Lightning Bolt – “Fantasy Empire”

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Grade: B

Key Tracks: “The Metal East” “Mythmaster”

Lightning Bolt is 21. Lightning Bolt is living on its own, balancing school and work. Lightning Bolt can drink, vote and smoke with no consequence. On their seventh album, they embrace being 21 as an actual 21 year old might – by accepting the rigidity of adulthood, accepting the routine of routine, but not embracing it.

The band, still comprised of just Brian Chippendale on drums and indecipherable vocals, and Brian Gibson on bass guitar, give the impression they’re cleaning things up. The songs on “Fantasy Empire” feel more rehearsed. They’re more rhythmic, more practiced, more worn-in. The band even recorded in a proper studio for the first time in years. This is a trajectory most bands tend to follow – they’re crazy while they’re young, but once they get a taste of success they straighten themselves up. But, Lightning Bolt has been unpredictably successful for many years, so to hear a more straight-forward, repetitive version of the duo is surprising, to say the least.

Or at least, that’s what they want us to think. Lightning Bolt’s rigidity on “Fantasy Empire” is only surprising because we’re used to their wild inconsistencies. Their songs weren’t improvised, but they sure damn sounded like it. 2005’s “Hypermagic Mountain,” one of the albums that got me into noise music, is an hour of Chippendale beating the drums into submission and Gibson shredding wildly. On “Fantasy,” there’s central rhythms and tempo changes. The vocals are rhythmic and coordinated (if not still wholly indiscriminate). But they’re still the same band. On opener “The Metal East,” the band rages on like an ambulance driver in a snowstorm – an experienced one.

The Brians were really just growing tired of the recording process and wanted a change. “Fantasy Empire” is their first album since 2009, and some of these songs have been in their concert rotation since 2010. Musical maturity is a different route for the band. Sometimes, it works, like the sudden tempo change and crescendo on “Mythmaster.” Other times, like on “Horsepower,” the lack of insanity leaves them focus-less. More often than not, things come together. The band nods to metal, like on “Runaway Train,” and to pop, like on the surprisingly rhythmic vocals of “Over the River and Through the Woods.” They’re more leveled, letting you know when you’re going to be assaulted and by which instrument. Things come together more, there’s a semi-structured cohesiveness. And the level to which the listener finds it either off-putting or a breath of fresh air, is really up to the listener. It does leave a hole, as they begin to sound like the bands they’ve inspired. But it’s a small hole, because even in it’s maturity, Lightning Bolt is still a 21 year old band – not yet rid of a few pranks, a few tricks up it’s sleeve, and a whole lot of energy.

If you like this, try: The best recent comparison to “Fantasy Empire” is Melt-Banana’s 2003 “Cell-Scape,” where they held back and wrote catchier, more accessible songs – and in doing so, their stance as the most ferocious band on Earth was only heightened, through the power of planned blasts instead of a full-on attack.

Pearl Jam – “Lightning Bolt”

(Photo Credit: antiquiet)

Grade: C-

Key Tracks: “Mind Your Manners” “My Father’s Son”

Just last week, I was driving when I did something I never do – I turned on the radio. One of Boston’s classic rock stations, WZLX, came on, and they were playing Pearl Jam’s “Daughter.” I can only imagine the meeting they held to determine whether or not early 90′s grunge acts now constitute as “classic rock,” but as someone who was three when that song came out, I’m uncomfortable with this progression. Now in 2013, Pearl Jam have released “Lightning Bolt,” and many critics are praising the album’s misalignment to today’s radio rock. But “classic rock” comes to mind, because it’s structured just like a classic rock album. And that’s really not a good thing.

Even bandwagon Pearl Jam fans know of Eddie Vedder’s punk attitude, much stronger than that of all his grunge peers. Their two most punk songs – 1994′s “Spin the Black Circle” and 2011′s non-album track “Ole,” have been completely upstaged by lead-off single “Mind Your Manners.” The rapid-fire song is almost like a lesson to punk bands, and serves as one of their best songs in years. But the album’s strict lack of any sort of narrative leaves the song out of place on the album. The first three tracks (including “Manners”) properly build the album up, and they’re all pretty decent songs, but the energy is completely killed by the ballad “Sirens.” Not only is the song extremely corny, but it stops the vibe the album gets into, and everything after it feels like disconnected songs. They put what they feel are the best songs at the beginning and fill the rest with the lesser tracks, with no sort of flow at all. It’s just like a classic rock album.

