Think you can play bass and drums like the maniacal duo of Brian Gibson and Brian Chippendale? Think again.
With more than 20 years under their weightlifting belts, these hardboiled refugees of punk hailing from Providence, Rhode Island have refined their unique sonic battery to a majestic and spellbinding art. Now, Fantasy Empire catches the mischievous band at the absolute peak of their powers, finally merging their precision with power, panache with punch.
Previously, their 2005 album Hypermagic Mountain had served as their creative zenith, right down to the clever cartooning on the wild sleeve artwork by Chippendale. It asked listeners to comprehend just how the pair could generate the frenetic blur of pummelling rhythms and blast furnace heat of their neon-scorched hyperactive sound. The ‘magic’ related to the undeniable fact that it was catchy as hell and refreshingly unique – capable of blowing both your mind and your speakers.
On their sixth album – and first in five years – the older and wiser partners in crime have refined their devastating attack. And it’s not as if they are slowing down. In fact, Chippendale’s drumming sounds faster than ever by the end of the six-minute freakout “Over the River and Through the Woods”. One wonders how his arms remain attached to his slender torso.
And today, the ‘Bolt are playing an even more cunning trick on the ears than in the past – which is largely appreciated only by cranking up the volume of Fantasy Empire on a pair of headphones. Try it and you can hear the painstaking way they have clinically defined the sound of each of their instruments and channelled it with laser-guided accuracy, as Gibson’s bass throbs in your left ear and Chippendale’s drums batter your right. Mix in some cleverly judged loops, deep-fried distortion and other studio trickery, push the vocals back into the mix and let the unnerving tunes take control. And then just hold on for dear life.
Intriguingly, Fantasy Empire marks the first time the duo have used high-end studio equipment to record an album, and it coincides with their first release on Chicago’s Thrill Jockey label. The slick artworks even matches the musical output, as it sees Chippendale daub and distort his mystical-looking collages with blobs of spray paint and grainy interference. However, the pair seem on edge for the first time. Their newfound acid-drenched psychedelia contributes to the album’s rather claustrophobic feeling, akin to the Liars without the prissy art school pomp. And it’s everywhere, with Chippendale’s greeting merely setting the scene on opener “The Metal East” as he bellows: “I want your face/ You want to break down our world/ Our world will shred you to tears”. Without making the implicit reference to geopolitical conflicts explicit, the ‘Bolt pummel across their point of view deep within the frenetic and charged tune.
It’s also full of smiles. In a show of continued good humour, Gibson tips his hat to the gods of metal past by bending his bass notes in the classic ascending riffs of “Over the River and Through the Woods”. It’s a clever sleight of hand that shows the depth of their musical arsenal and just how inventive the pair needs to be to keep pushing the boundaries of their two instruments. That necessity crops up again on “Horsepower” with its galloping Sabbath-like riff powering the tune, until the irrepressible Chippendale pushes Gibson to unleash a blast of distorted double-tracked bass to fatten up the song’s gnarled groove.
Whereas things just get frankly surreal on the backbeat-driven King of My World as Chippendale repeatedly pronounces: “I AM THE KING/ KING OF MY WOOOOORLLLDDDDD,” like a badass MC followed by a bout of wolf-like howling before unleashing a dose of alternating electronic squiggles and heading into a Yes-like power romp. By the time you reach the concluding 11-minute slow-burner of “Snow White (& The 7 Dwarves Fans)” it sounds like an entire album’s worth of ideas (and puns) have been compressed and mangled into a spanking new cosmic jam.
Nevertheless, many of these songs have been in the band’s live repertoire for years. But after recording them on lo-fi equipment and scrapping the results, it turns out to be a great pleasure that the band decided to embrace the opportunities of a new studio environment and produced the fantastical and empiricist take on their trademark noise rock sound. Long may they continue to shock.