Buzzing with the jabberwocky babble of Rhode Island’s freakazoid id, Lightning Bolt’s 2001 breakthrough, Ride the Skies, was a heroic yawp unto itself. Somewhere beyond the toxic-minivan skronk of Friends Forever and the Speedo-busting stomp of Orthrelm, bassist Brian Gibson and “talking drums” master Brian Chippendale taped microphones over their pieholes, pulled ski masks over their faces, and fed a fistful of panic rock to the post-millennial age of anxiety. You could almost hear experimental punk’s death rattle: No more ironic Whitesnake T-shirts. No more improv sessions with Jim O’Rourke. No more grad-school discussions about the art of noise. Just a boom-crash-shake-your-fists riot, like two 10-year-old kids doing Van Halen kicks in Superman costumes.
Two years and one Thurston Moore Seal of Approval later, Wonderful Rainbow finds these outsider artists in an insider’s realm. Every last noise band in America must have picked up Load’s reissue of Lightning Bolt’s 1997 debut, The Yellow Record, and DVD tour diary The Power of Salad in the meantime, because now everyone wants to sound like a comic-book thrash band and dress like the dude who just robbed the 7-Eleven. Luckily, Lightning Bolt’s crude metal declares more than just the right not to remain silent. Yes, G-g-g-g-gibson’s spider fingers still hold Sam Ash wank sessions with so much noodling you want to throw meatballs, and Chippendale’s s&m percussion still sounds like someone sat him in a bathtub with two lit sticks of dynamite and threw in a hair dryer. But this time, the music also speaks its own mythology—repetitive, ritualistic, fantastical. Too mischievous for Led Zeppelin’s Valhalla and too self-aware for Bal-Sagoth’s Magic Kingdom, Wonderful Rainbow conjures retarded unicorns, copulating robots, and head-banging ogres in one technicolor beat. Each ecstatic racket is a hymn for the day you search for Jesus’ face in your Magic Eye and see Howard Finster’s instead. Every time a high hat rings, an angel gets its wings torn off.
It’s the best kind of bad religion. James Joyce once heard a shout in the street and wrote: “That is God.” Lightning Bolt hear God in a shout in the street and think: “That’s a song.” Wonderful Rainbow sings the city’s satori: a sweaty clubber’s gasp at the first breath of night air, a sports-bar dweller’s cry at the game’s final goal, the drunken crowd’s howl at a band’s fifth power chord. The holiest shrieks rise from their music like spontaneous notes from the wonderground, dissolving into the kind of nirvana that smells more like teen spirit than Siddhartha’s eight-fold path. And when they’ve threaded every last aural epiphany through the collective unconscious, the Brians channel them through a bazillion-watt amp: Zapphhfft-ourrreeeee! Blaaaaghh-ughh-ughh-ughh! Rrrrowwlllllll-fitchhhhhhh! A scream in the key of life.
No matter how omnipotent their din, Lightning Bolt’s sonic structure won’t be music to fascist ears. (Tell the Jacques Attali heads to go analyze Russell Haswell.) These basement-party everymen are so careful not to put themselves above their audience that they refuse to perform on a stage. There’s no ultimate triumph to their will: “Crown of Storms” gets thunderstruck AC/DC style, but as soon as its rising hammer-ons start flashing devil horns at your mom, they slow to a self-conscious practice session. “Longstockings” plots the flight of the bumbling Bee Thousand, its lo-fi scree leading to the giant stinger sticking out of its end—but the whole thing is guided by unintelligible voices. “Assassins” follows Gibson’s circular jingles on a Sisyphean journey toward some distant apex where Chippendale’s bolts always strike twice. And somewhere in the middle of the album, between all the hot lava braindance and Wagner parody, the lovely “Wonderful Rainbow” belches up a pink ballet slipper from the earth’s core. Gibson’s bass breathes like a Lamaze lesson, nervous and unstable, while Chippendale listens hesitantly, never making a sound. We’re given exactly one minute to question why they’re giving us this unsettling instant of quiet, and the remaining thirty seconds to realize exactly what this track is—a chance to exult in the fear of every unknown that’s yet to come.
Most rock ‘n’ roll is a detached analysis of the nature of menace, a cartoonish defiance of fear. Lightning Bolt is danger, but not in the way that would win a bar brawl or replace your belt buckle with a skull and crossbones. Theirs is the music of a center that can’t hold. Like an old mix tape looped on its spool one too many times, Wonderful Rainbow warps the more you listen. The bass sounds like a Victrola played at the wrong speed. The drums change rhythm unexpectedly. Definable melodies break into fractals. And just when you’re starting to understand the method to the madness, the album’s back in 4/4 time.
The nature of noise is shapeless, an unclassifiable substance that penetrates your head and leaves your body feeling vulnerable, nearly borderless. Maybe that’s why so much panic rock is linked with sex and violence—it’s a safety dance between artist and audience. Listening to the no-rules-dude clamor, you wonder: Is that freedom? Or is it anxiety? Somewhere over the Wonderful Rainbow, they’re exactly the same thing. The catharsis of Lightning Bolt’s music lies not in letting the band bully you into accepting their emotional truths—the invincible power of fist-pumping clatter, the sadness of a minor chord—but in realizing that these truths are beyond your control. After that thought plunks into your head, the rest is a welcome free-fall through deafening squall. The only real violence is silence.