Lightning Dust has a bit of an image problem. A Google Images problem, to be exact. When you search for pictures of “Lightning Dust”, you will find promo shots of the Vancouver indie duo, but mostly what you’ll end up with is page after page of images of an aquamarine-hued Pegasus.
That’s Lightning Dust—not the band, but the My Little Pony: Friendship Is Magic character. It should be noted that the musical project’s genesis predates the pony’s debut by several years, and that the animated series, while written in Los Angeles, was produced in Vancouver.
“I don’t remember how the name Lightning Dust came about,” admits Amber Webber, who fronts the duo, which also features Josh Wells. “Who knows, but I remember a few years after we were a band, the My Little Pony thing came out. It was during that time when we weren’t really that Internet-savvy yet, so we didn’t have the Twitter thing, the this and the that, right? The My Little Pony thing took it all! I felt so ripped off. And then, actually, to further this, Rihanna just started a makeup line called Fenty, and one of the eye shadows is Lightning Dust.”
Being confused with a cartoon pony is one thing, but no one would mistake the latest Lightning Dust album, Spectre, for anything remotely connected with Rihanna. Nor does it sound exactly like anything Webber and Wells have made before, either. Sure, the Lightning Dust signifiers are there, including the layered keyboards and Webber’s sonorous and richly emotive singing.
But the lush, organic arrangements and the pair’s willingness to occasionally rock out—check out the climactic chorus in “Led Astray” or the propulsive drama of “Joanna” for evidence—stand in marked contrast to the last Lightning Dust outing. Released in 2013, Fantasy was built on a foundation of programmed drums and sequencer tracks—the result, Webber says, of a fleeting infatuation with electronic outsiders like Suicide and the Knife.
“I can’t speak for Josh, but for me it was a phase I was going through that I thought it would be fun to try,” she says. “When we started touring it, it kind of seemed more difficult, for me. Singing to canned tracks and sequencers and all that, it just kind of kills the joy of it. You have less room to play around and have fun and keep it exciting on tour and stuff.”
Spectre, then, might be a more accurate reflection of where Lightning Dust is coming from, sonically, and it might also be a truer representation of Webber as a songwriter. She estimates that, for previous records, she and Wells split the writing evenly on the musical side, with her penning all the lyrics. This time around, she wrote the entire thing herself, with the exception of one song.
That’s because Wells was busy playing drums for Destroyer, to say nothing of serving as producer for that band’s album Ken. With her partner otherwise occupied, and freed from the obligations of being a member of Black Mountain (which both she and Wells had quit), Webber found herself with plenty of time to work on Lightning Dust songs in the summer of 2017.
As locals will no doubt recall, that was a record-breaking wildfire season in British Columbia, and the smoke in the air left the skyline of Vancouver looking like the landscape of some newly discovered region of Hades.
“I wrote the album when the whole city was smoky from the fires,” Webber recalls, “and there was a feeling in the air—like, apocalyptic, you know? And it really got to me. I have terrible insomnia, and I think maybe because of that, it was just a weird summer. That summer was so weird. You never got to see the sun; you never got that vitamin D fix, it felt like, and it just messed me up. I can’t explain it. It felt like doomsday.
“Also, in personal-life stuff, I had a lot of things ending in my life, and it just felt like there was this heaviness to life and the world,” she continues. “Even if you just want to get into politics, there’s the whole Trump thing. Ugh. It got heavy for me, so it definitely came into the writing.”
That explains the atmospheric album opener, “Devoted To”, with its imagery of a “smoked-out city” and lyrics including “And now I’ll find my way back in/Even if I never sleep.”
Even more bluntly apocalyptic are the paired closing tracks, “3AM/100 Degrees”, when Webber sings, “Sun sets it’s 100 degrees/And this world has fallen to its knees.”
She explains: “I definitely wrote the album sort of like a story, so the ending of the last song, ‘100 Degrees’, is meant to be like an awakening from the atomic bomb or something, where you look at the world and it’s dead and you’re walking around, but you feel maybe a sense of relief, or ‘I’m still alive,’ you know?”
If the whole exercise sounds hopelessly dismal, rest assured that Spectre is not all doom and gloom. It’s a gorgeous—even uplifting—listen, and thematically it’s less about being trapped in bleak times than it is about surviving them. In Webber’s view, that’s a positive thing.
“It’s a dark album, but it actually is really optimistic at the same time,” she says. “I’m an optimist at heart, so even when the world doesn’t seem great, I’m always grateful to be a part of it.”
Lightning Dust plays the Fox Cabaret on Wednesday (November 13).