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Lightning Bolt - Earthly Delights

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Artist: Lightning Bolt

Album: Earthly Delights

Label: Load

Review date: Oct. 5, 2009

It’s never fun getting punched in the face, but it hurts worst when you don’t see it coming.

This ancient playground precept goes a long way toward explaining the particular intensity and, as it happens, erstwhile appeal of the duo Lightning Bolt, who tend to kick things off with no visual or aural foreplay. Most notoriously, through-the-fourth-wall surprise is a conceit of their live performances, which dive straight into what should properly be the middle of a set, and which dispense with modernist distractions like stages. But sudden shock works equally well to describe their emergence as a household name in underground rock circles in the late 1990s and early ’00s. Ride the Skies was the record that announced Load’s place on the map, with no shortage of overdriven fanfare. There were plenty of noise bands and scenes around at the time, but Lightning Bolt nodded toward a busy galaxy of east coast art students drawing loud, acidy pictures to match their music. Their collective style was dizzy but refreshing, a way to wake up from some soporific artistic conventions. In retrospect, it became – at least in some circles - one of the most musically influential aesthetics of the decade.

Earthly Delights appears four years after the band’s last release, and you probably already know what’s in store. Lightning Bolt are long past enjoying the benefit of its listeners’ naïvete, like Sacha Baron Cohen making Borat Part V. But while we lose something good when we gain awareness, we also get a chance to listen with different ears.

For all its rhythmic insanity, Earthly Delights is foremost a guitar record. Power chords sound – so much so that it’s probably not an accident – like revving chainsaws operated in mathy signatures, against the irregular, rapid popping of the snare and tom. In precisely the kind of ugly terms that the record invites, the guitar is lodged in a muddy quagmire above which drums whiz by, a little too close to your head. The vocals sound like a pissed dragon thinking.

There is, maybe deliberately, an improvisatory feeling to the song structures. Tense interludes, whether practiced or extemporized, suggest collective decision-making, as if the band is gathering itself in consideration of an uncertain next move. This tension gives each song a feeling of kinetic energy and suspense. This very nearly substitutes for the fact that their general approach is no longer a priori exhilarating.

But perhaps even more powerfully than well-worn familiarity, the recorded format continues to work against the band’s strengths. It is awfully difficult to bring audiences out of themselves without stacks of speakers, massed bodies and the possibility of timing things just right, all of which only the right context can provide. Not all bands face this burden so heavily, but I would guess that Lightning Bolt have always recorded reluctantly because of it.

By Ben Tausig

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