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Monday, February 20, 2012

Sleigh Bells: Reign of Terror (Release Date: 2-21-2012)

        Ah, the weight of expectations... When Sleigh Bells debut album, Treats, was released way, way, waaaaaaay back in May of 2010, it was immediately shrouded in critical praise, and endless buzz. The music of Boy/Girl duo of Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss arrived fully formed, the two crafting a singular aesthetic that rendered them impossible to mix up with other bands. Krauss, a child of girl-pop groups, set her small, feminine voice on top of Miller's raging guitar lines, all amped up and distorted, even when played at low volumes. It was an engaging, exciting sound, made all the more captivating by its raw, devil-may-care attitude. It only took me one listen to discover why the band's follow-up, Reign of Terror, was going to have some serious problems living up to that Freshman disc. If the pair left their scrappy style completely untampered with, folks would accuse them of being a one-trick pony. If they leaned more into their pop sensibilities, they'd be seen as going soft in their old age. How does Reign navigate this schism? Well, pretty carefully, actually. Perhaps too carefully.

         As if naming the LP Reign of Terror wasn't enough, Sleigh Bells commit the disc's opening track to the sole purpose of reminding us of their bad-ass-ery. True Shred Guitar is only a song in a very loose sense; The live cut's first half is occupied with crowd noise and audience interaction on the part of Krauss, the second section given over to loud, monotone guitar thumps, the tune's title shouted on repeat. It's over within two and a half minutes, sliding straight into Born to Lose, another number safely planted on their gnarlier side. The tune stomps along, gaining power from that pre-chorus machine gun sound that made much of Treats so delectable. It's a crushing earworm, the exact kind of track that the band made their name on, spruced up just the tiniest bit in the wake of their increased popularity and studio resources. It all leads into a song called... Crush?

        As previously alluded to, much of Reign of Terror feels like a balancing act, and Crush is a perfect exemplification of this fact. Where Treats used songs like Kids and Rachel to poke fun at Krauss' girly croon and sensibility, Crush gets lost in it, bouncing along on a hard beat, but refusing to do anything hard with it. This is not to say that Sleigh Bells is always at their best when they're playing harder; End of the Line and D.O.A. are among the best tracks here, and album highlight Leader of the Pack is one waling axe riff away from being a total softy. But, as a whole, Reign of Terror seems largely unsure of exactly what angle to attack from, marrying a sing-songy mentality to enormous, ill-fitting sounds. Demons, for instance, seems to exist only to remind you of just how hard these guys are, and, in the end, plays like a calculated bit of over-compensation. 

        It's no wonder that the only track here that completely, fully nails the sound concoction for which their shooting, Comeback Kid, is the album's first single, Krauss' voice clearer and higher in the mix than Treats ever dared, Miller still rollicking like a man possessed. Sleigh Bells might have a tough time replicating the success of their first album: It was fresh, unexpected, and charmingly clumsy in a way that people only really want to hear on your first effort. After that, some clean up is expected, and for bands that are thrillingly messy, that can be the death knell. Thankfully, SB is a good enough band to be able to modify and stay afloat, but expecting them to catch lightning in a bottle again might be a bit overly-optimistic.

Grade: B

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