Sleigh Bells were your sweetest nightmare. For three fantastically brutal pop albums, Derek Miller’s extreme noise terror guitars and nosebleed electro beats smashed together into what sounded like futuristic fascist stadium gigs, while singer Alexis Krauss floated serenely above the chaos cooing beautiful poltergeist pop melodies, the ghost of a J-Pop gig in the ruins of Hiroshima. She was the siren luring you onto modern music’s craggiest rocks, Rob Zombie’s vision of Little Red Riding Hood. Sleigh Bells’ genius was to perfectly blend the ultimate extremes of post-hardcore noise and saccharine pop, and the dichotomy made them deliciously dangerous.
Upset such a perfect balance, however, and the magic dissolves. Looking to untether themselves from their formula for album four, the NYC duo opted to bow to hardcore convention. Krauss’ seductive wisps are now soft metal bawls; she’s adopted a standard, warble-heavy tone reminiscent of Heart, Bonnie Tyler and Gwen Stefani, and her vocal cutting-loose ironically shifts Sleigh Bells’ sound towards the soft (rock) centre. Now Miller’s hair metal riffs on ‘Crucible’ and ‘I Can’t Stand You Anymore’ seem less subversive and more like ’80s nostalgia cash-ins, while much of ‘Jessica Rabbit’ sounds like it could have been made by a mildly demented Paramore, featuring Avicii.
Whether artistically or financially driven, though, populism doesn’t sit right with Sleigh Bells. As if sensing their drift towards Normsville, halfway through the record they start throwing curveballs. ‘Unlimited Dark Paths’ unleashes the most erratic thrash metal machine gun guitars and riot rave gabba beats in their arsenal while Alison yells, “F**k all your lips and your cheekbones!”, the emotional desperation buried within the album’s surrealist lyrics of bloodshed, tornadoes, stripteases and love as bombing campaigns spilling over into all-out fury.
‘I Know Not To Count On You’ splices EDM with jilted, claustrophobic acoustic balladry, ‘As If’ is a blitzkrieg of laser synths resembling Kepler-452b attacking, while ‘Rule Number One’ is a rap metal monster in which the pair have a conversation about Miller getting whacked up on stimulants and buying a rifle like a noise pop Travis Bickle – “There will be no end to my rainmaking”. It’s all deranged enough to convince us that Sleigh Bells are still menacing outliers, but on a deep cover mission to infiltrate the mainstream, horns still poking out of their ’80s mullet wigs.