Come On, Feel the Noise
By Melissa Maerz and Nick Phillips
The blind may have incredible powers of hearing. But the deaf--they have holy visions. This is the ecstatic epiphany that comes while watching Lightning Bolt perform. The music throbs so loudly you can't tell if that crackling sound is coming from the beat-up amp or if it's the noise the veins in your head make when they're about to burst. Your ears begin to feel as if they're stuffed with bread. And so you concentrate on watching the incredible scene before you.
Drummer Brian Chippendale's torso stays securely in place while his arms make a cartoonish blur of movement, like Wile E. Coyote's legs treading air just before he falls 200 feet into the canyon. Bassist Brian Gibson wears the expression of a recently decapitated man whose head watches his body in disbelief as it convulses, fingers twitching. Right at the riot's core, two hippies are hunched down, giving each other the softest little kisses you've ever seen. And just when you're about to make yourself the cheese in their love sandwich, the credits roll.
When you're watching Lightning Bolt's new DVD, Power of Salad and Milkshakes (Load Records), it's easy to forget that you're not actually right there experiencing such performances firsthand. The DVD follows Gibson and Chippendale on tour from their hometown of Providence, Rhode Island, to Davis, California. And after you've witnessed a handful of meatheads skullshaking to the noise, or seen Chippendale lock himself inside a refrigerator to cool down after a show, you realize that seeing the spectacle of the sound is absolutely necessary. At a time when Lightning Bolt are being compared with Derrida in the Village Voice, it's important to remember that their sound is every bit as physical as it is cerebral. The best "intellectual music," after all, is somehow anatomical. (Consider John Cage, locked in a sound deprivation chamber, hearing the sound of his own heartbeat as the sole, deafening noise.) Lightning Bolt's music unleashes a certain violence upon your ear when it's chewing its way toward your brain.
There's an organic ferocity--a kind of plasma pulse--to Lightning Bolt that practically demands its own kingdom in the taxonomy of life. Of course, critics like nothing better than classification exercises--joining together species of bands under the label of some hot new genre. Witness the joie d'écriture with which crits wielded the word emo: Bands connected by nothing more than rimmed glasses found themselves tarred with the same brush. (Weezer practically grew mullets trying to distance themselves from that whole misguided mess.) Now critics are getting nutty about postpunk as if the Eighties were a good thing. And all of a sudden each Exciting Young Band (Black Dice, Liars, Radio 4) comes with an Exciting Old Post-Punk Band They're Ripping Off (make that DNA, the Birthday Party, and Gang of Four, respectively).
It's a worrying time to be a new band--especially if you're one like Erase Errata, the California-based female four-piece whose nervy, high-wire anarcho-funk has earned them a slew of dubious comparisons to Public Image Limited. But except for Sara Jaffe's tight-as-a-spinal-cord guitar work, it's hard to hear the connection: PiL's skeletal sound always sailed on groove first, with an emphasis on controlled minimalist motion. Erase Errata, by contrast, aim instead for a kind of scrap-splatter sprawl: It's all overcaffeinated kinetics and spray-paint targeting. If you had to trace antecedents, you'd locate the roots of the band's sound amid the herky-jerk primitivism of the Ex, or the gonzo noise-rock of Heroin and the early-Nineties San Diego scene. But, really, what use would that be when Erase Errata are playing not something borrowed but something new?
Their debut CD, Other Animals, doesn't really cohere, despite having all the qualities of a good album: decent name, great cover art, and some vague conceptual underpinnings having to do with how terrifying machines are or something. (Really, it doesn't matter what the theory is--records with theories are just better.) The music has all the right bits and pieces, with Jenny Hoysten's dog-frequency screech vocals perching somewhere between Bianca Sparta's lock-groove drumming and Ellie Erickson's metallic bass. But songs like opener "Tongue Tied" and "Other Animals Are #1" rely on turn-on-a-dime dynamics that Erase Errata haven't yet mastered.
But no matter, because onstage the disparate pieces come together to form a truly jaw-dropping glimpse into their musical future. If you had stumbled across one of their recent New York City gigs at the Knitting Factory, you would have seen them blow noise antagonists Black Dice off the stage, which is kind of like blowing Led Zeppelin off the stage: Maybe it could theoretically happen--you just can't imagine it ever would. Catch them live now or you might find yourself waiting' till the anti-postpunk backlash. And we all know that's not going to be pretty.
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