The Joplin Globe, Joplin, MO

February 24, 2012

Jeremiah Tucker: Sleigh Bells’ follow-up proves band is no gimmick

By Jeremiah Tucker
Globe Columnist

JOPLIN, Mo. — Sleigh Bells: “Reign of Terror”   

Rating: A

Despite being one of my favorite acts to emerge in the recent past, I understand why some people don’t like Sleigh Bells.

This isn’t a case analogous to a Rush fan pleading, “No, man, you gotta listen to the way Peart uses ostinato in this solo -- that’s a tubular bell you’re hearing, bro!” The appeal, or repulsion, of Sleigh Bells tends to be immediate.

For instance, within seconds of hearing the Brooklyn duo’s breakthrough single “Crown on the Ground” -- a perfect marriage of peeling guitars, blown-out drum machines and feathery girl-group vocals -- I knew I would love this band. The downside, however, is that when pop maximalism is your stock-and-trade, you can’t get too upset if you don’t get a lot of close listeners.

Sleigh Bells arrived in 2009 almost aggressively thought out, like a kid who showed up for the first day of school after spending the summer meticulously reinventing himself and absolutely nailing it, confidently kicking open the double doors from the stoner parking lot, suited-up in tapered jeans, Wayfarer sunglasses, black sneakers, a letterman jacket and carrying a guitar.   

If you attended that school, I imagine there would be at least a 50 percent chance you would hate this guy on sight. (That uniform, it’s worth noting, is what the band’s guitarist and sonic architect Derek Miller has taken to wearing lately, which I personally find cool, but whatever.)

Still, I hope the band’s sophomore album “Reign of Terror” manages to turn some Sleigh Bells skeptics into admirers.

The appeal of the band’s 2010 debut “Treats,” for me, was similar to a comic book: larger-than-life, cheap, bright, lots of explosions. It sounded like nothing else before or since.

Sleigh Bells’ sophomore album, “Reign of Terror,” still reminds me of a comic book, but more specifically the “X-Men” comics that tend to split the difference between Technicolor conflagrations punctuated with strange onomatopoeias like “Snikt” and “Bamf” and downtime at the X-Mansion where the more intrapersonal teenage melodrama unspools.  

My favorite track on “Treats” was “Rill Rill,” the album’s closest thing to ballad and a showcase for the band’s pop songcraft. “Reign of Terror” makes more room for softer songs. Nothing here is pushed as far into the red volume-wise as “Treats,” and there is a lot more space for the long, light melodies favored by the band’s singer Alexis Krauss, who was in a short-lived bubblegum girl group Rubyblue as a teenager.

“You Lost Me” and “End of the Line” are particularly lovely.  Lead single “Comeback Kid” is an almost even split between the first album and the second.

The song’s backbone is Miller’s compact, concentrated noise with Krauss’s melody pulling the song closer to the pop-R&B territory favored by radio. But the group can still bring the pain.

“Demons” sports a head-banging guitar riff with the drum machine convulsing titanic sine waves of power. Plus it lets Krauss chant the awesome refrain “6 by 6 by 6” like a possessed, if still peppy, cheerleader.

I have a friend who called Sleigh Bells “gimmicky” among other things, and although I would argue that sometimes “gimmick” and “focused vision” are the same thing, it’s clear Miller is sensitive to such accusations. In a recent profile in “Spin” magazine Miller said, “This band and this album are not just a series of aesthetic decisions.”

In other words, he was saying there is more to Sleigh Bells than the surface-level cool.

And he’s not wrong.

Quite a bit of the new album alludes to the unexpected death of Miller’s father in a motorcycle accident. (It’s not by accident there are songs called “Leader of the Pack” and “D.O.A.”) And it turns out that even at lower volumes and higher levels of sentiment, Miller’s production has a physicality that can still buffet and bruise in unexpected ways.

Sleigh Bells may not invite close listens, but it rewards them.