The idea behind Sleigh Bells has always been simple arithmetic. It’s nothing too complicated, nothing too eclectic, and it has a strong focus on hooks and loops to get the people going. There are little formulae all over their debut album Treats: 808s + palm-muting, school-locker lyrics + Funkadelic sample, Diplovian beat + “Misirlou” guitar riff, all created by Alexis Krauss + Derek Miller. These combos tested everyone’s thresholds, both critically and aurally, and were alternately revelatory and Locrian. Of course, this dichotomy was also responsible for their runaway success in the post-CMJ media-gasm two years ago. Few albums possess the urgency and volatility of Treats, including Sleigh Bells’ sophomore effort, Reign Of Terror.
This is a really good thing, though. Sleigh Bells take one of the most confident and surefooted steps forward a band could take for a follow-up album, eschewing the storied sophomore pitfalls in favor of a sharper, fuller sound. Indulge me this Breaking Bad analogy: All of the sound splicing and genre alchemy that occurred on Treats was like trailer park meth, Jesse Pinkman’s chipotle blend or whatever, cobbled together to get the job done. Reign Of Terror is some pure Walter White designer meth, smoked on neon nights with hazy comedowns. The chemistry of the music is more advanced, its molecular structure more tailored for addiction, but essentially it hits the lungs the same way Sleigh Bells always have.
The simple math on Reign Of Terror is still there, actually less convoluted than before. The sheen around the album comes from Miller and Krauss collaborating more closely and honing in on their respective strengths: metal guitar and dream pop vocals. They’re not just throwing hooks and loops to the wall to see what sticks; the two are primarily writing songs and adding hooks and loops for color. Even on their lead single “Born To Lose”, there’s more of a verse/chorus/verse structure than anything on Treats, and Krauss’ bedroom vocals aren’t just another texture to a club hit. They are now essential to the song, as are Miller’s multi-tracked guitar lines, straight from any ’80s metal songbook, as is the halting drum track, which is only a few wubs and wobbles away from a dubstep beat. They’ve made the leap from “project” to “band” while compromising very little of their original sound.
Uncompromising is something Krauss and Miller strive for at many points on the album. The opening hail of “True Shred Guitar” keeps with the cheerleading Jock-Jam aesthetic that exploded all over Treats, with Krauss leading the cheers of a fake crowd (which will no doubt garner more screams live than that part in Rush’s “Spirit of the Radio”). Leading off with that aggro-sound may be misleading for what’s to come, as that kind of rap-rawk really only reappears on the pugilistic “Demons”, where Krauss again matches her vocal delivery with the red-level volume of the track around her, making good on the rally cry that defined so much of Treats.
But Reign of Terror goes bigger by way of width and depth rather than by volume, as it were. One of the most thoughtful tracks, “You Lost Me”, takes a hair-metal ballad and flips it on its head, with Krauss cooing about a sordid and doomed relationship and Miller turning in his best Def Leppard impression by palm-muting arpeggios up and down the guitar. Krauss’ tone adopts that poppy, teenage apathy well and she fills out most of the album with lyrics that are very simple and very important — not unlike high school. “Don’t run away from me baby/ just go away from me baby,” Krauss ekes out on “Road to Hell”, a mid-tempo chug-a-lug that continues to wed Miller’s re-born love for heavy metal with Krauss’ newborn beautiful and evocative voice. Other discarded schoolyard missives are all over this album, like “I’ve got a crush on you now” on “Crush”, but it’s all much more dangerous and detached than a mall-rock band, like Krauss is singing with a crooked, nasty smirk. She already knows everything that’s pretty and ugly about love.
Their greatest boon (or perhaps schtick?) is how well Sleigh Bells can capture this moment, the one that’s happening right now. Reign Of Terror already feels definitively 2012 by way of reappropriating the decadent pop of the ’80s with a louder snarl and a deeper cynicism. Miller’s guitars scream like a speeding ambulance, the drums beat on against the current of timidity, and Krauss makes beautiful all things that have no right to be. There was barely a precedent for Sleigh Bells two years ago, and there’s hardly a precedent for them now. That’s success. That’s having a song like “Comeback Kid”, the album’s flagship salvo, that solders all these elements together into one anthem that stands above the rest. It’s past, present, and future Sleigh Bells that sounds just as effortless as Krauss’ vocal gymnastics on the track. Miller even turns off the distortion on his guitar at the end! It couldn’t possibly drop on the scene the same way “Crown On The Ground” did two years ago, but it shouldn’t. “Comeback Kid” is about Sleigh Bells still having the power to grab the masses by the lapels and say,”This!” and have it actually mean something.
There’s a coda to the album, the final track “D.O.A”, which is a simple Krauss + Miller duet with almost no percussion save for some finger-snaps. It’s a haunting and abrupt way to end the album, but in it Krauss sings, “How come nobody knows how the chorus should go?” She’s not asking a question. She’s throwing down the gauntlet.
Essential Tracks: “Comeback Kid”, “You Lost Me”, “Demons”
Feature artwork by Cap Blackard and Virginia McCarthy.