Sleigh Bells’ debut album, 2010’s Treats, was a balancing act; Derek Miller’s fearsome guitar and shell-shock inducing beats pitched against Alexis Krauss’ honeyed vocals and melodic heart. Reign Of Terror is a refinement of that routine, our man and woman on wire teetering delicately between all-out noise assault and sublime pop.
This album is more collaborative than Treats, a record Miller had already mostly written prior to his fateful encounter with Krauss. There is a heightened sense of melody here, a throwback perhaps to Krauss’ days in teen-pop band Rubyblue. Allied to Miller’s dirty guitar sounds, the result is like sonic prospecting – no matter how grimy a track gets, you’re always likely to find a precious melodic nugget.
It’s interesting, too, to note the way in which these songs subvert and tarnish the image of America’s gilded youth. This album is not made for the clean-cut jock and prom queen, it’s for the kids who are pushed to the margins and turn to bludgeoning guitar riffs to dampen down the dark thoughts – if you like, you could describe it as musical ‘Whac-A-Mole’ for the psychologically damaged. ‘You Lost Me’ – a song which tempers Air’s spectral shimmer with the anvil-clanging riffs of AC/DC – seems to explicitly reference the 1985 case of two “teenage metal heads,” a pair of young Nevada men who, it was alleged, made a suicide pact after listening obsessively to Judas Priest’s Stained Class. The families sued the band and their label, their lawyer arguing, “Judas Priest and CBS pander this stuff to alienated teenagers. The members of the chess club, the math and science majors don’t listen to this stuff. It’s the dropouts, the drug and alcohol abusers.”
Pockmarked by death and violence, Reign Of Terror reads like a set of anthems for that lost generation; celebrations of love that’s fucked-up and lives that are dysfunctional.
Our punk-rock Danny and Sandy kick-off with ‘True Shred Guitar’, the title doubling as album battle cry. The riff is filthier than a shit smuggler’s pocket, Krauss exhorting “push it, push it, push it, true shred guitar/enemies on your knees, suffer please.” The yin-and-yang of Miller and Krauss is perhaps best exemplified by ‘Born To Lose’: clanging processed beats and jackhammer riffs collide with woozy vocal – it’s like a sweet summer breeze wafting across an industrial wasteland. On ‘Crush’, Krauss comes on like one of those warped cheerleaders from the ‘Smells Like Teen Spirit’ video, crying out “make you, or break you,” whilst Miller chops out humungous metal riffs.
A sense of conflict, be it personal, or musical, fuels the record. The sleeve-notes come burnished with images of fields aflame, evoking the start of Apocalypse Now and the burning rain of napalm. Inside, there are pictures of combat rifles. The record is punctured by the sound of gunfire and explosions. Meanwhile, Miller does his best to create his own theatre of war: on ‘Comeback Kid’ soft-tongued voice is underpinned with machine-gun rhythms and gut-jabbing guitar. ‘Demons’, perhaps the heaviest track here, sounds like the opening sequence of Saving Private Ryan as sound-tracked by Slayer, the whizzing shrapnel whine of guitar matched by artillery-thud beats and female drill-sergeant bark.
And, though the album stumbles to a close through the uninspired sludge of ‘D.O.A.’, ‘Never Say Die’ provides a final, persuasive example of the Miller/Krauss dynamic. With chainsaw guitar intersecting with bewitching voice – like the crossed-beams of Ghostbusters – it is the interplay of these forces that gives the record its devastating power. Francis Jones
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KEY TRACKS: ‘END OF THE LINE’, ‘DEMONS’, ‘NEVER SAY DIE’, ‘YOU LOST ME’.
FOR FANS OF: CRYSTAL CASTLES, SONIC YOUTH, ATARI TEENAGE RIOT.