LIGHTNING BOLT's home base for the past dozen years has been a cavernous space inside an old brick industrial building in Providence, Rhode Island. It's "pretty raw territory," says drummer Brian Chippendale, the kind of place where it rains inside when it's raining outside.
Nonetheless, the space has long been the wellspring for Lightning Bolt's brain-blitzing noise rock, which pits Chippendale's frenzied drumming and distorted vocals against Brian Gibson's fuzzed-out bass spasms. The duo writes there, and they recorded half of their 2005 album Hypermagic Mountain and all of 2009's Earthly Delights there.
In March, Thrill Jockey Records released Lightning Bolt's first album in more than five years, Fantasy Empire. Chippendale and Gibson tried to make this one in the practice space, too, but something wasn't quite right.
"We just weren't making sonic headway. The old system wasn't working for us," Chippendale says. "It caused us to kind of slow down as a band. It was like, 'Oh my god, we feel like we can't break through this.'"
So the guys started trying new things. First and foremost, they moved their operation to a nearby studio, Machines with Magnets, with its abundance of modern recording functions.
"[Before], we just wanted to be a great live band documenting our sound," Chippendale says. "It was almost like a temptation that we didn't want, the ability to have more variety and more ways of doing things."
They also shifted away from their practice of recording shortly after tours to capture Lightning Bolt at the height of its powers. For some of the songs on Fantasy Empire, they purposely entered the studio out of tour shape, mostly to slow down Chippendale's playing.
As a result, Fantasy Empire is the most immersive and, for lack of a better word, grooviest record in the band's catalog. If primitive recording techniques turned previous Lightning Bolt albums into 2D documents of a savage sound, Fantasy Empire is a major sonic expansion that gives Chippendale and Gibson space to roam and roar. And while the album is still essentially a series of distorted, variegated gut-punches of noisy punk, songs like "Horsepower" and "Leave the Lantern Lit" find the band pulling back and tapping into a slightly more low-key vibe.
Chippendale thinks Fantasy Empire sounds different from Lightning Bolt's earlier work, but not that different. ("They're still just rock songs, right?" he asks.) Regardless, recording at Machines with Magnets was an eye-opener, he says.
"As my life as a musician goes on, I'm learning these things, like, 'Oh yeah, turn it down a little bit and it sounds a little better or bigger,'" he says. "There are so many things a band can do. You can be Black Dice or you can be Black Sabbath. You can just get weirder and weirder and really experiment with the formula or you can write songs within the formula. And I value them both."