My daughter was a year old, and she was feeling the Jon Spencer Blues Explosion. If you work at Pitchfork, as I did in 2010, then the Pitchfork Music Festival is a sort of incredibly fancy version of the annual company picnic. There’s this sprawling VIP area where you can lay out on the grass and talk with friends. You might hang out all day while only paying cursory attention to whatever bands are playing. You might bring your kids. That year, while the Blues Explosion played, my kid started laughing and running around and doing this weird little dance where she kept dipping her diapered butt. She loved it, and she seemed to light up especially bright when it was just drummer Russell Simins banging away. Oh, I thought. She likes drums. I should take her to see Lightning Bolt.
This was a bad idea. Lightning Bolt were playing in the middle of the afternoon that day, so I held my daughter’s hand and walked her over by the stage. When Lightning Bolt’s two-man skree-roar started up, my kid was immediately terrified. She might’ve started crying before Brian Gibson’s bass even kicked in. She ran away, screaming. It looked like a scene from a horror movie. For a minute, she even tripped on a stick and kept scrambling forward on her hands and knees — anything to get away from this horror. From where she’d been standing, my kid couldn’t even see Brian Chippendale’s muppet-gimp mask. The music alone was too much.
At Pitchfork, Lightning Bolt were on their best behavior. By 2010, they’d matured into a sort of institution. They played on an actual stage — the only time I’ve ever seen them do that. They tamped down their thundering blurt into something that halfway made sense on a hot Chicago afternoon. I don’t think people even really moshed. This was about the most chilled-out, family-friendly version of the Lightning Bolt experience that anyone’s ever going to get, and it still had the power to make a little girl cry.
I should’ve known. You can’t just get into Lightning Bolt cold, with no context, when you’re a baby. Getting into Lightning Bolt takes more work than that. You need at least a couple of decades’ worth of rock riffs jammed into your head. You need to learn how a warehouse loft space smells on the morning after a big party, when there are some sort of unidentified charred remains just left to smolder in a corner somewhere. You need to hit the developmental stage where it seems like a really good idea to throw an old stereo from a rooftop, just to see what it looks like when it smashes on the ground. You need to mature into a specific kind of immaturity.
In 2010, I was new to child-rearing, but I wasn’t new to Lightning Bolt. There was a logic to my thinking, and that logic was sound. Oh, she likes drums, was the logic. Well, Lightning Bolt got some fucking druuuuuums. Brian Chippendale, the drumming half of Lightning Bolt, is a human octopus, a freaky physiological wonder who can just utterly wreck the shit out of his instrument without ever losing the rhythmic thread of what he’s doing. Sometimes, watching him felt a little bit like watching the Tasmanian Devil — a dusty hurricane with bits of drumstick and cymbal sometimes poking out of the whirl. At a Lightning Bolt show, you would feel Chippendale’s drums in your ribcage. They would make your bones hurt.
Lightning Bolt weren’t the first noise-rock band, and they weren’t the first band to deconstruct the “rock” part of noise-rock, ripping it to shreds and then taping it back together again. But the sheer glee that Brians Gibson and Chippendale brought to the task made them stand out. Gibson transformed his bass into a whirling, skittering spazz-roar that occasionally locked into its own kind of hypnotic minimalism. Chippendale made his drums sound like a flight of stairs falling down a flight of stairs. Chippendale also hooted unintelligible nothings into a barely-functional microphone that he’d built from a telephone mouthpiece and sewed into his mask. They were something. Still are.
It took a village to make Lightning Bolt into what they were. Gibson and Chippendale met in the mid-’90s at the Rhode Island School Of Design, the same art college that had nurtured the Talking Heads a couple of decades earlier. At the time, things were happening in Providence. Thanks to some combination of corrupted municipal neglect and art-school ingenuity, the city had become a hub for bugged-out experimental punk bands that used live shows as excuses for dangerous performance-art stunts. For a while, Lightning Bolt also included guitarist Hisham Bharoocha, who left to form Black Dice. Providence also had Six Finger Satellite, Landed, Forcefield, Arab On Radar, and probably at least a few dozen bands who played one demented show and then were never heard from again.
