Home»Articles» Review: Sleigh Bells Reign of Terror – Track by Track
Sleigh Bells is one of those bands that just came out of nowhere. Other than a 2009 self-titled EP, nothing could have prepared for the aural assault that was their 2010 debut Treats. The album was a revelation, with explosive, forceful drum salvos that threatened to destroy any speakers brave enough to play it. These coupled with guitarist Derek Miller’s grinding, distorted riffs and the girlish, gentle beauty of Alexa Krauss’ vocals made Treats something nearly impossible to come by in music: completely original.
With a year behind them and a nationwide tour to test them, Sleigh Bells went back into the studio to record their follow-up to Treats in 2011 with the nearly insurmountable task of beating the sophomore slump. Even bands who go on to do great things and become legends can fall victim to the slump…because, let’s face it, overnight admiration and hype can do a lot to test a group. Coupled with the pressure to write brand new material in a short span of time where they previously had the opportunity to tune and tweak songs for months or even years before they hit they were laid onto the first album, it can be tough.
Sleigh Bells are set to release their follow-up to Treats, Reign of Terror, on February 21st, and the stakes couldn’t be higher. Have they beat the odds and delivered something that even surpasses their energetic debut, or are they destined to be the laughing stock of the indie world (a position Lana Del Rey is having a hard time relinquishing)? To find out, I’m going to take you track by track, breaking each song down to see how it stands up. Let’s go.
1. “True Shred Guitar”
Reign of Terror kicks off with a bit of an intro piece in “True Shred Guitar”, with a live recording from New Orleans of Krauss and Miller taking the stage exactly as you would expect them to. Krauss hypes the crowd while Miller lets his guitar scream, all backed to the heavy bass thump that’s sort of a deconstruction of the more complex, hip-hop inspired sequences that littered Treats. After the intro, the song explodes into something as hard and forceful as the most heart stopping moments of their previous songs. The song serves as a perfect call to action for what the listener is about to experience over the next ten tracks
2. “Born To Lose”
This song, which introduced the new album in a short video posted to the Sleigh Bells website in December, is a change of pace for the band, and at first I wasn’t sure how to feel about it. On its face, it’s very different than anything we’ve heard from the group. Now, it’s not like it sounds like something that could be a Bon Iver b-side or anything, but it is definitely different. The first thing that you’ll notice is that Krauss’ vocals are front and center on the track, whereas on Treats her voice was positioned deep within the sonic sea of Miller’s compositions. The drums on “Born to Lose” are also decidedly more electro influenced than the heavily layered but still organic beats of their other stuff. The guitar becomes almost melodic in portions of the song, a stark contrast to the buzzing drones we’re used to.
Once you get used to the song, and the new direction it’s taking you in, it becomes enjoyable. Right here you can begin to figure out that Sleigh Bells are looking to do something different on this album. For a noise pop act, at least in this song they’ve decided to be more pop, less noise, and I think it works.
“Crush” brings out a facet of the band that was hinted at on Treats but never came to full fruition, that facet being the cheerlead-y, Jock Jams quality to their music. With the hand claps and cheery call-outs on “Crush”, this song sounds like it could have been recorded in the auditorium of a dark, demented high school where Sleigh Bells lead the marching band. Krauss’ vocals are even more clear on this track, even giving her a chance to be her own backup singers, echoing the great things about one of their standouts on Treats, “Kids”. The guitars are a little more cheery on this track, but they’re still pretty standard compared to what we’ve heard before, and the drums do a competent job driving the song. Still, this song works, and it does so in a great way. It’s an accessible song, and wouldn’t jar most non-fans in the same way Treats did on first listen.
4. “End of The Line”
On this slower cut, we start off with a guitar and wisps of vocals that sound eerily like “Rill Rill”, and it’s easy to write the song off as an attempt to repeat the success that “Rill Rill” experienced, but as the song progresses, you begin to see that Krauss is in the process of maturing into an emotional, engaged vocalist instead of the detached, ethereal singer present all over Treats. This song really soars on the chorus, with a bright, clean guitar that cuts through the fuzz and pairs up with Krauss perfectly. The song’s lyrics are concerned with what seems to be a nasty break-up, with Krauss dumping her significant other who seems to be a pretty awful person when it’s all summed up. In comparison to the…less than complex lyrics of tracks like “A/B Machines”, it’s refreshing to hear the band digging deep and pulling heartstrings.
That being said, I still can’t shake the comparisons to “Rill Rill”. The song borrows heavily from its vibe and might falter because of it. I’m not saying it lost me, but I would have liked to hear something that veered further away from what I’ve already heard.
5. “Leader of The Pack”
From the first seconds of the track, you might think that Sleigh Bells have gone soft, with the synth leading things off coupled with snaps and a very washed-out guitar, but that makes the payoff for the song that much better. Sleigh Bells seem to like delivering sonic explosions when you’re least expecting them, transforming thin portions of songs into massive behemoths of beautiful noise, and “Leader of The Pack” does it better than anything on the album. The song is the closest thing to what could have been a b-side for Treats than we’ve seen so far on the album, but with four tracks under its belt that show that the band is growing, a callback to previous work is allowed, even welcomed at this point.
