Originally published Feb. 18 on Intersections.
tl;dr: More wall of sound than attack of sound, Reign of Terror is more raw, vulnerable, and hurt than anything we’ve heard from Sleigh Bells before, packed into a more polished, layered container of floating sighs over stadium riffs and garage-grunge shred. Still as raw and addictive; just sadder.
Worth your download: Like 2010’s Treats, Reign of Terror is best experienced all at once. If you must, though, I’m partial to: “End of the Line”, “Comeback Kid”, “You Lost Me”, “Demons” for the experience, “Never Say Die”.
Sleigh Bells have managed to do what many sophomore albums don’t: they’ve held onto the rudiments of their debut splash and matured their sound without straying too far from message. It helps that they’ve drawn on real, adult hurt for their record, instead of relying on the fuck-this sensibilities that have propelled them so far.
Reign of Terror was released Tuesday, Feb. 21. After the jump, my thoughts and a track-by-track review.
Once upon a time, a boy and a girl met at a Brazilian restaurant in Brooklyn. The boy was waiting tables; the girl was teaching elementary school. The boy mentioned he was looking for a female vocalist, the girl’s mother volunteered her daughter, and now, just four years later, we have Sleigh Bells, the indie-noise-power-punk-dance-pop duo whose debut album, Treats, shook, rattled, pranced, stomped, and jolted us all to life. If you’ve somehow managed to navigate this world without hearing “Kids”, “Infinity Guitars” or “Rill Rill”, get thee to those YouTube links immediately. Sleigh Bells’ meteoric rise to that rare nexus of near-universal Internet adoration reads like every twentysomething musician’s dream: Spike Jonze stumbles on their Myspace, casually forwards their demos to M.I.A., and in the blink of an eye, Sleigh Bells is signed to her record label, playing Coachella and getting really, really big.
Treats was a loud, messy, above all exuberant album, splotchy and high-spun the way today’s “hot mess” youth love to feel — there’s a reason Sleigh Bells tracks made it onto Gossip Girl and the ill-fated American remake of Skins. Reign of Terror loses some of the jagged, high-octane punch in favor of a more cinematic, composed kind of release. Guitarist, producer, and male half Derek Miller told The New York Times that they went for the “big ’80s rock stuff” with this record, and it shows — Reign of Terror is more AC/DC than Crystal Castles, more melodic than rhythmic, more stadium than dark nightclub hallway, more “Rill Rill” than “A/B Machines”.
Miller and “sultry rock” vocalist Alexis Krauss have grown a lot in the last two years — Miller lost his father while recording Treats, and his mother was diagnosed with cancer while on tour in 2010; Krauss appears to have gotten engaged — and it shows. [ETA: An earlier version of this article stated Miller’s mother died of cancer in 2010. That is false. Intersections regrets the error.] The new record is darker, more reflective and nuanced. Where Treats sometimes felt like a lot of noise that sounded really great but probably didn’t mean much, Reign of Terror gives you that sense that there is something wrong that needs to be expressed — everything from the lyrics (“Don’t you know he’s never coming back now”) and the denser, murkier sound works to bring you to that unsettling peak. “Demons” thrashes not with youthful lash and punch, but with a frenetic, insane kind of pain. Krauss’ breathy choruses on “You Lost Me” are desperate and wounded, not coquettish. It’s emotionally more raw, vulnerable, and hurt than anything we’ve heard from Sleigh Bells before, packed into a more polished, layered container of sound. There are layers beyond the band’s brand of sweet melodies over braying guitar; Krauss’s pop background shows, as does Miller’s fastidious attention to production detail. This is a Sleigh Bells that spent hours recording stadium stomps on high school bleachers. Those who come looking for more of the hip-hop beat/distorted thrash will be disappointed, yes, but they should stay and let Miller and Krauss bring them into the woods.
I can’t help but feel like I’ve grown alongside Miller and Krauss: when Treats came along in 2010, I was graduating high school on top of the world; two years into college, let’s just say things have changed. For all its forward-looking, standards-shredding glory, Treats sometimes came dangerously close to overusing distortion; Reign of Terror warps and scatters, undeniably pulls some cards from shoegaze’s deck (see: “You Lost Me”) and brings us into Miller’s head instead of just bringing us along as plus ones to his loud ragefest of a party. The result is a more intimate kind of record — we’ve danced, rioted and PTFO’d with these kids. Now it’s time they let us in.
1. True Shred Guitar
Well, how did you expect them to start?
New Orleans! What the fuck is up? There we go, there we fucking go!
2. Born to Lose
What begins as another one of Miller’s headbanging hardcore romps turns into something sweeter, darker and sadder when Krauss’s “Where did you go? Where did you go?” starts floating over the thrash and the shout. When Krauss and the guitar start their off-kilter duet, it’s apparent what this album is going to be about: something’s wrong, let me show you what.
Krauss’s breathy vocal and Miller’s acrobatic guitar set against a roomy, echoey stadium beat — this song was made for the festival stage. Some songs about secret crushes are childish or overly flirty — let’s not forget that crushes can also be wrenching whirlwinds of paralyzing doubt and want.
4. End of the Line
Midtempo, thrumming guitar strumming under Krauss’s breathless rush: “You know it didn’t have to be this way, you know it didn’t have to be this way.” If not for the guitar’s edge and the production on the ends of Krauss’s phrases, this might pass for an early Stars track. It builds the drama instead of splashing it all over your front.
5. Leader of the Pack
Sparkling line quickly descends into lilting cacophony. “Don’t you know he’s never coming back again?” rises from the intricacy; the effect is oddly poignant.
6. Comeback Kid
It’s the lead single for a reason — it’s an addictive, listenable rush.
You gotta try a little harder, you’re the comeback kid
It’s a riot, it’s a dark, drum-crashing, head-melting trip through what I’m sure is the back of Miller’s brain. Still, it never spirals out of control: the rage is focused, precise.
8. Road to Hell
Another midtempo, strumming, echoey track: it feels like “End of the Line” didn’t say enough, so this had to somehow underline the point.
Don’t run away from me, baby / just go away from me, baby
9. You Lost Me
Opening gambit is straight from shoegaze/chillwave’s playbook. This is one of those tracks for when you’re lying on your back in your bed in the late afternoon, taking it in.
I don’t want you to see me this way / what a way to die
10. Never Say Die
This track, I think, is really the pinnacle, the flagship track of this new Sleigh Bells. Densely layered, atmospheric, deeply unsettling and thrumming with unrest, yet sparkling with that descending piano (?) line — the hours and hours they must’ve spent putting this thing together!
The album’s finisher is just perfect: the hypnotic, restless driving force behind “Never Say Die” comes back with a choppy, grungy shred, Krauss’s troubled/sultry mix is on point as usual, and with an unheralded “remember who you are”, we’re done and craving more.