Providence also had Load Records, a label dedicated to immortalizing all these freakouts on record, even when the bands, like Lightning Bolt, just considered themselves to be freeform improvisers. Load released Lightning Bolt’s self-titled debut, an ugly lo-fi squiggle-seizure, in 1999. But more than the album, it was the live shows that spread the myth of Lightning Bolt. Lightning Bolt were an oral-tradition band, a rumor band. Your weirdest friend would tell you about Lightning Bolt in the middle of the night, and you couldn’t tell, at first, whether he’d just made the whole thing up. These guys only play on the floor, right? Never on the stage! And they wear these freaky bad-trip masks! And the music sounds like free jazz but also like grindcore but also not really like either of those!
The band’s home became part of the myth, too. Chippendale and some friends had rented a shut-down factory in the deepest industrial ruins of Providence, and they’d christened it Fort Thunder. Fort Thunder was a place for people to live, but it was also an all-around mutated art space — for shows, for pressing underground comics, for welding together junk sculptures. The name alone became enough to conjure imagery, and it certainly inspired future grimy arts-collective single-space scenes like Baltimore’s Wham City and Denver’s Rhinoceropolis.
Ride The Skies arrived right as that Lightning Bolt/Fort Thunder myth reached its tipping point. Thurston Moore had caught onto what was happening, and he’d recruited Lightning Bolt as an opening act. Alt-weeklies and bigger zines started writing the band up. They played New York more and more — in lofts, yes, but also in actual clubs. Taken together, the band name and the album title seemed like some bent homage to classic-era Metallica — something that seemed at least halfway plausible when you actually heard the thing. When Ride The Skies arrived — 20 years ago this month, though the exact release date is frustratingly unclear — it made some noise.
Ride The Skies opens with a peal of feedback, a bust of squeaky-fingers bass shredding, and a long drum roll, and then it all explodes. At full speed, Lightning Bolt sounded a bit like hardcore and a bit like math-rock, but they mostly sounded like they were trying to eat themselves. They squealed and wriggled and screeched and splattered. You could hear that both Brians were total wizards at their instruments, but you could also tell that both Brians were doing their best to unlearn whatever they’d learned — to turn those instruments into vehicles for unfocused adrenaline. There are no songs on Ride The Skies. There’s no center, no logic. There’s nothing that could make you feel even remotely comfortable.
The live show was the thing. I didn’t get to see Lightning Bolt until a couple of years after Ride The Skies came out, which meant I’d absorbed way too many breathless anecdotes. The show lived up. God, it was so fun — all these people jammed into this big dilapidated-factory room, everyone climbing walls and throwing each other up against windows and sweating all over each other. Ride The Skies merely served as a preview of that live show, or a memento of it. The album could only ever hope to echo that disoriented euphoria. But an echo of that was still a lot.
Today, listening to Ride The Skies is not the easiest thing in the world. Lightning Bolt went on to make better albums, like 2003’s Wonderful Rainbow and 2005’s Hypermagic Mountain. In the years after Ride The Skies, Gibson and Chippendale learned to channel and harness some of their wild energy, directing it into things that almost sounded like songs. They became the kind of act that you could safely book at a big festival. They’re still around now, miraculously.
But Ride The Skies was the band’s moment — the point where Lightning Bolt appeared as some combustible new mutation of underground rock. Ride The Skies arrived at a moment when lots of noisemaking pranksters were shaking off punk and indie orthodoxies, getting loudly wiggy with whatever they had at their disposal. Unwound had already been coming up with more meditative mutations for years, and lots of other people were grinding out sugar-rush ugliness at greater speeds: The Locust, Melt-Banana, the Fucking Champs, the Blood Brothers, Wolf Eyes, Erase Errata. (Plenty of those bands headed out together on the fabled Oops! The Tour in the summer of 2002.) But even with that whole scene roiling all around them, Lightning Bolt still stood out as beings who operated in a whole other world.
That world would not exist for long. 2001, the year that Lightning Bolt released Ride The Skies, is also the year that Fort Thunder was demolished to make room for a strip-mall parking lot. Lightning Bolt were once emissaries of a romantically insane scene. For the past two decades, though, they have operated as an island unto themselves. Long may they make toddlers cry.