Lightning Bolt have returned with one of their best albums yet, a pop-surrealist force that revels in the broken, expansive conquest of any and all space by hyperactive imaginations. Delivered by means of a different kind of punk than before (one that is no longer a purist of authenticity), Fantasy Empire‘s studio production brings a slew of sonic elements that were perhaps much harder – if possible at all – in the context of a ‘non-professional’ recording. The duo adapted the studio to their sound, making their noise a bit more intelligible but not precisely controlled, adding many layers to it, drawing the chaos out of an intention instead of letting it run wild. This small yet crucial shift in perspective allows the album to grow in directions that were previously only hinted at, bringing both the metallic (Earthly Delights) and the psychedelic (Oblivion Hunter) together in a mix that makes them strain and struggle with their respective wilderness; the earlier makes the body crack with electricity and movement while the latter breaks apart the understanding of the music as such, paving the way for minds lost in their noisiest recesses.
As with past albums, Fantasy Empire traces a sort of imaginary map over some weird space that, in accordance with this new instance of the group, is not made of bright colors and maddening impossible landscapes but a two-tone dark ‘forest’ that cannot really be defined. The characters and places in this empire are not playful dreams, but playful nightmares: the cartoon violence evoked by earlier material is given a harder edge, one that is less joyful about destruction. The evil of Ride the Skies‘ “13 Monsters” or Wonderful Rainbow‘s “Dracula Mountain” was one of cackling villains and mysterious places that were bound to erase the seriousness of its deadly implications with sheer playfulness, with the noise of an overactive imagination that recreates the world as playground. The evil in Fantasy Empire, however, sounds a bit more harmful in the ways its metallic side slows down the body’s spasms of energy and the production brings back the mind from the noise expanses with intricate little details. This is no longer the realm of excess, of the pure freedom of the wilderness, but something more rational, a consciousness that turns the violence from harmless barbarisms into something eerie and perhaps even sinister, something spawned in control. This is a turn in Lightning Bolt’s very foundations, one that will allow them (and us!) to further explore a new territory that is more Grimm fairytale and less Bugs Bunny.
All in all, this is still the noise rock duo that has made people excited for 15 years now, but it’s growing in ways that perhaps we did not anticipate – where most bands do something almost entirely different to change, Lightning Bolt is plunging deeper into the form it already knows, developing new takes, new approaches to the core principle of an imagination happily driven so mad it tears apart the boring order that subjects it by recreating it in impossible ways. Perhaps this is why, this time around, we’re listening to it as an empire, a fantasy enforced, a fantasy that does not re-create but re-produces what is already in place. If anything, this album reminded me again why I fell in love with Lightning Bolt all those years ago: it crashes into the world with indomitable vitality, a vitality born of weird pop-cultural dreams that refuse to quiet down, bubbling deep inside our daily grown-up performances of ourselves. (David Murrieta)