Few bands symbolize Providence’s music scene as potently as Lightning Bolt, the noisy, energetic rock duo that formed in 1994. The group was one of the torchbearers of the thriving scene surrounding Fort Thunder, the legendary artist warehouse in Providence that was demolished by developers in 2001. Lightning Bolt quickly forged a reputation for memorable guerrilla live shows, playing from a spot within the crowd instead of performing on a conventional stage.
Now, 21 years later, as Providence grew and changed as a city, Lightning Bolt changed, too. The duo — bassist Brian Gibson and drummer-vocalist Brian Chippendale — plays much bigger venues and festivals, on actual stages. (On May 17, they play the Sinclair in Cambridge.) And after years of recording for the Providence noise-rock label Load Records, Lightning Bolt is now signed to the Chicago indie-rock giant Thrill Jockey. “Fantasy Empire,” the group’s impressive label debut, is receiving critical acclaim from mainstream outlets, including Rolling Stone.
“Fantasy Empire” is the first Lightning Bolt album to make full use of the tools of a recording studio. “We were able to do overdubs and edits, and we were able to craft the sounds we wanted before we even started playing,” says Gibson. “Actually, all these standard recording techniques are all new to us as a band. It felt like a dream, actually.”
Despite all the studio tricks, “Fantasy Empire” maintains the raw, frenzied intensity that fans associate with Lightning Bolt’s live shows. “It’s funny, because this is the least live recording process we’ve ever done, to make the most live-sounding thing,” Chippendale says, laughing. “We’ve probably done more editing and overdubbing on this record than we’ve ever done, so there’s this counterintuitiveness to how you make something sound live. You’re not just playing it live, which was a little bit new for us. We’ve generally always used recording to document what we’re doing.”
The album also has a bit of a metal feel, beginning with the aptly titled “The Metal East,” the propulsive first track. “We’ve always skirted on the edges of heavy metal,” Chippendale says. “Maybe in the beginning for the first couple of years, we were just so weird we couldn’t be called metal; it was a part of just how we were recording stuff and how we sounded. But we were using the tricks of the trade in metal — the searing high riffs and heavy parts and stuff.”
In addition to touring to support “Fantasy Empire,” both members of Lightning Bolt are heavily involved in their own art projects. Chippendale has a 124-page graphic novel titled “Puke Force” coming out in October from Drawn and Quarterly, the respected Canadian comics publishing house. “One of the characters has a magic power where he pukes on you and melts you,” explains Chippendale, rather cryptically, of the story line. Gibson, a longtime effects artist at Harmonix in Cambridge, is working in his spare time with an engineer in Korea on an experimental video game called Thumper, which explores a genre he calls “rhythm violence.” “It’s a music game and also a racing game,” Gibson says.
The duo has no plans to leave Providence. “It’s where we started and we haven’t left since,” Gibson says. “It doesn’t have the same kind of energy that it did 15 years ago, when there was more cheap space for artists. It’s the same story with every town now.” As developers began buying up properties, much of the scrappy, flourishing artist warehouse scene began to disintegrate.
As Boston’s real estate market surged, affordable housing for artists and musicians began to vanish, too, but at a much faster clip. “Providence is still a pretty great place,” Chippendale says. “It had a bit of a moment where it felt like the walls were caving in on it because of gentrification, but that moment kind of slowed down.
“The city is still pretty livable,” he adds. “It had its own renaissance in terms of restaurants and small businesses. The downtown is getting busy and it was a ghost town for many years. . . . It feels exciting and good, and it’s not getting carried away with itself.”
In the glory days of Fort Thunder, Gibson says, artists in Providence lived near each other, lending cohesion to the scene. “It just had a certain kind of energy because people were closer together,” Gibson says. “Now it’s just a little more work, but there are still some amazing artists in Providence, hidden in basements in residential areas and stuff like that.
“A lot of people from [Fort Thunder] are still active and making art and making music,” Gibson continues. “It was like graduate school for all of us who didn’t want to go to graduate school. It helped us to take our art and music ideas to the next level and really dig in. It got us established with what we are doing for ourselves.”
At: The Sinclair,
Sunday, at 8 p.m.
Tickets: $12. 800-745-3000, www.sinclaircambridge.com
Geeta Dayal can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.