Sleigh Bells have an expiration date. That expiration date is sooner rather than later. Quite simply, their sustainability factor is very low. They are in many ways the equivalent of a ribbon of magnesium set aflame – igniting quickly, burning white hot for a few seconds and then going dark. The reason why they’re working on such a limited time frame has less to do with the hype cycle and more to do with the niche they’ve carved out for themselves. Their heavy metal riffage and schoolgirl innocent vocals are unique to a fault, because as exciting and headbangingly good as the songs on their debut album Treats were, they failed to expand beyond that realm. There’s only so much that can be done with the tools the duo is currently using, meaning that unless they get truly inventive, they’re liable to go stale at any minute. Enter their sophmore record Reign of Terror. For those that thought Treats was a wild experiment in volume and excess, it appears that was just the tip of the iceberg. Now the band is looking to take down the unsinkable Titanic.
Reign of Terror opens to the sound of crowd noise and singer Alexis Krauss shouting from a distance, “What the fuck is up? Come on!” If you’ve ever seen Sleigh Bells’ intense and fun live show, you know that intro is pretty true to life. Fists in the air and devil horns held high, the band wants you to know that this record is more than just a collection of songs – it’s an Event with a capital E. After a solid minute of shouting slogans behind some riffs to pump people up, “True Shred Guitar” actually kicks into full stereo mode sans crowd. “Push it, push it, push it,” Krauss insists beneath a healthy layer of vocal fuzz. That seems to be the band’s mantra for the entire album as they attempt to go bigger and bolder than ever before. If the guitars were cranked up to 11 last time, they’re now at 12, buzzing hotter than a nest filled with angry hornets. Yet in spite of the much more heavy metal nature of the songs courtesy of Derek Miller, the vocals are decidedly more stable and pop-oriented than they were on the previous record.
For much of Treats, Krauss resorted to cheerleader-like shouting that often wound up being obscured by an already crowded and red-level mix. Listen to “Infinity Guitars” or “Crown on the Ground” or “A/B Machines” and you’ll find they have more in common vocally with straight hip hop verses than they do pop songs. That record’s best moment came via “Rill Rill”, where acoustic guitars calmed the noise level and Krauss delivered a sugary sweet schoolgirl vocal. They seemed to take that song as the vocal model for most of Reign of Terror, which as a result makes it sound that much deeper and more balanced on the whole. It helps that Krauss is much more up-front and unobscured in the mix, sharing equal weight with the supremely heavy guitars. The best example of how the two opposing forces meet in the middle comes via the album’s first single “Comeback Kid”, which is bouncy and poppy without losing its harsh edge. One of the record’s quietest and most ballad-infused moments comes on “End of the Line”, where Krauss is given enough room to whisper parts of her vocal while Miller puts the power chords on the shelf and settles for some snaking 80s-esque guitar solos. “Road to Hell” holds a remarkably similar constitution to it, only the execution is a little choppier and less catchy on the whole.
Those craving something more in line with earlier Sleigh Bells material will find a couple moments to take in some fist-pumping nostalgia. “Crush” feels like it should have a music video that’s thematically similar to Nirvana’s classic “Smells Like Teen Spirit”, which is to say the band should be performing with cheerleaders at a high school pep rally inside a smoky gymnasium. And “Demons” works exceptionally well when paired with the delusional, drug-induced visions that Beavis and Butt-Head experience while lost in the desert in “Beavis and Butt-Head Do America”. Considering the main riff in the song was ripped almost directly from that TV series, the comparison makes even more sense. As the record winds to a close, the band chooses to try a few different things that work well thematically but turn in mixed results. “You Lost Me” is about suicide, but plays up a sympathetic angle to it that results in the most beautiful track Sleigh Bells have ever composed. From there it only gets darker and less distinctive. “Never Say Die” is unable to stave off death, and “D.O.A.” takes what little signs of life it has and sends it spiraling downwards. Both bear the marks of 80s metal ballads, but fail to be inspiring or memorable.
In so many ways, Reign of Terror is a better record than Treats was. Sleigh Bells show promising advancements in their sound and the way they structure their songs that would seem to suggest they’ve got a real chance at surviving far longer than anybody might think. Perhaps the best thing about the changes they’ve made on this new album is how purely subtle they are, remaining close enough to what they did on their debut to satisfy those fans while making it easier to court new ones. But for as smart as the album is, it’s also more limiting than the last one. The band has entrenched themselves further into the metal-meets-pop dynamic than ever before, and it could come back to bite them in time. Also, while built upon a stronger foundation, the songs on Reign of Terror are less immediate and memorable than the in-your-face nature of Treats. In the longer term though the new album grows on you and its charms become that much more evident. Sometimes those are the real treats.