Review Summary: Sleigh Bells try to build on their already unique sound and ultimately found themselves sinking under the weight of all the new parts.
Perhaps the second-most important thing that self-appointed critics look for from an artist between their first and second albums is growth. Growth is a term that can’t really be quantified; much like pornography- I know it when I see it. For example, Weezer grew as a band by writing Pinkerton instead of sticking with their more humorous stylings of the Blue Album; and Bon Iver grew by incorporating a full orchestra instead of his baseline acoustic guitar and drum accompaniment. Now take Sleigh Bells- a band that reduced pop to its most basic by incorporating just loud guitar, lyrics that were more-often-than-not indecipherable moans, and the occasional loud drum track. The band really had no choice but to grow from its baseline ingredients and, by incorporating too many changes, has crafted an album that ultimately falls short of its predecessor- Treats.
The most noticeable change that Sleigh Bells has incorporated is evident on the cheekily titled “True Shred Guitar,” which begins with Krauss yelling to what sounds to be a riled-up crowd before the guitar line comes in- except it kind of doesn’t. The once blasted power chords are still there but not with the punch that they used to pack. Compared to Treats’ opener “Tell Em,” it sounds like a Shih Tzu trying to yap over a Rottweiler’s powerful bark. Granted, the volume was occasionally overpowering on Treats, but the guitars sound neutered on Reign of Terror as a whole, with the wonderful exception of “Comeback Kid,” the single that made every Sleigh Bells fan believe that this album would be more of the same from the noise-pop duo. “Comeback Kid” is the turning point for the guitars of the album- they begin to regain their former power but ultimately, it’s too little too late. The first five tracks of Reign of Terror tend to deviate too much from Sleigh Bells’ comfort zone to be considered effective.
This discomfort is found in two areas: the programming and singer Alexis Krauss’ vocals. Producer (and guitarist) Derek Miller has grown immensely as a producer, but the creative liberties that he takes tend to muddle the mixture for often than provide a line of clarity. The most blatant example is the introduction of a synth line to the formerly spartan backing track. Using a synthesizer could have provided another cool layer to Sleigh Bells’ sound but ultimately are too invasive and wouldn’t sound out of place on a Crystal Castles album- especially on more subtle songs like “End of the Line.” Even on standout “Comeback Kid,” the synths overshadow the drum machine throughout the song despite the blatant aggression in the drum programming. It’s a strange juxtaposition that confuses more often than wows, and that is consistent throughout the album.
The most positive example of growth exemplified by Sleigh Bells comes from Krauss’ vocals, but she still doesn’t seem ready to carry an album with her vocals alone. Instead of using her trademarks moans and coos, Krauss assaults us with actual vocals all the way through Reign of Terror. She is a naturally talented vocalist, but seems uncomfortable when her vocals are at the front of the mix rather than being overshadowed by the noisy guitars, as they were on Treats. One of her biggest vocal triumphs- “Demons”- is a direct result of her being hidden underneath Miller’s once-again cacophonous guitars. Her vocals aren’t bad, just frequently shaky, and don’t pack enough punch to make up for the loss of consistently true loud guitar.
So yes, Sleigh Bells did manage to grow a great deal on Reign of Terror, but growth is just the second-most important thing to look for. At the end of the day, the number one question will always be ‘did they equal the success of their first album?’ It seems that Sleigh Bells did not meet this criterion because of the leaps and bounds that they took to evolve their sound and grow as a band. It’s an honorable thing to do, but when the product suffers one must wonder- was it worth it? Regardless of what the answer to that question is we must consider Reign of Terror for what it is- a puzzle with too many pieces that don’t quite fit. It’s still a fun puzzle, but an exceedingly frustrating one to do.