Snap Judgments on the New Sleigh Bells Album

02/14/2012 2:10 PM |

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This morning, the New York Times put up a profile of Brooklyn breakout band Sleigh Bells as well as a stream of their previously top-secret new record, Reign of Terror. It debuts a week ahead of its actual release (or bullseye’d on its original release date, if you wanna be like that). As the profile not-so-subtly establishes, this is a dark follow-up to 2010’s block-rocking Treats, born from guitarist Derek Miller’s spate of recent family tragedies. Its posting is not a snuggle up with your boodle on Valentine’s Day timing gimmick, because this will not be a sweet or romantic record.

An everyone-listen-at-once premiere on such a big old-media titan’s web platform, does feel in line with the band’s generally cultivated aura of hugeness, attention seeking, opportunity devouring. (See also: the cover of SPIN magazine, and next week’s SNL.) We are meant to listen to this thing now, alone, whilst also in our big Internet community. Media savvy as the duo is, we feel genuinely obliged. Reign of Terror: listen one. Excited…

- But perhaps not as excited as the arena crowd, piped in to give color to the opening “True Shred Guitar.” The touch of simulated fan adoration is a not-totally-uncharacteristic late-80s pop-metal move. Peacocking. Axl Rose-ing. But, to be fair, Sleigh Bells did become, if not an arena band then a big hall rock band on the strength of their first set of songs, so we’re going to go ahead and give them their grandiose intro goof. Leeway, granted.

- The album really starts with its first single, “Born to Lose.” “Bombastic” is a word that’s almost always applicable in Sleigh Bells’ music, and this one is no shrinking violet, but a few previous listens have clarified its real trick as making the waves of physical noise sound kind of gentle in tandem with Alexis Krauss’ vocal. With that strutting riff and stutter/seizure beats, it has no right being this floaty. Not so deep, not a party starter. But it’s good.

- The rush of listening to Treats came from the near-constant gear-shifting; bits where you thought they were rocking out as loud as possible, only to get knocked on your ass by an unexpected level jump. The segue from “Born to Lose” to “Crush” isn’t as extreme as they’ve gone, but you feel the pedal push. We’ll see if any in-song adrenal kicks are lying in wait.

- The guitars are still big, don’t get me wrong, but they don’t feel as digital distorto demented as Treats‘? Better produced and recorded, will the band’s lizard brain appeal be slightly lessened?

- Everything on “Crush” seems rhythmically calibrated. It’s not catchy so much as it’s shark-like, propulsive. As with “Born to Lose,” Krauss’ vocals have a marked softening affect.

- “End of the Line” plays like a dewy ballad, despite the rapid-fire R&B radio vocal delivery. Not getting blown out of the room with guitar noise, still. A cleaner record, it’s becoming safe to say. Krauss’ sighed “ay”s are slightly Rihanna-ish?

- “No one hears you. No one sees you. No one loves you.” Darker? Yes. Lyrics as bubblegum frothy as “wonder what your boyfriend thinks about your braces?” seem unlikely.

- In light of Miller’s father recently passing away in a motorcycle accident, “Leader of the Pack” is a dark pop-history reference, indeed. The song is the best yet, though. A bright synth melody cuts through the production at the start, then the riff and percussion hits continue to escalate. Krauss’ rasp here. It’s all so shoegazey! Get ready for dozens of articles reporting that Sleigh Bells have “matured.”

- “Comeback Kid” now, another one we’ve had time to digest. It’s the better of the two pre-release singles. Krauss is so high in the mix, a blanket surrounding a backing track whose component parts are distinct but collectively powerful.

- Still dealing with a with a slight wit deficit in lyrics and (especially) titles.

- “Demons” kicks in, with its surly 80s arena-metal moves. The harshest, most Treats-distorted that the record’s been.

- “Road to Hell” is, like most of these, a super generic name for a song. As the title is sighed as a chorus as well, it can’t help but also be a little generic. If “sweetly sinister” can ever be considered a generic mode of operation? “Floatiness” continues to be a key “word.”

- “You Lost Me” is obviously going to take more listens before its narrative detail is fully cracked. There’s been some sort of a ritual murder behind the Circle K?? “Face down in the dirt in a miniskirt.” Teenage metal heads in denim vests are involved, it seems. It’s provocative, but you lost me, “You Lost Me.” As a fleeting impression, though, its late-80s power ballad ambiance is kind of goth-prom awesome? Miller’s nervy guitar wailing conjures police sirens in bits, which seems like a very Tom Morello thing to do. His harder edged riffing on the outro is bold and compelling, also. Demands an instant revisit more than some others.

- Aaaaaaaand the guitar intro on “Never Say Day” is the 80s arena-rockest thing that’s happened since that opening crowd roar. It is notable for being atmospherically dramatic, rather than a brute, bludgeoning force. Half-rapping is never Alexis’ best move, though.

- Album closer, “D.O.A.,” is maybe the bleakest thing they’ve yet recorded, but its sobriety feels new for the band.

Instant Conclusion: This isn’t a direct copy of the same silly, WTF party record that made Sleigh Bells so successful. It’s plenty dark, and much less hedonistic. MIller, perhaps sensing that overwhelming digital crunch can only be novel once, lessens his abject noise, aims more for distinct background textures. Alexis Krauss is sneakily versatile in her vocals, sounding good in several different tempos and functions, remaining questionable when rapping.

The relentless hookiness of Treats was instantly obvious, so it feels fair enough after a listen to say that Reign of Terror doesn’t quite possess it. And the fun, Dada lyrics about cowboys, Indians, and variously tiered machines (and what drawers they get to live in) seem entirely absent. (Reports on slow-burn, repeat-listen earworms will have to wait for some listener perspective to develop). It’s a pretty solid sophomore record, though, we’ll go ahead and declare.

What do you guys think?

Follow Jeff on Twitter @jeff_klingman, (if you want to).

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