Understandably, for a band that just comprises a bassist and drummer, Lightning Bolt’s sixth album ‘Fantasy Empire’ (2015) had a noticeable lack of riffs. With their seventh album ‘Sonic Citadel’, the Providence-based noise rock duo have seemingly addressed this absence, with loud, layered, crunching riffs and - unusually for this band - clear, semi-melodic vocals.
The pummelling drums of the aptly titled ‘Blow to the Head’ open proceedings, with Brian Gibson’s trademark bass filtering through an array of effects, sounding like a lead guitar, his riffing closely mirrors the singing of drummer Brian Chippendale. These roles appear to switch for ‘USA is a Psycho’, as Chippendale sings along to Gibson’s bass riffs.
Lead single ‘Air Conditioning’ opens with some Death Grips-esque vocals before giving way to more virtuoso, dynamic bass work from Gibson. ‘Hüsker Dön’t’ is poppier and more upbeat, channelling the sound of Bob Mould’s guitar (as well as, more surprisingly, that of the Adolescents’ Rikk Agnew) for the more trebly bass parts.
‘Big Banger’ does what it says on the tin - the most punishing song on side one, Chippendale bashing his drums like it’s his last day on earth, screaming primally over the top - and ‘Halloween 3’ forges a discernible melody with buzz-saw bass work.
‘Don Henley in the Park’ is dominated by what could be mandolin (although given Gibson’s reputation for jiggery-pokery, it could just be his bass) and unexpected vocals from Chippendale to match the arrhythmic drumming. ‘Tom Thump’ is the album’s strongest song, featuring some of its fastest drumming and its most tunefully and infectiously repetitive bass-playing. At two minutes 42 seconds, it’s swift and brutal, and you’re left wondering why they didn’t make it the album’s lead single.
‘Bouncy House’ is as upbeat a ditty as its title suggests, with Chippendale’s vocals low down in the mix and Gibson even bashing out a rendition of ‘Three Blind Mice’ halfway through. ‘All Insane’ is perhaps the album’s weakest song as the production is quite tinny sounding and the bassline is quite straightforward, allowing the vocals to dominate.
The band throw everything but the kitchen sink into closer ‘Van Halen 2049’, including thick layers of overdubbed bass, effects, harmonicas, synths, and at one point what sounds like a Theremin. The nine-minute epic makes for an impressive conclusion to a dense, consistently satisfying album.
After 25 years of making music together Lightning Bolt have managed to avoid producing something familiar, taking the risk of releasing an album full of songs (yes, songs) that to a large extent rock in the conventional fashion. With this they’ve created some of their strongest songs yet. And of course, the two Brians’ talent for noise-making is still present and fully at work. ‘Sonic Citadel’ towers over its surroundings as one of the best albums of Lightning Bolt’s career to date.
Words: Greg Hyde
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