Artist Spotlight – Lightning Bolt

Anyone for some Drum ‘n’ Bass?

My previous few Artist Spotlights were on musical acts that changed over time. This one, however, is about a musical act that found its lane and pretty much stayed in it. And that lane is noise rock.

When I first heard Lightning Bolt, I thought that it was the dumbest stuff ever. The production was terrible. The vocals were terrible and incomprehensible. The guitar (I thought that it was a guitar back then) was just playing noise. The drumming was just flailing like a maniac and that snare drum seemed completely out of place in some heavy rock. But it took only a couple of songs to get me hooked. I guess that it is not that much different from a lot of heavy rock that contain elements of sadness, anger, aggression, dystopian power-fantasies, indulgence, mysticism, spookiness, shock value, cheese, snot, technical virtuosity and blurring the lines between order and chaos. Lightning Bolt had some of that, but all of it was in service to the sense of fun. And not psychotic clown fun, but just gleefulness. Sure, it may not be your type of fun and, yes, I do have to be in the mood to listen to it in order to have fun and not get bored. But it is fun if you can get into it. And some of the appeal is just hearing how much noise two people can make. Keeping the act a duo allows them to turn the sound on a dime without relying on a leader as well as keep the cacophony from becoming too muddled. Stripped-down, overwhelming minimalism, I suppose.

Formed in the mid-1990s, Lightning Bolt was briefly a trio with Hisham Bharoocha on vocals and guitar, Brian Gibson on bass guitar, and Brian Chippendale on the drums. In 1996, however, Bharoocha left the band, leaving just the drummer and bassist. And, yet, they kept going. Chippendale stuck a microphone on a face mask and became the vocalist. After a few appearances on compilations and split records, Lightning Bolt released their self-titled album in 1999. It was rather rough and inaccessible. Subsequent albums were a bit more…uh…accessible…I guess. Aside from that, the music has not changed that much since.

Gibson plays the bass guitar like it is a regular electric guitar, often using distortion and sometimes various effects pedals to make it appear like it is not just one person playing. He can alternate between melodies and outright obnoxious noise. Chippendale likes to play his drums fast and wild. His singing style is…loose, and it is buried under so much distortion that it is rarely possible to understand him when his is not just hooting. Structurally, the pieces can alternate between different segments, transition from one theme to another, or just hammer one musical idea over and over again for several minutes. Yeah, you might have to be in the mood to listen to this stuff in order to enjoy it. It is not really fair to say that if you heard one Lightning Bolt track than you have heard them all. However, if you have heard…say…seven, then you probably have heard them all.

So here are seven tracks, one from each of their albums.

Into the Valley – 10:46 from Lightning Bolt (and Zone): 1999
This is the first track off of the album and it makes very little attempt to ease listeners into the Lightning Bolt Sound. It is basically just Gibson playing three chords and Chippendale playing the drums maniacally. If you heard the first forty seconds, then you have heard pretty much the other ten minutes. But if you manage to get yourself into it, then you might enjoy it.

Wee One’s Parade – 5:19 from Ride the Skies: 2001
This one allows for quite a bit of getting into, as Chippendale and Gibson goof off for about two minutes, with Chippendale repeating on the bass what Gibson is…uh…singing. Then, they suddenly get into the meat of the piece, where the bass guitar just sounds like it is cackling.

Assassins – 3:44 from Wonderful Rainbow: 2003
This one starts out with a pretty fun little riff for the first forty seconds or so. Then it takes the second half of that riff and makes a song out of it for the next two minutes. The last fifty-seconds takes another variation on the riff and then the track ends.

Dead Cowboy – 7:58 from Hypermagic Mountain: 2005
This one spends the first three minutes playing around with a couple of riffs before Gibson hits the effects pedal and starts layering his doodling. A little over halfway through the track, it switches up to this sort heavily layered and kind of intricate number before ending with a heavy low bassline.

Sound Guardians – 4:55 from Earthly Delights: 2009
This one has a slight…uh…twangy riff, though that kind of gets lost in the effects after a while.

Soft Spoken Spectre – 1:16 from Oblivion Hunter: 2012
Let it not be said that Lightning Bolt only does loud and noisy. This is one of the few pieces that are quiet and relaxed, although, like the others, it is rather short.

Snow White (& the Seven Dwarves Fans) –11:21 from Fantasy Empire: 2015
This one starts out slow, kind of drone-y or stoner-y, but eventually hits its regular speed two minutes in. Chippendale’s vocals sometimes get layered over each other or cut off intermittently. I think that it goes off on a drone in some parts, though that could just be the bass.

As a bonus, here is a 71-minute video of a live performance, probably from a tour promoting Hypermagic Mountain. A couple of the tracks are ones that I have featured. There are a couple of things that I want you to notice. The first is the audience is right there. While Lightning Bolt does play on stages, they are just as comfortable playing at the level of the audience and without any type of barrier between them. This is how it was when I saw them play live ten years ago, but I managed to find my way onto a ladder, so I could see everything as well as avoid getting elbowed in the face. Sometimes, Chippendale has to yell at the audience when they get too close. This video shows one of the more subdued (or behaved) audiences. The second thing is the contrast between the two Brians. Chippendale plays, predictably, like a maniac. And while it is hard to tell thanks to the mask, one can assume that he is making goofy performer faces. Gibson does none of that. There is no theatrics or plays at showmanship. He nods his head, looks at his fingers, and sometimes bounces his feet. Aaaaaaand, that’s it for Gibson. I find it rather charming that he can make all of that noise while pretty much just standing there. He should do a collaboration with Wata from Boris .

And…that’s it.