Their dynamic, genre-smashing spirit is more ambitious than ever
First came the guitar, shooting licks like laser bolts from the fingers of its wielder, Derek Miller. Then there came the voice. Sometimes it came hiding nunchucks in its pigtails. Other times, it blew strawberry-scented kisses that cut like razorblades. This was Alexis Krauss, and like a computer game heroine dropped through a trapdoor into our universe, she was here to wreak fiery havoc.
[a]Sleigh Bells[/a]’ 2010 debut, ‘Treats’, was bizarre in how it seemed to combine the worst parts of ’00s music – crunk, nu-metal, hyphy – but embrace them wholeheartedly, without irony. It sat on the tipping point, where the bad became brilliant and unique. But where to go after such a confounding first act? What happens when the shock of the new fades? After all, there’s nothing quite so clichéd as something that sounded innovative two years ago, rolled out again with the most cursory of polishes.
A first glance at the tracklisting for ‘Reign Of Terror’ doesn’t necessarily allay these concerns, with titles like ‘Road To Hell’, ‘DOA’ and ‘Demons’ suggesting a Lana Del Rey duets album with Meat Loaf. But Sleigh Bells have always been much more than just surfaces, and ‘Reign Of Terror’ finds the duo delving further inside their sound. So, the ADD ideas factory of ‘Treats’ has become weightier with melody, the guitar is supersized, but the expansion has become about the experimental rather than the volume, and the lyrics are personal in a way that they weren’t before.
It’s ambitious with a capital ‘A’, and ‘Comeback Kid’ is ‘Reign Of Terror’’s calling card. It’s a spirited, American tale of kicking against indie pricks. Infectiously optimistic, one only has to listen to the melodic bridge of “[i]you’ll go away, but you’ll come back some day[/i]” to see how far they’ve come.
But they have every right to be bullish. Because on ‘Reign Of Terror’’s best songs they put several different styles in motion with all the dexterity of an accomplished plate spinner. The effect is stunning, creating some hugely affecting moments out of weird genre juxtapositions. Take ‘Born To Lose’, on which Alexis sings a janglepop melody line about a death wish, while Derek pounds the shit out of his guitar and backing vocals curse like Alice Glass’ evil twin sister angling for the knife to sink deeper.
‘Road To Hell’ swoons like a scarecrow in the wind to a woozy Robin Guthrie guitar effect as Alexis sings of sweet stalkerdom, undercut
by the sound of gunfire and a riff you could imagine Slash playing. Equally surprising is ‘You Lost Me’. A mood piece which prickles with the claustrophobia of a SALEM track, it recalls David Newman’s score to Heathers and David Lynch, with the faint echo of ‘Earth Angel’ playing off a rusty old radio. The effect is jarring and wonderful. These are songs that paint strange pictures of souls split in two, and hearing their sound develop in this complex way is fascinating.
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The rest of the album is filled with different sorts of surprises. ‘End Of The Line’ sets a Cure-like guitar figure against a lyric about failing to seize the moment and letting life slip out of your hands. “[i]It’s the end/Of the line/So goodbye[/i]”, Alexis sings in a breathy, resigned vocal. At the other extreme, ‘Demons’ sounds like the theme song to a schlocky ’80s horror film, but the charm of the lo-fi production and the chorus (“[i]Demons! Live! On![/i]”) make it work.
‘Reign Of Terror’ is aptly named. The way they’ve leapfrogged their contemporaries in terms of ambition and scope is terrifying. Sleigh Bells are, once again, in a league of their own.
Director: Derek Miller
Record label: Columbia
Release date: 20 Feb, 2012