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.

Perfect Pussy – “Say Yes to Love”

(Photo Credit: Pitchfork)

Grade: A

Key Tracks: “Driver” “Interference Fits”

“Stop me if you’ve heard this one before,” Meredith Graves coyly sings on “Advance Upon the Real.” But there’s no stopping Perfect Pussy – there isn’t anything quite like this. In fact, it’s one of the only decipherable lines on the album. Perfect Pussy’s raw, cheap and ferocious punk energy is breathing life into music. The noise-punk band came together after Graves was asked to form a fake band to play in a scene of the 2013 film “Adult World,” and they ended up recording. They released their first EP, “I Have Lost All Desire For Feeling,” rather unceremoniously. But it was quickly picked up by major markets and by the time this debut LP came out (which wasn’t long), it was already hotly anticipated.

The first EP was four songs and roughly 13 minutes long. “Say Yes to Love” is double that – eight songs and 23 minutes. The whole album is characterized by relentless and chaotic energy and teasing intros and fade-outs. The volume is pushed to the max throughout, surrounded by reverb, power chords and lo-fi production. The chords themselves are deceivingly pop-punk, but Perfect Pussy are far too riotous to be considered it. The only song that isn’t all-out is the keyboard-prevalent closer, the ominously named “VII” (ominous because the EP’s song titles were in Roman numerals, suggesting parts V and VI exist). Even then, it’s a booming closer. The band’s intensity is thanks in part to the muffled production. It’s like the medium between Melt-Banana and Potty Mouth, recording with the production quality of Teen Suicide.

Fade-outs, reverb and tempting intros are a large part of this album. The opening song, “Driver,” waits a very teasing eleven seconds before the opening chords. “Big Stars” and “Interference Fits” have long periods of reverb at the end of the song, as if providing a quick break for the listener. And “Advance Upon the Real” has a little over three minutes of tape delay, at the end, in which some notes and chords in the background are just barely audible.

The vocals are improved on this album. On “Feeling,” Graves’ voice was so buried under the music that it was barely audible. They’re at least audible here, although the lyrics are almost entirely unintelligible. They might be taking a Lightning Bolt approach, burying the lyrics under fuzzy vocals to add a shroud of mystery. One of the album’s only other truly unmistakable lines is in “Interference Fits” – “Since when do we say yes to love?” – just intelligible enough to let the listener know what a red herring the album’s title really is. What follows, is Graves dubbed twice over herself, singing three different things at once.

Perfect Pussy have been one of the biggest bands to watch for 2014 and, no, they’re probably not going to become a household name, but they’re making waves in the music world. “Say Yes to Love,” even in its lighter moments, is intense. 23 straight minutes of vicious energy, fronted by Graves’ shout-singing (and Garrett Koloski’s machine-like drumming). Perfect Pussy have emerged from an otherwise empty Syracuse scene, and they’re here to stay.

If you like this, try: Potty Mouth’s “Hell Bent.” It’s not half as intense, but it matches PP’s pop-punk chords and lo-fi production.

-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