Somewhere near the middle of last year’s The Power of Salad, the straight-to-DVD Lightning Bolt flick, bassist Brian Gibson admits that he doesn’t like all that “Slayer-sounding stuff.” These, of course, are strange words coming from a man who plugs into a gazillion-watt amp stack and whose music is more likely to be covered in Terrorizer than Rolling Stone. “I feel like that whole negative emotion has just been totally played out,” he adds.
OK, so Lightning Bolt isn’t a death-metal band. Dig? “Sometimes I’m like, ‘Ah, we’re like classic-rock now,’” vocalist-drummer Brian Chippendale says while piloting the band’s Toyota minivan in another scene. “We’re not classic-rock,” the out-of-frame Gibson asserts. Chippendale relents, though he sounds more loyal than convinced: “I know we’re not…”
Methinks Lightning Bolt doth protest too much. It’s not that anyone’s ever going to confuse the Providence, R.I., duo for Cannibal Corpse or Nazareth, mind you. But those groups make Gibson and Chippendale nervous for good reason: Either the Bolters are still in the closet when it comes to genre, or the hard-rockin’ nastiness that spills forth from my speakers is not what their brains, hands, and feet intend.
The title of their third and latest full-length, Wonderful Rainbow, might be a good argument for the latter. The moniker is more than just ironic posturing: Once you get past Lightning Bolt’s crusty exterior there’s plenty of sugary goodness inside. Just strip that scuzzy fuzz off the bass and Rainbow is full of playful, Saturday-morning hooks. Lightning Bolt (1998) and best-of-2001-list fixture Ride the Skies both weighed in with more spazz per pound. This time, by contrast, Gibson and Chippendale take up where Ride’s catchy and linear “Frère Jacques” rip, “Saint Jacques,” left off.
The most striking feature of lullaby-riff-rockers “Dracula Mountain” and “On Fire” is their simplicity. Maybe that’s the real reason why Gibson and Chippendale smart so much from comparisons to their more technically minded peers. Sure, these guys can play their respective butts off, but here the chops serve the tunes instead of the other way around. Both songs culminate with childlike, whistle-
worthy melodies. And no matter how many riff-and-beat combos Gibson and Chippendale manage to cram inthere have to be dozens of them, if not hundredsthey always keep their playing tightly controlled. Unlike other contemporary avant-bass-and-drums acts such as Ruins and the Flying Luttenbachers, Lightning Bolt conveys rhythmic density without coming across as a bunch of eyeglass-adjusting musos.
“We just don’t compose really very well,” Chippendale says in Saladwhich is both true and not. More accurately, Lightning Bolt doesn’t overcompose. There’s nothing on Rainbow that would confuse Iggy, and if repetition without monotony is the lifeblood of rock ‘n’ roll, then “Two Towers” may be the most vital song of all time. Riding a gigantic two-note rumble into near-infinity, the track skips right past “boring” and goes straight for “entrancing.” Chippendale’s drumming is as all-over-the-place as Gibson’s bass-playing is restrained, but the song is still way more than the sum of its two parts. Indeed, the way these guys wrestle so much musical interest out of such a reductionist leitmotif is pure alchemy.
Gibson reportedly hates being the center of attention, so Chippendale fills the musical void. But not, as one might expect, with his vocals. “We’ll walk through any walls,” he wheezes on “Crown of Storms,” “like waterfalls or feathers.” But it sounds a lot closer to “Lew claw gorth slawretaw,” mainly because Chippendale uses an old telephone mike attached to his throat with a homemade mask. Because his every word is delivered with all the fidelity of a Popeyes drive-through speaker, it’s hard to tell if he can actually sing. (He probably can’t, but, c’mon, does it really matter?) And it’s easy to confuse these songs’ buried vocal moments with trebly amp feedback or string buzz.
That leaves the drums as Lightning Bolt’s true lead instrument. And, no, this has nothing to do with Rush or “In-A-Gadda-Da-Vida.” Chippendale, who also creates the band’s superscribbly album art, conjures up the same Sonny Murray-esque sheets of sound on every song. “Almost, the way I drum is the way I draw,” he has suggested. “It’s like practically covering every little space with a beat.” Accordingly, “Assassins” finds him spattering his drum kit the way Jackson Pollock let loose on a canvas: here, there, and just about everywhere. Chippendale doesn’t so much play on the beat (Gibson takes care of that) as play around itand we’re talkin’ all the way around it. But his drumming isn’t as showy as it sounds: Chippendale is just pitching in to fill up the tunes. After all, this duo has saddled itself with the work of at least three musicians.
Even so, most of Rainbow works so well because the disc seldom reminds us that it’s manufactured by such a small staff of droogs. It stops working so well when the band strays too far from anything you might recognize as a melody. Just like Skies, Rainbow is front-loaded: Gibson and Chippendale close out the album with its two least memorable tracks. “30,000 Monkeys” descends way too quickly from a slight rhythmic idea into the nth circle of Free Jazz Hell. And the album-ending sound-effect-fest “Duel in the Deep” begins in the midst of a similarly tuneless metal-machine climax but can’t figure out how to take you higher.
Not as if anyone’s going to notice. The fêted Skies ran out of ideas after only 20 minutes, and Rainbow sports a whole half-hour that’s more consistent and at least as enjoyable as anything that came before. That makes the new album, by my estimation, about 50 percent better than its predecessor.
The aesthetic leap, however, is unquantifiable. For all their chaos, Lightning Bolt’s first two full-lengths relate to rock more intellectually than viscerally; the great achievement of Wonderful Rainbow is tipping the scale toward the body. Granted, the music here is still far too cerebral for your average headbanger in a Slayer T. But the band’s new groove is proletarian enough to make any future classic-rock comments sound less like nonsense and more like the kind of praise Lightning Bolt deserves. CP