The first thing you see when you extricate the booklet from Sleigh Bells’ new album Reign of Terror is a forest fire raging, with some tender saplings waiting in the foreground for their fate. Now imagine this fire as the band themselves and you will have some idea of why the New York noise-rock duo have taken the entire alternative genre by storm.
2010’s Treats, their debut effort, was praised for its intelligent synthesis of many of the last decade’s more questionable alternative trends into what the NME called ‘the tipping point … where the bad became brilliant and unique’.
So the question is how to top an effort like that? And if Sleigh Bells want to define a genre as radically as they seem to, what does that mean for the new decade? The answer may lie in Reign of Terror’s lyric booklet. Between the unpunctuated lyrics there are these examples of minimalist art—the first is a black assault rifle lying in a 69 with a brightly coloured guitar. In the midst of complaints about a dire rock music scene, they’re trying to make music a weapon again.
And the first track, ‘True Shred Guitar’ sets out their manifesto. “Push it, push it, push it!/ True shred guitar/ Enemies, on your knees/ suffer please’”—there’s no messing about tolerated here, and the barrage of imperatives takes only two and a half minutes. It’s a call to arms of sorts for us all to push at the boundaries. The roar of the crowd behind, and the vertiginous electronic drumbeats, combine to make the track even rawer.
And raw it is: the album is completely self-produced, the guitarist, Derek Miller, also having a hand in the songwriting. Alexis Krauss, with her vocal tones ranging from sweetness incarnate to angry and shouting, has an equally vital role. The dynamic, coupled with the direct, minimalist aesthetic, of course invites comparisons with the sadly separated White Stripes.
The rest of the album, even as it hops between experimental styles from jangly pop to garage rock, has a sonic identity tying it together. The rounded electronic drums are a staple, as is Krauss’ smooth, creamy vocals. On ‘Born to Lose’, she sings, almost child-like, about suicide. And in ‘End of the Line’ she seems to have had her voice box retuned by a chart music mogul. This track is both serious and theatrical at the same time, creating a sort of psychodramatic Skins soundtrack of a song. It doesn’t matter that it represents a drop in energy after a powerful first three tracks. However, where the same thing is tried on first single ‘Comeback Kid’, it seems to fall flat.
But the absolute pinnacles of the album are at both ends. Closing pair ‘Never Say Die’ and ‘D.O.A.’ are examples of the sort of angry underlining that tears through paper, and second track ‘Crush’, which has gone unrecognised elsewhere, shows off what the band is about. “I gotta crush on/I gotta crush you, baby/you always crush and come/you make the shotgun spray.”
Overall, this album is like nothing I have heard before. Noise-rock usually gets a bit wearing after a while, but never once during this album was I bored, even during the less inspiring tracks. The stylistic experimentation never leaves the album disjointed as the band’s signature sound is so strong. This is a rousing statement of intent to the alternative music industry if ever there was one, and Sleigh Bells are for me one of the most relevant and immediate bands of 2012.