Review: Sleigh Bells – Bitter Rivals

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opinion by BENJI TAYLOR

A time existed when pop, metal and the various categories of music sat snugly and unmolested in their respective domains, rather like Trivial Pursuit wedges – distinct, separate; divergent parts of a greater whole. The Digital Age changed all that – as the internet smashed down the barriers and relevance of geographical distance, so it hastened the blurring and deconstruction of the partitions between genres of music too.

When noise-pop connoisseurs Sleigh Bells’ debut album Treats appeared in 2010 it positioned the Brooklyn-based twosome at the vanguard of a host of emergent genre-straddling and pigeonhole-defying groups. The band conveyed their disdain of established methods masquerading as certainties by ripping up the rulebook and producing two albums which fused heavy metal riffs with everything from hip hop, punk and electro.

On album number three Bitter Rivals, the pop sheen has been glossed up, and the metallic core of the songs curtailed, but there’s been no major retooling of their sound – this is very much a Sleigh Bells LP cast from a similar mold to that of 2011’s Reign Of Terror. What the band still manages to do so well is use aural snippets from a range of contrasting but conventional sources, weave them together and still sound like no one else out there.

Track one is as insubordinate an icebreaker as they come, commencing with lead singer Alexis Krauss screeching the opening lines of Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale Of Two Cities. You might not expect a band famed for their face-melting soundscapes to express their literary tendencies, but it’s a clever acknowledgement of their USP – of taking opposing disparate dualities that should not mix and synthesizing a tapestry of nerve-shredding brilliance from it.

That duality is mirrored in singer Krauss’s vocals throughout Bitter Rivals, which fluctuate from sickly-sweet loving to fuck-you-I-want-you-to-die loathing over the course of the LP. It’s also summed up on the chorus of the title track – “you are my bitter rival, but I need you for survival” – that notion of a necessary dependence on a nemesis… because in every Sleigh Bells track the slick pop hook or melodic vocal wouldn’t work without its unlikely opposite – whether it’s a reverb-soaked ragged guitar lick or a brain-liquefying barrage of distortion.

In many ways “24” is the beating heart of Bitter Rivals, just as “End Of The Line” was the emotional fulcrum around which tracks on previous album Reign Of Terror pivoted. It’s driven by a sweet Smithsian guitar jangle and finds Strauss’s vocals at their most saccharine. Excellent track two “Sugarcane” comes on as a more polished and infectious version of the style they employed on their debut, but set to a more typical verse-chorus song structure: propulsive demonic beats, buzz-shredding guitars and kaleidoscopic instrumentation – with Krauss’s vocal backflipping around amidst the clamor. There’s something paradoxically elegant about the way it all comes together.

The exceedingly catchy “Young Legends” betrays a theme that crops up intermittently on the album – that of the two interwoven polarities of youth: its fragility, and its endless sense of possibility. The track itself meshes R&B rhythms, beats and melodies with sleek synthesizers. Elsewhere “Sing Like A Wire” is rooted in the 80s, a consummate marriage of stuttering machine-gun percussion, screeching fuzzy guitar licks and star-cradling synths.

The album is characterized by lurching tempo changes and explosively seductive grooves – an irresistible cocktail of aggression, style, and noise. The ten tracks are short and punchy – the vast majority weigh in at less than three minutes. It’s sometimes a relentless assault on the eardrums, a hailstorm of sounds that induce the aural equivalent of a milkshake brainfreeze if you turn the volume up too high, though Sleigh Bells are wise enough to punctuate the tracks with enough moments of pop levity to allow the senses to recover.

Are the melodies as strong as ever? Not always. Are the lyrics still largely infantile? For sure; but with an album this fun, do we care? Not at all. [B+]

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