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Gods of Thunder

By Lee Gardner | Posted 6/20/2001

Lightning Bolt, Force Field, Spread Eagle, Neon Hunk

Lightning Bolt, Force Field, Spread Eagle, Neon Hunk


A few Wednesday evenings back, a small crowd gathered on the un-air-conditioned third floor of a disheveled building in West Baltimore. It could have been any old urban art-head party--people chatting, loopy electro records playing, attendees returning from nearby stores with purchases in paper sacks--but for the clusters of musical equipment arranged against the cracked-plaster walls. It was, in fact, the inaugural night at a new ad hoc space dubbed Tarantula Hill, and two of the clusters of equipment belonged to groups hailing from Providence, R.I.'s Fort Thunder venue/studio complex. Pretty soon, various partygoers started disappearing and returning, in disguise, as performers.

Thank You, Masked Men: Lightning Bolt make some noise at Tarantula Hill. (Click to see more images)

Photos by the City Paper Digi-Cam

Milwaukee-based duo Neon Hunk was the first to do the quick-change act. A drummer clad only in a neon-colored zebra-stripe face mask and pair of tighty-whiteys pounded out a series of jerky beats, while the similarly masked but more modestly clad keyboardist stabbed single-finger death-ray riffs and yelped vocals that sounded like a kidnap victim chewing her way through a gag. Then Tarantula Hill maven C. Ptak donned a neck brace to re-emerge as the instrumental half of the duo Spread Eagle. The vocal half, Chicago-based performance artist Misty Martinez, declaimed lyrics over her partner's clanging synth noises, but her vocals were completely swallowed by some sort of electronic effect and a rudimentary PA setup. Martinez managed to make an impression nonetheless by shredding her gauzy dress and lolling nude on the grimy floor for the set's final few minutes.

Fort Thunder-based Force Field tipped its urban tribalist hand right up front. As two group members crouched over electronics on either side of the darkened room, they screened a film featuring several masked figures carrying torches down what looked like a sewer tunnel. As the figures on-screen reached the foreground, they stumbled across what looked like an old analog synthesizer, whereupon they began kicking it like the mystified apes from 2001: A Space Odyssey run amok. A barrage of oscillating electronic squeals and quasi-psychedelic animation followed; after a brief break, four group members (clad in the same grandma-sweater masks worn in the film) joined together for a half hour of strangely compelling dancing, impromptu wrestling, and shouting over a distorted, stripped-down electronic thump.

Wearing the de rigueur mask, drummer Brian Chippendale of headlining Fort Thunder ensemble Lightning Bolt started setting up his kit in the center of the room while Force Field's squall was still dying away. Bassist Brian Gibson quickly took his place in front of a half-dozen mismatched speaker cabinets stacked up to the size of a double-door refrigerator and the duo immediately launched into a frantic barrage of ecstatic rock noise. The band's recordings (most recently its Ride the Skies album on Load Records) are no preparation for its live assault. Chippendale hammered out hard and fast beats buffeted by spasmodic change-ups, while Gibson's tinny bass blared out chopped-up prog-y riffs (hammer-ons!) that made him sound like Geezer Butler one minute, the low end of a cathedral pipe organ the next. There are tunes to some of Lightning Bolt's tunes--"St. Jacques" ghosts the melody of "Frere Jacques" over Chippendale's maximum-warp pummel--but the emphasis is clearly on musical frenzy. Lit from below by a single green light and obviously playing at the limits of his endurance in the hot, close little room, Chippendale seemed ready to either keel over or levitate. He teetered there, thundering away, until, dripping with sweat and panting, he finally asked, "Is that enough?" The crowd, standing 2 feet away, made plain it wasn't, so the band played some more.

Lightning Bolt plays the Ottobar on July 12.

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