Sleigh Bells, Reign of Terror
When Treats, Sleigh Bells’ debut album, hit in 2010, it really hit. It married the hardcore crunch of guitarist Derek Miller’s old band, Poison the Well, with the gooey giddiness of vocalist Alexis Krauss’ bubblegum pop past for a sound that can be best described as a heavy metal marching band. Sleigh Bells are the first band to embrace bad speakers—your car stereo, your laptop—as the new stock and trade of rock and roll; they intentionally make music too big for them. It’s horrible. It’s overwhelming. It’s fearless. And it’s incredible. Critics fawned. Fans flipped. Haters hated. And as will happen with debut smashes, the questions of staying power arose. How far could they stretch their gimmick?
Mighty far, as it turns out. Let’s dispense with flowery music critic words and five-dollar descriptors. Sleigh Bells’ sophomore effort, Reign of Terror, is awesome. It expands on Treats with a few electro-thumps and more distinct guitar layers, but the band stays true to the DIY aesthetic. One of Treats’ most impressive feats was how much melody Miller managed to shoehorn into his muscly riffs, and it’s a trick he’s honed even further here. Although the guitars are cataclysmic, you never lose the sense of an actual song in the center of the storm.
A good deal of that is due to Krauss, who is either Miller’s muse or he hers. There’s a much stronger sense of collaboration on Reign of Terror than there was on Treats. Krauss seems less like a channel for Miller’s vision and more like an equal partner in it. Her honey-sweet vocals remain the anchor to his storm, but they can also be a driving force. She can sound appealingly disinterested, purringly coy or ferociously anarchistic, often in the same song. The winsomely Queen-esque “Crush” showcases her tongue-in-cheek cheerleader holler but also gives her a chance to bring a very human element of first-love jitters to the electro-rock snarl. On “End of the Line,” which is the closest Sleigh Bells gets to ballad territory, she emotes genuine heartache and lonely discontent.
But Miller’s fingerprints are everywhere. Krauss told The New York Times that Reign of Terror was cathartic for her band mate, and many of the songs ooze a healing salve. “Leader of the Pack,” plainly about Miller’s father’s fatal motorcycle accident, is about as plaintive as metal can get.
It’d be wrong to say this new wrinkle makes for a gentler Sleigh Bells. There might be some new dimension to the bombast, but the punk rawk swagger never truly lets up. Krauss would probably get Joan Jett’s nod of approval on “True Shred Guitar,” in which the duo indulge their penchant for nonsense chants (“On your knees! On your knees!”) “Demons” sounds like something Pantera might have recorded if they’d met at a 2011 New York nightclub. And then there’s the ‘80s-indebted “Comeback Kid,” a standout in an album full of them, anchored to the rallying cry of: “Try a little harder! You’re the comeback kid!”
As good as Treats was, it was textbook style-over-substance. The balance doesn’t exactly even out on Reign of Terror, but the fact that there is a balance at all is reassuring. This isn’t a band interested in standing still. If they can be compared to Tarantino (and, in terms of in-your-face aggression and unmitigated drawing from adolescent inspiration, they certainly can be) then Treats was their Kill Bill—entertaining but hollow—and this is their Inglourious Bastards: an attempt to spin a successful aesthetic into something meatier. There was never any doubt that Miller and Krauss were cooler than us: prettier, cockier, trendier. This just shows that they’re smarter than us, too.
Tyler Huckabee is something else. He lives in the Great Plains were he produces videos, directs plays for the Colonel Mustard Amateur Attic Theater Company, and writes a monthly column in the Lincoln Journal Star. He tweets, tinkers around on a blog and has contributed to Stereo Subversion, goTandem and Videogum.