Posted by: Jeff | February 24, 2012

Album Review: Sleigh Bells – “Reign of Terror”

Sleigh Bells – Reign of Terror [Buy Here]

Mom + Pop
Release Date: February 23, 2012
Grade: B-

Sleigh Bells – “Comeback Kid”

The opening machine-gun staccato of Sleigh Bell’s 2010 debut ‘Treats’ hit like a cardiac defibrillator, a bombardment of electrical energy that set chest cavities vibrating with pulsing bass.  That whole album, though brief at just 32 minutes, was a refreshing in-your-face pop explosion, and rightfully landed on many best-of 2010 lists.  Since that release, Sleigh Bells has gained a reputation as a bad-ass live band with a front-woman flying in the face of gender expectations of pop, able to connect the dots between fans of metal, bubblegum pop, and hip-hop.  The overwhelmingly-positive reception places their follow-up LP, ‘Reign of Terror’ high up the list of most anticipated releases in 2012.  The challenge with ‘Reign’ is living up to expectations and proving that the act isn’t just a one-trick pony.

Does ‘Reign’ succeed?  Well, in fits and starts, yes.  The novelty of ‘Treats’ is difficult to repeat, as now everyone expects loud guitar and the thundering clatter of drum machines.  ‘Reign’ opens with the appropriately-titled ‘True Shred Guitar’, a song that features a true metal riff from Derek Miller laid over some hype-man front-woman work by Alexis Krauss (“on your knees, suffer please” she implores).  It’s a similar introduction to the second LP as given on the first – an in-your-face get-ready-to-rock call to arms.

“Born to Lose” was released ahead of the rest of the album, and gave the sense that ‘Reign’ would offer more of the best of ‘Treats’ – guitar amped up so high that it becomes noise for the sake of volume, cooing vocals from Krauss, and cheerleader-type chants adding to the staccato of drum machines in the background.  “Born” is a solid single, though not great, plodding along at an andante pace as drums race by in the background and Krauss inquires “where did you go?” over and over.  “Crush” continues the high school gymnasium aesthetic, and sounds a little like someone scheduled a battle of the bands during a cheerleading competition.  The sonic retread of successful elements from “Treats” is to be expected, but it isn’t until “End of the Line” that the album begins to separate.

Krauss has always been a strong vocalist, and those issuing the “yes, but” criticism of ‘Treats’ generally lamented the lack of prominence given to her vocal performance on tracks other than “Rill Rill”.  On “End of the Line”, Krauss takes center stage, cooing a melancholy ballad over shoegazerish guitar.  It’s a very strong track, and followed by the similarly successful “Leader of the Pack” and lead single “Comeback Kid” marks the best stretch on the album.

Sleigh Bells excels at dissonance, taking elements of pop from all corners of the musical universe and combining them in novel and unexpected ways.  The trouble is, novelty wears off through repetition, and ‘Reign’ feels a bit like Sleigh Bells trying too hard to replicate the most successful elements of ‘Treats’ instead of trying to move forward from them.  A few tracks stand as exceptions, and both “End of the Line” and “Comeback Kid” are very enjoyable pop songs deconstructed and blown up through an injection of ampage.  “Demons” sustains its energy nicely, but down the stretch it’s tempting to use the song titles as sign posts (“Road to Hell”, “You Lost Me”, “D.O.A.”) – it’s not all as bad as that, and Miller does get the opportunity to flex his metal band chops.  But it’s not great, either, and it all begins to grate in a way that ‘Treats’ never did.

It’s great to hear Krauss rise out of the depths of the audio mix on the second LP, and the hope is that the band gets more comfortable with this new balance going forward.  ‘Reign’ gets a lot of things right and a few things wrong as Sleigh Bells seeks to capitalize on the critical success of their debut and push forward in their evolution as a band.

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