There is horrible noise, and then there is horrible noise you can legitimately say you enjoy. To understand the distinction, see Lightning Bolt play live. Heirs to an avant-shock lineage that includes Zurich Dada, the Germs, Brian Eno‘s No New York comp, John Zorn’s Naked City, and the Boredoms, they could be of greater interest to a younger, wider audience than any of their edgy forebears.
Judging by The Power of Salad, a new film by Peter Glantz and Nick Noe that documents Lightning Bolt‘s 2001 summer tour, this band has the concept of noise-as-pleasure down cold. Their standard m.o. has them setting up their gear amid the audience at the end of the opening band’s set. As the musicians onstage finish up, the crowd‘s attention is drawn to a rhythmic, skittering noise like a Black Sabbath record heard through chopping helicopter blades. That’s Brian Gibson, the band‘s stocky blond bassist, tapping out hammer-on leads on his instrument’s three strings. Towering over him is a buzzing stack of amps whose size would make Angus Young‘s guitar tech blush. He plays so fast it’s like he‘s trying to make a book-length telegraph transmission in the time it takes most people to go to the bathroom. Whether it’s a matter of skill or wattage, it‘s clear his main influences are the guitar solos of ZZ Top and Eddie Van Halen. And he’s not the flashy one.
Brian Chippendale sits front and center behind a compact drum set. Long and lanky, he wears his black hair cut into rough, hedge-clipper clumps. He plays real fast, but he‘s too ADD to do the math, and you get the impression he actually feels each and every one of those million snare hits. Chippendale’s playing is more about the irregularities beat-to-beat than playing chicken with a really fast metronome. When you think the intensity level couldn‘t get any a higher, he begins barking into a telephone receiver pressed tight to his mouth by a mask created from scraps of cloth and duct tape. There’s a kind of nursery-rhyme rhythm to it, and a heavy-metal drive: “Yap-yap! Yap-yap-yap! Yap-yap-yap — yap-yap!” alongside Thwat-tat-tat! Thwat-tat — tat-tat-tat!
Stylistically, there‘s a lot going on here besides noise. There is the extremism and commitment of LaMonte Young’s long-duration, single-tone compositions. Like Jimi Hendrix, these players seem to be pushing the boundaries of their instruments. And there‘s a hotshot punk primitivism, an “Oh, wow, look how much I did with so little” quality. It’s like when the Professor would build computers out of coconuts on Gilligan‘s Island.
The Oops Tour!, the road-show package that brings Lightning Bolt to the Knitting Factory this week, is the most public face of a bubbling underground scene that’s bringing noise to a new generation. It has coalesced around a handful of long-extant labels based in out-of-the-way locales, e.g., Bayonne, New Jersey‘s Troubleman Unlimited; Adrian, Michigan’s Bulb; San Diego‘s Gold Standard Labs. The bands involved combine the speed and aggression of hardcore punk with the humor, energy and entertainment values of professional wrestling. They concentrate on something previous generations of avant-gardists included as an afterthought — great shtick. Pink and Brown, an opening act who do some armchair commentary in the Lightning Bolt documentary, wear full body stockings color-coded to their band name.
Gibson and Chippendale are arts-and-crafts-ready graduates of the Rhode Island School of Design. Chippendale is both a cartoonist and a founder of Fort Thunder, a collective warehouse residence in Providence that looked like a 13-year-old’s id exploded. Fort Thunder was less an armory than a tree house filled with hundreds of salvaged BMX bikes, stuffed animals hanging from the rafters, and brightly colored plastic knickknacks. (Get a peek at the now-shuttered hideout at www.fortthunder.org.) The two obviously understand the connection between visuals and music, and in The Power of Salad, Chippendale makes this tie explicit. He explains that he drums like he draws — “covering every bit of space with a beat” — and indeed his work-in-progress-into-perpetuity is a comic entitled Maggots that currently stands at 1,500 pages.
Seeing the Oops Tour! is a valuable opportunity, because Lightning Bolt bring a physicality to sound that is rare in contemporary entertainment culture. Today, even the most obnoxious and aberrant mainstream rock is as tidy as an OCD sufferer‘s apartment. Slipknot’s quasi-fascist janitor outfits appear freshly washed and pressed; Papa Roach singles are mixed to be sonically interchangeable with Nelly‘s latest hit. Maybe teenagers pummeled by the ambient noise of video games, garbage trucks and gunshots simply prefer corporate-generated entertainment that goes down smooth.
Lightning Bolt aren’t likely to cross over into the mainstream like, say, Sonic Youth. To support his own legend, Thurston Moore has had to become a kind of Jerry GarciaAllen Ginsberg figure for the 21st century — aspiring poet, bohemian brand name. Chippendale and Gibson pull a far neater trick. They make music that would fit in equally well in an art gallery or on one of ESPN‘s extreme-sports highlight shows.
One day the channel will change and Lightning Bolt will probably go away. For now, their brand of avant-garde could be the backing track to a Mountain Dew ad. And fuck it, dude, that rocks.
Lightning Bolt perform at the Knitting Factory, Friday, August 9.