There is something to be said for a band that knows what they do and sticks to it. It is all well and good for bands to continuously challenge themselves and their audiences, but fixing something that is not broken is not always a good thing. How many bands can each of us think of off the top of our heads who have abandoned a great sound in favor of self-indulgence and needless wheel reinventing? On the other side of the coin, you have a band like Lightning Bolt, who keep to a consistent path of stripped down bashing and crashing, year in and year out, without mixing things up much. Fantasy Empire is a case in point; this record sounds like nothing more and nothing less than the new Lightning Bolt album. If you randomly rearranged the tracks on 2009’s Earthly Delights, 2012’s Oblivion Hunter, and 2015’s Fantasy Empire, you would be hard pressed to figure out which songs were on what record.
There are two basic reasons for this that I can determine: (1) Lightning Bolt is a two man band with a very particular formula. Their set up does not allow for very much reinvention or expansion, so they pretty much stick to what they do well. (2) Lightning Bolt are essentially a live band; the albums themselves are almost incidental. This type of hyped up, stripped-down noise rock craziness is meant to be experienced live. This stuff is visceral, loud, and intense; this is not music to be dispassionately considered while eating dinner or driving to work. While listening to Fantasy Empire you will likely find yourself wondering things like: “Wait, why am I not pounding beers right now and screaming? Why am I not in some god-forsaken squat or crowded, grimy basement? And why am I wearing a shirt?” This is the point of Lightning Bolt. While it is a good point, it does not make for distinctive, dynamic albums that really stand out from one another.
Opening track “Metal East” gets things started nicely and things really don’t let up much from there. As the title of the opening track suggests, there is more of a metal influence on these tracks than on previous releases. There is a galloping, propulsive quality that vaguely reminds the listener of bands like Black Cobra or High on Fire, although in a much more stripped-down guise. The opening section of “Runaway Train” is a good example of this, although I was vainly hoping for a Soul Asylum cover when I first inspected the track list.
In the end, this is exactly what we have come to expect from Lightning Bolt: a set list of fuzzy, overwhelming, noise rock that keeps it simple while never missing its target. The two gentlemen that comprise Lightning Bolt will take this stuff on the road and make the kids go wild. There is nothing wrong with bands making predictable music specifically designed to be played live; hell, bands like Motörhead and AC/DC have become rock institutions by doing just that. With this in mind, do not expect an artistic revelation from Fantasy Empire. This is a Lightning Bolt album, and if that is what you are looking for, you will not be disappointed.