I was a huge fan of Sleigh Bells’ debut album Treats when it dropped two summers ago: a heavy, low-fi party album steeped in 80s guitar crunch and the double threat of Alexis Krauss’ delicate melodies and crazed cheerleader screams, assembled over electric drum machine back beats. The album excelled at many things, but outside “Rill, Rill”, subtlety wasn’t one of them. Then again, when your aim is 32 minutes of catchy, feel good, danceable noise pop, you don’t really need it.
So I was a bit surprised by the nuance found in Reign of Terror, the band’s follow-up, which finds them exploring new sonic textures and tapping a bit more into the pop side of things this time around. After the screams and guitar squeals of opener “True Shred Guitar”, things slow down quite a bit with “Born to Lose”, the first track to really highlight the new directions the band is taking. Krauss’ pop sensibilities are front and center, with a quiet melody and counter melody backed more by Derek Miller’s guitar and less by drum machine and sample. It’s a bit of a shock coming from Treats, and one that didn’t actually grab me at first. But whereas Treats was an immediate, gleeful, but ultimately shallow party record, Reign of Terror actually benefits from a few spins. If there can be such a thing as a slow-burner in the “noise pop” genre, Sleigh Bells has made it.
That’s not to say the album is completely devoid of Sleigh Bells’ in-your-face party sound. Besides the aforementioned “True Shred Guitar”, “Demons” makes good on the band’s promise that this new album would be “heavier” (though for the most part, I think that the album isn’t, which actually isn’t a bad thing). But a half dozen spins in for me, it’s actually the poppier stuff that stands out. “Comeback Kid” rides its catchy chorus hook to swelling heights, and “End of the Line” and “Road to Hell” give Krauss some room to flex her versatility. Miller, too, sounds revitalized on the album, with a guitar that sounds stolen from a Van Halen recording session. This all amounts to an album that feels more complete than Treats, and offers a good sign that Sleigh Bells can avoid just being a flash in the pan summer success.
For a lot of America, Sleigh Bells was pretty much an unknown until two Saturdays ago when they appeared on SNL, and subsequently fell victim to that show’s absolutely awful history of poor sound mixing (add them to the list of Bon Iver and Lana Del Rey for recent less than stellar performances). It’s a shame, because the band’s far better than their somewhat flat live performance let on. If you’re a fan of pop music and 80s guitars, you owe it to yourself to give Reign of Terror a chance. And if you were a fan of their last album, make sure you give it a few spins before calling it a misstep.