Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Review: Reign of Terror by Sleigh Bells

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Sleigh Bells’ 2010 debut album, Treats, made a lot of critics’ “best of” lists, sometimes at #1. Not mine, though. Too much discordant noise that didn’t serve the music, and not enough melody to make it pop. Even worse, I had this sense (admittedly without any basis other than instinct) that they were trying really, really hard to be alternative and indie and different. It seemed forced, in other words. “Rill Rill” was a wonderful slice of noise pop ecstasy, so catchy that Alexis Krauss could have sung a recipe for mashed potatoes along to it and I’d still be bobbing my head, but the rest didn’t do it for me.

Which brings me to their sophomore effort, Reign of Terror, arriving today on the heels of Jolt Cola-sized buzz. Another burst of joyously noisy guitar pop, only this time, thankfully, more coherent and focused with a better mix of melody and crunch, and a much improved sense of dynamics. Just listen to “Road to Hell” with its almost wistful vocals and more subdued approach to noise: on Treats, this song would have been louder, less subtle and, as a result, less impactful. Here the balance is right.

“True Shred Guitar” rips the album open (sorry!) with crowd noise and Krauss screaming “C’mon” and “Here we go” over squealing guitar riffs and thumping drums until the song actually starts, finishing in a too short 2:20. It’s a great taste of what’s to come.

“Crush” is about a good example as any of Sleigh Bells’ sound. The main guitar shreds away, not in a riff but in a series of rhythmic single chords that create a percussive effect, particularly as they tend to match the simple thumping drumbeat. Add handclaps, Krauss’ chanted vocals (sounding like slightly over-caffeinated cheerleaders), lots of distortion and processed noise, plus a counter melody on a keyboard, and  you’ve got a pretty unique sound, one that feels more organic than anything on Treats.

“Comeback Kid” is the lead single and while not quite as catchy as “Rill Rill,” it’s still a chirpy little number and Krauss moving from her normal shouted approach to sing the melodic chorus in a lovely and, dare I say, sweet voice. “End of the Line” is another highlight (plus another signal of their more subtle dynamics) and “Demons” sounds like Jack White is in the house.

Lyrically, the album takes its cue from the title and the accompanying album art of military symbols. There’s a lot of death, blood, guns and darkness here, as you might expect with titles like “DOA,” “Demons,” and “Road to Hell.” It does end on the more update note of “Never Say Die,” although even these lyrics are ambiguous.

The album loses momentum toward the end. The chanted and repetitive vocals start to grate by the time “Never Say Die” rolls around and the final track, the gloomy “DOA,” lands with a splat. Nevertheless, this is much better outing than Treats. That it seems shorter than Treats while actually being over four minutes longer is telling.

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