It’s a familiar story. A celebrity captures the attention of millions by living life at an unsustainable pace, a train wreck in slow motion that we just can’t look away from. We mourn in retrospect, but in the moment we’re transfixed. We are, after all, an extremes-obsessed culture. The train tracks laid by Sleigh Bells’ debut album, Treats, leads to just that kind of fireball. The record is as dense as it is insistent – thirty-two minutes of power that rarely relents. It’s a ferocious piece of popular music, but it’s also an album that begs the question, as the band prepares to release its second full-length, how do you catch thunder in a bottle twice?
For Sleigh Bells, the answer is to include some lightning. Rather than following Treats with another set of ear-shattering tunes, the duo has diversified for Reign of Terror, slowing things down, expanding their sound, and producing a record that makes up for a little bit of power loss by lighting a whole bunch of candles. It’s a compromise, for sure – and one that will likely leave some blood-thirsty listeners wanting harder guitars and more volume – but it’s a compromise the band was likely more than willing to make. Sleigh Bells is no longer on a trajectory for burnout.
Reign of Terror opens with the noise of an adoring crowd, met by Alexis Krauss’s jubilant battle cry, “New Orleans! What the f*ck’s up? There we go – there we f*cking go!” The air fills with the cheers, stomps, and icy guitars that will come to define this album, and Krauss counts it off for the record to start in earnest. The track is, as guitarist Derek Miller puts it, ““a brass, arrogant, tasteless way to start a record.” It’s also a spine-tingling way to build anticipation for the tracks about to follow. More than anything, though it’s a portrait that falls in stark contrast to the band that handed a demo to a neighbor in late 2009, and a sign of how far these two have really come. Since we last met them, Sleigh Bells got big.
Bigness defines the album, although the aforementioned decrease in velocity might suggest otherwise. Where Treats has an impossible closeness, as if it were recorded inches away from your skull, Reign of Terror has a little more breathing room – the crowd noise and arena-sized reverb is baked in, giving the album a massive sound that’s more put together than Treats’ raw core. The band worked hard to get that sound, too, spending hours recording stadium stomps on high school bleachers rather than settling for the studio equivalent. It’s not Phil Spector meticulous, but Sleigh Bell’s wall of sound has developed beyond simply cranking everything into the red.
Which isn’t to say the band doesn’t still crank it to the red when called for. Krauss and Miller are at their best when pushing things to the limit. “Demons” is the album’s far-and-away pinnacle, shredding chords and infectiously pistoning forward. Other songs promise to bring the house down live as well. “Crush” lives up to its name, as does the latter half of “True Shred Guitar.” “Leader of the Pack,” though a bit more lethargic, packs a huge punch under its soaring melodies. These are the tracks kids will go crazy for in the pit.
Elsewhere, Reign of Terror shows Sleigh Bells acknowledging that maybe they need a little substance to go along with their style. “You Lost Me” is about as close to dreamy as Sleigh Bells gets, with Krauss getting her “Graveyard Girl” vocals on while singing the story of a double suicide. “You’re holding hands to your favorite mix of your favorite bands,” sings Krauss, and the song almost sounds like the type of tune you’d find on just that type of mixtape. Other times, like on “Never Say Die,” Miller’s guitars are more exploratory – Metallica or Van Halen when they’re not trying to bring the house down. Part of that may be owed to the collaborative writing of Reign of Terror. While Miller wrote most of Treats prior to forming Sleigh Bells, this album left more room for Krauss’ pop tendencies to add some melody to the mix. Miller was in the aftermath of a breakup while writing the album, perhaps revealing more of his underbelly and eliciting a mix of harsh and reflective songs. The softer stuff on the album still rocks harder than most pop artists turned to 11, but it’s more “Rill Rill” than “A/B Machines.”
Reign of Terror doesn’t have the same gripping immediacy as Treats, an album that invites obsession. But that pure fact may be Sleigh Bells’ most impressive accomplishment. Turning visceral music into something with a little more staying power is no easy feat, and Sleigh Bells has managed to do it without sacrificing much of their edge or excitement. As the album closes with “D.O.A.,” it all starts to make sense. The song churns, as if gradually building to some epic explosion. Instead, it ends unexpectedly, with Krauss’ final harmony lingering in the air, as if there’s more to come. “Remember who you are.” Once a band that risked being one-dimensional, Sleigh Bells has found some new sides.