Music

Lightning Bolt Are Back and As Loud as Ever on 'Sonic Citadel'

Photo: Courtesy of Thrill Jockey via Bandcamp

Lightning Bolt's Sonic Citadel is both punishingly noisy and, at times, surprisingly tuneful. People who are on Lightning Bolt's exceedingly loud, improvisational vibe will find plenty to like here.

Sonic Citadel
Lightning Bolt

Thrill Jockey

11 October 2019

Lightning Bolt have been around since the 1990s, pummeling listeners and live audiences into submission with their extremely loud, often-improvised form of noise rock. As bass player Brian Gibson and drummer/vocalist Brian Chippendale have gotten into separate, individual projects in recent years, the wait between new Lightning Bolt albums has sometimes stretched past the four-year mark. That's the case with their new album Sonic Citadel. But even though both members are now in their mid-40s and they sometimes have to play live shows on a stage instead of their preferred method (on the floor, surrounded by the crowd), they're still committed to making intense, and intensely loud, music.

Besides hearing about them from other music fans, my first real experience with Lightning Bolt was years ago when I picked up a used copy of their first album in a record store. This was before YouTube was a ubiquitous repository of all manner of music and long before streaming services. As much as I'd been told they were noisy and chaotic, I was not prepared for the punishing, often incoherent sound of their self-titled debut. I think I managed to get through that album maybe four or five times before I put it on the shelf.

Fortunately, over the years, Lightning Bolt have figured out a way to harness the chaos somewhat. Their subsequent records have, at least partially, featured compositions that approach actual songs; or at least some sort of recognizable riff or rhythmic pattern to build the music around. That continues to be the case with Sonic Citadel, where the majority of the tracks give the listener something to hold onto, and a few of them even approach something resembling "catchy".

The exceptions here are "Big Banger" and "Van Halen 2049". "Big Banger" features a distorted, pulsing bassline that sounds like a small motorcycle revving and a drum part that's all thumping kick drum and clanging cymbals. At times Gibson switches to a separate riff that sounds like a punk guitar, and halfway through the track, he adds a slow, doomy bass riff to the mix. Around the same point, Chippendale drops the cymbals to allow the song to attain a fuller, heavier sound. And then they both plow at full speed and volume through the last 45 seconds to the end. So "Big Banger" at least has a sense of construction to it.

"Van Halen 2049" does not. It's a classic Lightning Bolt jam, in that it's just the duo pounding away for nine straight minutes with abandon. And those nine minutes feel like 25 excruciatingly long minutes. Gibson experiments with different sound effects. Here's a laser beam, here's a weed whacker, and in the last two minutes, here's a thing that sounds like a harmonica crossed with a train whistle, intruding noisily into something that's already extremely noisy. Meanwhile, Chippendale never lets up on the furious drumming, just going and going and never finding any groove or consistent beat.

Some established Lightning Bolt fans will find those tracks endearing. I did not, but I found a lot to like elsewhere on Sonic Citadel. A trio of tracks here function like actual songs but succeed as typically intense Lightning Bolt compositions. "Air Conditioning" has a killer distorted bass riff, a steadily pumping snare drum, and vocals (distorted and mostly indecipherable, as per the norm) where you'd expect them. Sure, at the halfway point, it pushes into a bridge and then a coda and never returns to the main riff, but it all feels thematically linked, and it rocks hard.

"Hüsker Dön't" features enough musical space in the verses that Chippendale's vocals are clear enough to make out with repeated listens. It helps that he sticks to toms and snare drum while Gibson hangs out on the low end, playing what amounts to a traditional bassline. Like "Air Conditioning" before it, the band substitute an ear-grabbing, muscular riff for a sung chorus, and it works. The song also has a simple, classic rock style riff dominating its back half, pushing the song from one strong hook to another.

Sonic Citadel's penultimate song, "All Insane", sort of splits the difference between the other two tracks. It's a bit slower, with a buzzy bass riff that's simple enough to give Chippendale's vocals enough space to be heard. And Chippendale is singing here, with a real, albeit distorted, vocal melody. Near the end of the song, when Gibson starts throwing in squalling high notes, it complements the vocals nicely instead of covering them up.

The rest of the album is a typical grab bag of Lightning Bolt ideas that fit somewhere in between the actual songs and freeform jams. Opener "Blow to the Head" is based around an oppressively loud drum rhythm that Gibson doubles in as low a register as possible on his bass, and later throws in melodic variations that still maintain the rhythm. "Tom Thump" and "USA is a Psycho" are similarly based around fast drum beats that stay steady for the bulk of the song and allow Gibson to play off of them with basslines that mimic or complement the beat. And they give Chippendale enough space to shout some words through his heavily distorted microphone, too.

"Don Henley in the Park" seems so named for its relaxed hippie guitar-esque bass playing from Gibson, which Chippendale complements by pulling way back on his drums. He lasts a full minute like this before throwing in 20 seconds of insane fills but then ratchets it back for another 80 seconds before the song begins to devolve in its final minute. Speaking of devolving, "Halloween 3" gets through just over half of its nearly six minutes as an interesting, constructed piece of music, with vocals and riffs and verses and thunderous instrumental choruses before falling apart into a noise jam. On the other hand, "Bouncy House", with its very catchy high register bass riff, only seems to fall apart when the riff disappears halfway through the song. Subsequent listens reveal that the band stays focused on exactly the same rhythmic patterns in the back half of the song, just without the ear-grabbing catchy bit. That makes it a pretty interesting sonic experiment.

Like any Lightning Bolt album, Sonic Citadel is not particularly friendly to new converts. The presence of a handful of genuinely hooky songs doesn't mean the record is an easy, fun listen. But people who are on Lightning Bolt's exceedingly loud, chaotic vibe should find plenty to like here. As for the curious, give "Hüsker Dön't" and "Air Conditioning" a try and proceed from there.

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