Upon listening to the first track off Reign of Terror, “True Shred Guitar,” you hear the sounds of a live crowd in anticipation of seeing Sleigh Bells come on stage (which they do) and begin to do what they’re always good at: being loud. Loud and cantankerous. Loud and cantankerous in the way you might expect from bands like AC/DC, and it’s these bands that “True Shred Guitar” and most of Reign of Terror take their heavy metal distortion cues from. Considering its swift lyrical progression and repetition, “True Shred Guitar” hardly sounds long enough to really be deemed a track, but it sets the atmosphere for the rest of the album.
And you would really expect those in the crowd to want the duo to destroy the stage to their hearts’ content, especially after their wonderfully blistering surprise debut in 2010, Treats. And you might suspect that they would also see Reign of Terror, their sophomore LP, to be a driving force for even more fans to headbang to considering the lively, punky, and energetic tour in support of the album prior. But while there is no doubt that this still sounds like Sleigh Bells and it does sound in the vein of Treats, Reign of Terror just proves to be louder. Everything – from the distorted and echoed guitars to the anthemic vocal work from Alexis Krauss to the amount of musical color – is given an additional push for acceptability at the concert-level.
Is louder necessarily better, though? Approaching the next track, “Born to Lose,” we lose the crowd and receive repeated heavy guitar riffs that really only add to an already weighted and highly-saturated mix of intense drum beats and even poppier vocals. The melody is nice, and it strikes at the same distance that Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss have always performed, but over time it more or less bounces from one ear to the other without the fervor or the “Let’s play until we don’t want to” attitude that made Treats so lovingly off-kilter.
Not that a narrower focus on direction is entirely a bad thing. There are a couple tracks here on which blending their noise pop association with the attention to heavy metal antics works in Sleigh Bells’ favor. “End of The Line” is processed power-pop similar to the single “Rill Rill,” which itself featured a down-tempo beat with delicious vocals and ’80s synth-guitar, but it’s really the first track from the album to feel complete – and on their terms. The distorted riffs and key changes seem to melt within the construct, and even though you can assume you’re listening to the track under tighter control, the heaviness feels much more uplifted.
The single “Comeback Kid” is another track that really fashions this blend in the best way possible. Its fast attack is fierce with a very likable beat from the get-go, and it features the kind of freedom found on their first album. By freedom I mean that the notes and keys they use should probably never come together, but the fact that Sleigh Bells marry the sounds on a pop record is their most remarkable trait. With breezy lyrical progression, a badass mix of distorted and non-distorted jangly guitars, and a dreamy choral breakdown, “Comeback Kid” plays into the freedom like a kid running around on a playground, and it allows the listener to feel more at home than any other track on the album.
The last half of Reign of Terror once again drives into a case where more is less. It’s not that it’s unsatisfying or underwhelming, however; a track like “You Lost Me” is of particular interest with its processed throwback to ’80s pop, and the remaining tracks all feature bits and pieces one can pick out as having some kind of definition. But that’s just bits and pieces. Here, Sleigh Bells give the impression that their cohesion of heavier musical conception and noise pop has a substantial connection (for the most part), and now it always feels like they’re catering to the crowd. Perhaps it’s understandable given their success, but instead of playing for the sake of playing for themselves, Reign of Terror no longer becomes a record of filled tracks that you want to crank up to 11 – or at least not to 12 anyways.
It might be unfavorable to compare the album to Treats, but it’s difficult when we have a sophomore effort that more or less gives us the same dose with more power and weight. With the exception of a couple tracks, it makes for an experience that’s a bit excessive and at the same time restrictive, providing an effect that nearly wanes by the end of the album. Reign of Terror will make the rounds with more of what Sleigh Bells has to offer, but it’ll be Treats that listeners will return to in the long run.
Reign of Terror is now available via Mom+Pop Music, and be sure to look out for our upcoming concert review of Sleigh Bells’ performance at The Mayan in Los Angeles.
Sleigh Bells Tour Dates:
2/23/12: San Francisco, CA @ Regency Ballroom +
2/24/12: Seattle, WA @ Showbox at Market +
3/26/12: Toronto, ON @ Phoenix
3/27/12: Washington, D.C. @ 9:30 Club
* With Diplo and Liturgy
+ With Black Bananas (Jennifer Herrema from RTX)
For more info: Sleigh Bells Official Website