Coming across a great debut nowadays feels like catching a glimpse of a wild animal. It happens infrequently, but in the moment, finding something so pure and beautiful somehow makes all the inferior music around it worth dealing with.
Of course, describing Sleigh Bells’s maniacally loud, amp-grinding growl of guitars—the enjoyment of which borders on the masochistic—as “something pure and beautiful” hardly captures what made Treats, the band’s 2010 debut, so immediately remarkable. No one could have predicted that pairing Alexis Krauss’s pixie teen pop vocals with Derek E. Miller’s thrashing power chords and pre-packaged dance beats would result in such a versatile sound. Between the shuffling, finger-snapped beat on “Tell ‘Em,” the jittery guitar line on “Riot Rhythm” and the funkadelic-sampling adolescent nostalgia of “Rill Rill,” Treats had something for everyone.
The band’s sophomore effort, Reign Of Terror, finds Sleigh Bells settling into their comfort zone quite nicely, with greater emphasis on Krauss’s vocals and Miller’s metal guitar heroics to push the band’s sound in a more accessible direction. The result sounds safer, as the group sacrificed some of the reckless creativity that inspired Treats for radio-friendly hooks. Fortunately, the Brooklyn-based duo clearly still loves writing and playing music together, and if anything, Reign Of Terror sounds like fun.
The album’s first single, “Comeback Kid,” immediately stands out as an example of Sleigh Bells’s friendlier songwriting, and between its persistent drum track and the delightfully relaxed bridges that follow each chorus, the song sounds more self-assured than anything else in Sleigh Bells’s canon.
“You Lost Me” captures all the qualities that drew us into Sleigh Bells’s inimitable sounds in the first place: ’80s hair metal guitars stripped of all their macho pretensions by Krauss’s wounded lyrics and gentle melodies.
Treats also distinguished itself by capturing a sense of youthful exuberance, and on Reign Of Terror, the band never loses sight of their music’s ability to translate, in part, the emotional dynamics of high school adolescence. On “Born To Lose,” Krauss addresses teenage self-destruction, punctuated by demented guitars and the cheerleader chanting that has become her signature. It feels overwrought on “Crush,” however, and with its gym bleacher-stomped beat and transparent lyrics, the song tends to exhaust the high school theme.
Indeed, Reign Of Terror only struggles under the weight of Sleigh Bells’s overconfidence in their sound. “True Shred Guitar” certainly lives up to its name, but opens the album awkwardly with a snippet of the band’s balls-to-the-wall live show before launching into a minute and a half of metallic pump-up. As an album intro, it feels off-balance and unnecessarily cocky, like a hip-hop emcee informing his audience of his lavish brand-name possessions.
At other times, that same overconfidence seems to inspire a laziness in the songwriting, accounting for one or two duds in the album’s otherwise well-rounded set of songs. “Demons” sounds like a girl awkwardly singing pitchless karaoke over a recycled Black Sabbath demo, and despite some pleasant synth twinkling, “Leader Of The Pack” goes nowhere for almost three minutes. “Road To Hell” slightly tweaks the beat and replaces the swirling guitar lines of “End Of The Line” with power chords, and yet it sounds so indistinguishable that it actually weakens the original song.
However, if “Rill Rill” stood out on Treats for its wistful, summer ballad-like quality, “End Of The Line” certainly inherits that role as Reign Of Terror’s best song. Cymbals crash like flashing lights around Krauss’s plaintive voice and, for the first and possibly only time in its career, Miller’s guitar weeps.
Although Reign Of Terror occasionally falters due to lazy stylistic decisions and doesn’t quite capture the same unbridled sonic assault that characterized Treats, it earns its stripes through simple confidence and maturity. The record follows the band’s process of refining their songwriting, necessarily working out the kinks in their sound and playing delightfully to all their strengths.
Overall rating: 3.5/5