Sonic Citadel by Lightning Bolt

Release date: October 11, 2019
Label: Thrill Jockey

Rhode Island’s Lightning Bolt have been ripping up the rule book for 25 years with their unique interpretation of punk pop noise rock. There is no-one else on the planet capable of whipping up the all-out frenzy that bassist Brian Gibson and drummer/vocalist Brian Chippendale create. On album number seven, Sonic Citadel, the Brians strip away a lot of the reckless abandon and reign themselves in for (whisper it) some fairly conventional songs. Of course, it is Lightning Bolt I’m writing about so you know full well that convention still means utter fucking chaos to the untrained ear. Having said that, there are tracks on this album where you actually get to sing along. Yep.

Recorded again with Seth Manchester at the Machines With Magnets studio, there is no doubt that the recording process must have been a total blast as unbelievably, two of the albums standout and poppiest tracks were recorded almost entirely spontaneously. I’m of the thought process that a fairly recent addition to the Chippendale household may be the reason for the newly found love of melody. Gibson has also come out of his shell in terms of unleashing some extremely memorable decorative bass lines instead of shredding your hearing, though he still manages to give that a damn good go.

There’s no holding back with album opener ‘Blow To The Head’, which hurtles along from the outset like a thousand galloping wild horses raising dust, while the Brians give full speed chase in super charged race cars. It is as intense an opener as you would expect and as the heart starts to race, you know you’re going to be in for an insane ride here. On ‘USA Is A Psycho’ Chippendale serves up a playful melody that actually forms an extremely memorable earworm. This is Lightning Bolt playing it as straight as they can and although it has taken many years to get there, it’s a glorious and enthralling thing to hear. Gibson throws memorable riffs about with absolute joyful abandon, this is a band at the peak of their powers.

On the poptastic ‘Air Conditioning’ there’s a definite song structure, with verses and a chorus of sorts (it just doesn’t have any words). The bumping grooves make your limbs twitch and Gibson rips out some ace bass work that threatens to become a solo at one point. It is really quite incredible and doesn’t just hit the spot, it fucking obliterates it.

Lightning Bolt always have tremendous song titles and the supercharged tune that is ‘Hüsker Dön’t’ is a sublime no nonsense track with a wonderful cascading bass melody that you cannot help but marvel at. The end section of the song shoots off into a remarkable freeform section where Gibson gets to cut loose with some incredible arching bass lines showcasing an unforeseen appreciation of wondrous melody. Another cracker song title is ‘Bing Banger’, although less cracking is that it is the aural equivalent of being repeatedly punched in the face. The relentless pounding drums and broken riffs seemingly intent on crushing you, mere mortal! When the pace momentarily subsides the level of fear doesn’t dissipate, this is a genuinely terrifying track.

With the introduction of fine melodies on this album, those yearning for the intense horrific soundscapes of old Lightning Bolt will be very pleased with ‘Halloween 3’, which eschews a tune in favour of something altogether more acerbic. You really do feel like your inner ear has been scraped with (steel) nails after enduring this track.

The last sound I ever thought I’d hear on a Lightning Bolt record was a banjo, but yet that is how the countrified ‘Don Henley In The Park’ begins. Although it most likely isn’t an actual banjo but Gibson’s heroics at weirdly pitching his bass guitar. Of course, the delicate balladry that ensues doesn’t last and before long the lightly caressed drum kit is getting the more traditional rigorous battering. It’s certainly a diversion for Lightning Bolt to enter these unfamiliar territories but this band do what the hell they like and it typically works.

The less appealing ‘Tom Thump’ is another slab of tectonic plate smash-up badness which is akin to unleashing a whole year’s bad feeling into a shocking 4 minutes. ‘Bouncy House’ is a slippery, risky little ditty that spins out itchy fidgety little bass lines to distract you from the underpinning cacophony. I swear I hear ‘Three Blind Mice’ in the middle of it somewhere, but that might just be my wrecked ears. Also, I defy anyone to try to air drum to the end of this track and not turn their nose into a bloody mess in the process. Probably the catchiest tune Lightning Bolt have ever committed to record is ‘All Insane’, Brian is practically crooning in several places. The regular fuzz buzz is a little subdued and that allows the melody to rule as king, and what a glorious melody! If ever they could have a hit, this would be it.

Lightning Bolt have been pretty merciful with us on Sonic Citadel, but that all goes to hell on the album closer ‘Van Halen 2049’ as they recall their earlier wilder albums. More of a soundscape than a song, certainly when compared to the actual songs that feature heavily on this album, it doesn’t hold back. As if the constraints of conformity have caused a bad reaction the two Brians set about demonstrating incredible dexterous musicianship, yet they set ablaze any notion that they have mellowed. A certain namechecked virtuoso guitarist would spontaneously combust if he tried to keep up with the manic finger-dislocating riffs that Gibson concocts.

A fair amount of this review mentions the bass playing of Brian Gibson and I genuinely do think that his instrument gets a substantial share of the limelight here, more so than usual, that could be because he has now introduced more melody into his playing. It absolutely goes without saying that Brian Chippendale is one of the greatest drummers on the planet, now or since any life form began banging two sticks off rocks. His playing is intense, incredible and insanely rhythmic throughout this album and as always, he is the driving force with Lightning Bolt. Chippendale’s vocals have also come on leaps and bounds as he veers into more accessible territories and we now have hooky melodies. I also should mention the glorious album cover art, as colourful as the music that accompanies it. These things all contribute to make this the finest Lightning Bolt album to date and I love, love, love it. Up the Brians!

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