The band, of course, sounds great. They’re all great and diverse musicians. And Vedder’s growl-singing sounds as good now as it did in ’91. Even on the otherwise terrible “Sirens,” Vedder sounds phenomenal. One standout track is the eerily foreboding “My Father’s Son,” because of Vedder’s consistently strong lyricism. But they sound a little too comfortable. They’re not trying to prove anything, and the result is a bunch of bland and unrelated songs that aren’t anything original or memorable.

It’s actually a little tough to review this album, for two reasons. One, I’ve loved Pearl Jam for many years and I can’t stand saying anything bad about them, and two, I truly don’t remember this album even though I just listened to it two hours ago. It’s so uninspired that you come off only remembering the best and worst tracks. The first three and the ballad closer “Future Days” are worth the listen, “Sirens” is not, and everything in between is just dull and mid-tempo. It’s easy on the ears, especially for fans, but it’s instantly forgettable and dull, and its got a frustratingly  misleading name.

-By Andrew McNally

Melt-Banana – “fetch”

(Photo Credit: exclaim.ca)

Grade: A

Key Tracks: “The Hive,” “Schemes of the Tails”

There’s a certain number of people out there that have thought, “I wish Melt-Banana would just be more intense!” That number hovers around zero. But they’ve gotten more intense. The Japanese noise-punk group has been established, since the mid-90’s, as one of the leaders in the world of total aural assault. Their earlier albums were nonsensical blasts of noise, each track often lasting less than a minute. In the 2000’s, they gravitated towards more conventional song structures while still maintaining that furious intensity. 2003’s “Cell-Scape” was a goldmine of pop-brutality. After six years of inactivity, they’re back, and “fetch” makes those six years excusable.

It should be mentioned that they took time off because of problems faced in their native Japan – an earthquake in Tohoku and the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima left the band putting their careers to the side to help their country. But the return is still welcomed – because they’re back to their experimenting. Sometimes the band experiments, other times they just put out noise albums. But “fetch” sounds like the album that should’ve come out before “Cell-Scape.” To put it simply, this is the Melt-Banana album I’ve been craving since I got into them roughly six years ago.

“fetch” starts off with ocean waves and a synth rhythm, a bit of a red herring intro that also acts as a metaphorical apology for the band’s unintended hiatus. The song builds up, finally ending in intense Melt-Banana form. For those unfamiliar with the band, that involves guitar and drum paired with squeaky high vocals and drums that sound like they’re being murdered. Follow up “The Hive” is more of a traditional track, at slightly over two minutes.

A slight majority of the songs on the album are under the 2:30 mark, and all except an interlude are expectedly intense. But what makes this album great – maybe even their best – is the way it uses typical song structures to sound even more brutal. “Cell-Scape” loosely framed its songs around rock structures, but didn’t advance much beyond them. “fetch” takes a typical structure, allows the band to slow down just a little to add a noticeable energy, and intersperse typical songs against blasts of noise. The final track, “Zero,” almost comes close to resembling the Yeah Yeah Yeahs song of the same name, as a synth-based dance-number. But yet, the tracks before them are still brutally fast. Melt-Banana stretches their own boundaries on this album.

The vocals aren’t as high-pitched, and the drums are on a less consistently melodic, Zach Hill type of brutality, which automatically sounds different. “fetch” honestly would’ve been a wonderful intro to “Cell-Scape,” now 10+ years removed. But with the mediocre “Bambi’s Dilemma” standing as their most recent release, “fetch” is more than a welcome return – it’s a noisy, assaulting and relentless piece of noise-punk that recognizes its boundaries, always going to them but never going over. Melt-Banana is not a band that has a wide audience in America, but for those that do enjoy, they’ll hopefully accept “fetch” as an apology for a long absence.

If you like this, try: Lightning Bolt’s 2005 album “Hypermagic Mountain.” Two guys from Connecticut created one of the most feedback-laden, noisy masterpieces of the ’00s.

-By Andrew McNally