Sleigh Bells – producer and guitarist Derek E. Miller and singer Alexis Krauss – want you to know that they’re fucking loud. The noise pop duo makes this adamantly clear on “True Shred Guitar,” the opening track on their second release, Reign of Terror. After a few seconds of crowd noise, Krauss shrieks some barely comprehensible stock rock commands – “I want to see all your fucking hands in the air” – and Miller accompanies her with some guitar shrieks of his own. The point isn’t really the song, but the fact that Sleigh Bells have the raw power to guillotine all comers in a terrifying reign of heavy drums and guitars, French Revolution style.
But Sleigh Bells never drop the blade. “True Shred Guitar” turns out to be a slab of dumb albeit fun noise on an album that, when it works, explores the same territory that the band covered on its 2010 album, Treats, but with added complexity. This territory, of course, was pioneered by the Jesus and Mary Chain, who once made songs into magical confections that combined simple drum rhythms and chord progressions, poppy vocal melodies, and high-frequency guitar feedback, especially on their classic debut album, Psychocandy (1985). What made Treats so special was that in following the Mary Chain’s example, Sleigh Bells blended into the mix more complex dance beats, synth effects, and samples. Take, for example, “Tell ’Em,” “Infinity Guitars,” and “Riot Rhythm.” These songs, in simultaneously recalling Psychocandy and the recent dance-punk of LCD Soundsystem, Liars, the Rapture, and Yeah Yeah Yeahs, sounded new and fresh in 2010.
In theory at least, Miller attempts to change the sound of Sleigh Bells on Reign of Terror by emphasizing his distorted guitar over beats and samples. But he ends up with a mixed bag of a record that sounds just like what it is: the infamously clichéd, “difficult second album.” The rhythms are, for the most part, simpler but primarily on the songs that don’t work, such as “Born to Lose,” “Leader of the Pack,” “Demons,” and “Road to Hell.” On these tracks, Miller’s guitar playing and the lack of catchy vocal hooks from Krauss can’t make up for the plodding percussion.
Miller and Krauss, however, brilliantly succeed on the songs that recall and even surpass the best of Treats. The amazing vocal melody and synth effects on “Crush” make it into an exciting and powerful listen. “End of the Line,” the album’s following track, is simply beautiful, featuring a strong but tender vocal line in which Krauss shortens and extends her syllables to convey the sadness, excitement, and general emotional complexity of the end of a romantic relationship. And “D.O.A.,” the final track on Reign of Terror, has the sound that Miller probably wanted the entire album to have: a beat that’s menacing and not sluggish, a vocal melody that’s catchy and not sugary, and guitar work that’s dark and not just distorted.
If Sleigh Bells go on to become a great band, their Reign of Terror will be remembered as a transitional album, with songs such as “D.O.A.” and “End of the Line” pointing the way forward. But if they just want to be fucking loud, as they are on the weakest songs in this mediocre set, their next album truly will be dead on arrival.