Sleigh Bells are very, very popular among a small subset of people. Depending on who you are, where you live, what kind of music you listen to and the types of websites you visit, you either have already read a dozen articles about them or none at all. Ever since Brooklyn duo Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss released their first single “Crown on the Ground,” in 2009, they’ve been the subjects of extensive praise (and scrutiny) on niche websites and music magazines. They’d barely been together for a year before they were courted by M.I.A.; Sleigh Bells released their debut album Treats on her boutique record label in 2010 and were invited to play Coachella before it had even come out. But while such premature adoration often proves unwarranted with bands still wet behind their ears, Sleigh Bells have lived up to expectations, mostly by managing to carve out a rock sound that is fairly unique.
Their abrasive songs — full of electronic feedback, shredded guitars, the higher end of a keyboard and drums that aren’t so much played as battered — would be migraine-inducing if they weren’t tempered by Krauss’ breathy, little girl vocals, resulting in something that’s part metal, part pop. It’s such a distinctive sound that once you hear a Sleigh Bells tune, you’ll be able to recognize any of the band’s other work. Miller is the duo’s primary songwriter and although he used to play in a Florida hardcore band, his songs often contain references to teenage crushes, high school dances, braces and kids who hang out behind a Circle K. There’s a distinct 1960s girl group vibe to the band’s melody and lyrics, which Miller says its on purpose. “It’s the most natural marriage in the world to me,” he said in an interview with TIME. “I don’t listen to a ton of hardcore metal anymore but that’s where I really cut my teeth, and Alexis and I are massive Shangri-Las fans. Carole King, Phil Spector — it’s safe to call these people heroes of mine.” On the band’s latest album Reign of Terror, he even has a song named after the Shangri-Las’ classic, “Leader of the Pack.” (More on that later.)
On Treats, this weird metal pop sound felt raw, unpolished — at times you could barely make out Krauss’ voice over all the the distortion — and pretty extreme. Sleigh Bells racked up countless glowing reviews (including in TIME), but a lot of people stuck to the band’s softest, poppiest song, “Rill Rill,” and left it at that. To date, Treats has sold just 151,000 copies according to Nielsen Soundscan. That’s about 13,000 fewer copies than LCD Soundsystem’s final album, This is Happening. And it’s barely a third of indie artist (and recent Grammy winner) Bon Iver’s debut album’s sales. Sleigh Bells are beloved, but only by a few. That may change with Reign of Terror.
Sleigh Bells hasn’t softened its sound on Reign — actually, the album may be even more bombastic — but it has definitely polished it and made it easier on the ears. “On Treats, everything was pushed into the red,” says Miller, referring to the over-the-top volume level that produces a distorted sound, “but on this one, absolutely nothing is clipping.” But while Reign might not be as loud, it’s much faster and more forceful. The album’s second track “Born to Lose” opens with a whining electric guitar and a drumbeat as rapid as gunfire. Then comes a guitar riff so heavy and hazy it’s almost not a riff at all; it actually sounds like some futuristic noise that might appear on a video game. On the album the song is immediately followed by “Crush,” in which Krauss alternates between shouting and cooing about her adolescent-style affections as what sounds like dozens of pairs of feet stomp out the beat for her. “That sound is real,” says Miller, “We rented out a gymnasium and invited 50 or 60 of our friends to come and stomp on the bleachers and then recorded it.”
Nearly every song on Reign of Terror is enjoyable, but the stand-out track by far is “Comeback Kid,” which is also the first single. It revisits the gunfire drumbeat, adds a keyboard jingle, and then launches into a free-for-all party anthem that is so simple and catchy, you’ll wonder why more pop songs don’t feature ear-splitting guitar work.
Despite its poppy demeanor, Reign of Terror is actually Miller’s attempt to deal with a very dark period in his life. The album’s title to reflects that time, as do songs such as “Born to Lose,” “D.O.A.” and the double-suicide-themed “You Lost Me.” But the most telling track on the album is the aforementioned “Leader of the Pack.” Like the Shangri-Las’ classic, Miller’s tune is also about a motorcycle death; his father was killed in a 2009 motorcycle accident just as Sleigh Bells’ career was taking off. It’s a loss that he doesn’t yet know how to put into words and in our interview, he asked that we not talk about it. Maybe that’s why Krauss’ vocals on the song — which contains lyrics such as “Do you remember when you used to sleep at night?” and “Don’t you know he’s never coming back again?” — are entwined with the guitar riffs and so difficult to discern. Miller’s willing to work through his grief by writing songs and putting them on Reign of Terror, but he’s not yet comfortable with the idea that everyone will find out what they’re about.
All of this makes for a riveting album, one that has something much more sinister happening underneath its cheery veneer. Sleigh Bells are sort of the Heathers of pop music. They’re likely never going to have the broader appeal of an all-American Molly Ringwald film, but they enjoy a hearty cult following among people with tastes just left of mainstream.
All bands have to have an image, of course, and Miller and Krauss stick to a 1980s vibe that meshes well with their music. They dress in tight pants, jean jackets and Ray Ban-type sunglasses — Krauss’ arms are also peppered with tattoos — that are the best parts of 80s fashion that we prefer to remember. But it’s not really how things looked back then, just as their songs aren’t really what original metal bands sounded like, either. This is smart; no one really wants to listen to a Poison record. We’d rather just tease our hair and think about listening to a Poison record. Sleigh Bells have created an original, absolutely electrifying sound that’s just familiar enough that people aren’t scared by it. It’s the Instagram trick of making new things seem old. And on Reign of Terror, the filter they’re using is “badass.”
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