[19 February 2012]
PopMatters Music Editor
“Born to Lose” and “Comeback Kid” were the first songs leaked from Sleigh Bells’ second album Reign of Terror, but could there be two more misleading titles to describe a band that has experienced nothing short of a stratospheric ascent in terms of acclaim and fame? Instead, Sleigh Bells’ career trajectory begs the obvious question of whether they can continue to top themselves in pushing their brash, trashy artistry forward. Besting their debut Treats would be a tall task, considering how Sleigh Bells’ initial effort was so complete and fully fledged that you’d be hard pressed to think that they had any more room to grow. To put it another way, Treats was such an over-the-top experience that it seems impossible for Sleigh Bells’ aesthetic to become any more intense and bold than it was the first time around.
With Reign of Terror, Sleigh Bells seem to have come up with the best answer as to how to proceed, which is to not try to one-up Treats either in audaciousness or sheer volume. Although Reign sounds like it couldn’t have been made by anyone except Sleigh Bells, there’s something of a shift from the rockist approach of Treats to the pop dimensions that vied for attention on some of that album’s best, most inventive tracks. It’s telling, then, that the closest thing here to what’s on the earlier effort—the opener “True Shred Guitar”—is the most unconvincing and least developed number on Reign, coming off like a parody of what Sleigh Bells did on Treats, what with the raucous background crowd noise making Derek Miller’s guitar-hero theatrics and Alexis Krauss’ bantering chants of “Push it!” and “On your knees” feel canned, even farcical. In the end, though, “True Shred Guitar” is just a false start and an act of misdirection, as the duo moves from being a metal band playing dance music to a more well-rounded noise-pop act that’s willing to go with its more melodic impulses.
So the new batch of songs may not leave the searing imprint on your consciousness that early offerings like “A/B Machines” or “Crown on the Ground” did, but Sleigh Bells prove on Reign that they’ve got more than one way to get a tune lodged in your head, relying on pop wiles to insinuate themselves instead of plain overwhelming you. While the single “Comeback Kid” may seem like classic Sleigh Bells on first listen, Krauss’ psychotic teen-dream vocals force the action here and drive Miller’s guitar-and-synth attack, rather than the other way around. Of course, the buzzsaw edges of Miller’s instrumental work can’t help but stand out, but on “Comeback Kid” and elsewhere, his guitar play focuses on creating more texture and fewer earworming lead parts, giving the hammy Krauss more room to maneuver at center stage. In other words, “Comeback Kid” is representative of an album where you’re just as likely to find a vocal harmony to hum to yourself as a riff to play air guitar to in your mind.
The more you listen to the latest LP, the more you start to think that Sleigh Bells confused the titles of their two albums, since Treats more aptly characterizes the sugar-rush fare on Reign of Terror. For anyone who thought the chilled-out thrills of “Rill Rill” made it the essential track on Treats, the new album has its fair share of numbers that follow its lead, most notably “End of the Line”: Insistently melodic without being as aggro as you’ve come to expect them to be, Sleigh Bells run through a gamut of emotions on “End of the Line”, as they sound sweetly sad, tender, and desperate at the same time. Krauss’ high, breathless voice is perfectly suited for what might as well be a soundtrack to a locked away diary entry as she’s anxiously spitting lines like, “When you fall so far, so fast / Who are you going to blame this on?” But it’s Miller’s versatile playing that’s the clincher here, proving he can be just as visceral with more intimate moods as he is when it’s all about bluster and swagger. Likewise, “Leader of the Pack” shows that Sleigh Bells don’t necessarily lose any intensity by tuning things down a bit. While it’s hardly an homage to the oldies standard of the same name, the dance-rock of “Leader of the Pack” does flash some girl-groupy harmonies and just a hint of leather-jacket guitar riffing to create something like an updated take on a retro aesthetic, à la Cults. With these more pop-minded numbers, Sleigh Bells are taking their more-is-more approach and tweaking it so that a little less can still be just as much.
Yet Sleigh Bells’ pop ambitions do put them out there more, for better and worse, since they can expose the limitations of a big sound that isn’t suited for nuance. The pep-squaddish “Crush” and the Pixies-esque “Road to Hell” are certainly catchy, but sometimes in the wrong way, as they reveal the weakest link in the Sleigh Bells mix, Krauss’ hit-and-miss lyrics. While she can capture young romance impressionistically with a single turn of phrase when on her game (“Teenage metal heads / In your denim vests / Cause you’re holding hands / To your favorite bands,” from “You Lost Me”, are her best lines), Krauss can fall back too often on bad clichés and obvious word play; indeed, thinking too much about her words threatens to ruin the in-your-face effect that’s Sleigh Bells’ raison d’être, like when she puns on the title of “Crush” (“I’ve got a crush on / I’ve gotta crush you now) or repeats the chorus “Road to hell” ad infinitum. What’s really off the mark for Sleigh Bells on Reign, though, is when they underplay their signature sound: Some of the songs almost tend to fade away, most noticeably on later tracks like the surprisingly thin “Never Say Die” and the almost ponderous, mid-tempo coda “D.O.A.”, which have ominous dark noise strains to them that seem to sap the attitude and energy from Sleigh Bells.
That’s not say, obviously, that Sleigh Bells can’t still pack a powerful wallop, even if Miller’s guitars don’t thrash and slash like they did on Treats. The rapid-fire beats and efficiently devastating riffs on the techno-rock bash-up “Born to Lose” definitely jump out at you, as every element of the song somehow comes to the fore. And it hardly feels like Miller has sacrificed any of his bold moves on the junkyard post-punk of “Demons” or the deconstructed power ballad “You Lost Me”, instead channeling them into other idioms in creative ways. More than anywhere else, “Demons” reveals Sleigh Bells’ punk and indie influences, almost seeming like an electrified Sleater-Kinney between Miller’s angular guitar work and Krauss’ wailing chants. But it’s “You Lost Me” that really bowls you over on Reign of Terror, and it doesn’t have so much to do with the volume level. What sounds like a mess on paper—‘80s hair-metal guitars, echoey drum machines, wispy vocals—improbably comes together without being quote-unquote ironic or an exercise in nostalgia. Rather, it’s somehow the album’s most poignant and yearning piece, as the wobbly tone of the music matches the confessional quality of Krauss’ singing, where a few understated tones (well, at least for Sleigh Bells) come through loud and clear in the gently dramatic sentiments they evoke.
While Reign of Terror may not yield results that are as instantly and consistently compelling as Treats did, the latest album has the potential to grow on you, if that’s possible for a group that’s usually fueled by spontaneous combustion. That Reign of Terror isn’t about instant gratification as much as Treats was could bode well for Sleigh Bells in the long run, since more good things may come to those who wait, for fans and the band itself.