles: "Megaghost," "Bizarro Zarro Land." The new album, just out on Load Records, is called Hypermagic Mountain. "Birds and squirrels and bees and trees/All the things that ride the breeze" runs one lyric, indecipherable when transmitted through the cheap mike and the grubby shaman’s mask.

Fame and corruption are close at hand, as the duo well know. "We don’t do too much press," says Gibson. "People see your name around a lot, you’re fitted into some category, and suddenly that becomes the thing, more than the experience itself. There was a Spin article recently [November 2004] that made this huge effort to explain how we were part of something called ‘noise punk.’ It totally upset me. But I know that’s what happens — and part of it is our responsibility too, to keep this fresh enough that people can’t pigeonhole it." Amen.

 


Issue Date: December 16 - 22, 2005
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