6. “Comeback Kid”
With this song, I think we’re hearing the debut of the “new” Sleigh Bells. A group that’s more cohesive than their debut, a product of a true collaboration instead of a mash-up of existing tracks with new vocals laid in (Miller says that most of Treats was done long before Krauss even joined the group). “Comeback Kid” brings together both Krauss and Miller’s strengths, with delightfully complex instrumentation underneath that leaves enough room for Krauss to deliver a vocal performance that rivals anyone else out there.
I think “Comeback Kid” really proves that Sleigh Bells aren’t a gimmick, the product of a happy accident melding metal, hip-hop and pop vocals that just happened to work one time. With this song, you can tell that both Krauss and Miller are intensely talented musicians, and have the chops to back up their hype. If anyone is worried about Sleigh Bells having lasting power, all they need to do is listen to “Comeback Kid” a couple of times to see that there’s something real here, and that these two have talent and skill to spare.
The title of this song is incredibly apt, as it sees the band go in a darker direction than the more pop-leaning previous tracks. Miller lets his guitars be percussive in this track, sounding like the screams of a long-buried hellbeast released onto the earth. The song is mad, furious even, and propulsive. But even with the towering guitar, Krauss’ vocals are clear and clean, even if they’re mostly being screamed. If this song was on Treats, I don’t think her voice would have been given half the chance it is given on this one. Coupling this track with “Comeback Kid” on the album was a wise choice, as it shows that even when Sleigh Bells are treading familiar territory, they’ve still evolved, they’ve still changed in a fundamental way that proves we’re not dealing with a Svengali and his puppet, but two people who are musically compatible in an incredibly exciting and invigorating way.
8. “Road to Hell”
After two insanely energetic tracks, we slow down for “Road To Hell”. Over a churning riff and slow drums, Krauss’ vocal softens. With the pure force we experienced with “Comeback Kid” and “Demons”, the song feels a little weak…maybe by design, but there’s a definite step down in overall quality on this. It’s not a bad song, but it does feel like a little bit of filler. Although with seven great tracks already unspooled, the overall limpness of the song can be forgiven.
9. “You Lost Me”
It’s odd, the things that made “Road to Hell” weak are what make “You Lost Me” strong. This track is just as sedate and brooding as the previous one, but “You Lost Me” wins with the newfound emotional depth in Krauss’ voice. With creepy lyrics that may describe a rape/murder of the angelic narrator, the content gets under your skin in a way that the fun bounciness of Treats couldn’t. There isn’t much instrumental trickery present on the track, but we can assume Miller made the decision to take a backseat on this track to let Krauss shine…and they payoff is worth it. The end of the song brings back the crushing riffs that we’ve been missing for the past few minutes, sending the track off in style.
10. “Never Say Die”
“Never Say Die” continues the dark, foreboding tone that has dominated the second half of Reign of Terror, and it operates in a more sonically dark place than anything previous tracks. Miller’s hardcore metal past with the band Poison The Well shows on this track, with more complex guitar work than usual. Coupled with John Carpenter-like synth bells, the song is positively horrific. Krauss’ vocal gets lost again on this one, but it’s not a detriment to the song. It’s a testament to Krauss’ talent that she is both able to use her pipes to be the center of attention in some songs while simultaneously having the ability to fill in the background details while Miller goes to town on the instrumentation. This track is possibly the most metal thing that Sleigh Bells have done so far, but they appear to be comfortable in the role, following in the jackbooted footsteps of metal legends.
The final track on Reign of Terror is a beautiful, sinister sendoff. Miller lets his guitar grind massively here, taking it slow and letting the dread build. Krauss delivers another amazing vocal performance on a track that is more or less devoid of the signature Sleigh Bells heavy drum beat, save for a few choice thumps that punctuate the song here and there. By taking one element out of their tried and true formula, Sleigh Bells show that they aren’t going to hold themselves to what people expect from them.
There’s nothing terribly exciting or mind-blowing on this track, but that’s OK. After being assaulted and tossed around for ten tracks, “D.O.A.” Is allowed to take things out gently…well, as gently as Sleigh Bells is capable of.
So, did they do it? Did they beat the expectations and defy the naysayers that thought they were a gimmick group that couldn’t expect lightning to strike twice? I’m happy to report that, yes, they did. Reign of Terror may not be the most cohesive thing ever released into the world, but I think it serves perfectly as a follow-up to an album that took one concept and hammered it out over eleven tracks. There’s exploration on Reign of Terror, and Sleigh Bells have shown here that they can spread their wings and become something some people probably weren’t expecting. None of the songs on the album are instantly skippable, unlike the snoozer “Rachel” from Treats, which shows that the band has tightened up and grown more sympatico creatively. After giving Reign of Terror a good couple of listens, it’s obvious that Sleigh Bells are a serious band with a serious vision, a vision that is just as refreshing the second time around as it was the first.