In his review of Sleigh Bells’ debut album, Treats, Pitchfork’s Mark Richardson wrote; “They felt like rides at an amusement park, and I’d get a feeling in my stomach when the first notes kicked in: Here we go.” When he wrote those opening lines he had uncovered the very core of what made Treats and other albums like it such grand accomplishments. Whether it’s Broken or Psychocandy or any of the countless other examples of records that exist primarily to create chaos, the core reason behind their appeal is their ability to hit their listeners in a way they’ve never been hit before. Their volatility is hinged on their unexpectedness, and when all is said and done, the rules have changed – the bar for what constitutes loud has been set one level higher. They don’t work because they’re loud, they work because they redefine it.
The problem is that the very nature of these albums’ success is deeply tied to their fleetingness. The reason those albums feel like a ride – the reason they hit you in such a way that you can’t help but feel a sense of awe, is because of how unprepared you are for their specific brand of chaos. Slayer never really kicked your ass in the same way they did when you first heard Reign in Blood, nor did Marilyn Manson in anything the band did after Antichrist Superstar. The elements that make those records so awe-inspiringly loud also stamp them with a rapidly-approaching expiration date – they’re unpredictable, unhinged, about to collapse at any given moment. This isn’t the type of thing that can ever be truly recreated – once the first gunshot goes off, everyone’s already braced themselves for the next one. And it is that very thing – that instinctual act of bracing oneself – that prevents the possibility that a follow-up could be anywhere near as hard-hitting as it was the first time around.
So where, exactly, could Sleigh Bells go from Treats? If what the majority of people loved about that album was impossible to recreate, how could the band function – hell – survive without it? The only solution that seemed in any way viable was to switch things up – for Sleigh Bells to redefine who they were, what they could do, and in turn, what was expected of them. Naturally, there was no guarantee that the band would choose to take this route. It was just as likely that instead, they’d try to recapture something that could no longer exist – creating a work that looked and sounded the same but ultimately rang hollow. Mere moments into opening track “True Shred Guitar,” there is an immediate, unshakable feeling that Reign of Terror is suffering from that very thing – the hooks are there, the guitars are there, but that unmistakable thrill you got when you first put on Treats – that awe – is gone. It’s enough to make Reign of Terror’s first section sound disappointingly empty – the soundtrack of a band that suddenly isn’t as full of surprises as they were only a few years ago. That is, until fourth track “End of the Line” kicks in. As it turns out, Sleigh Bells does manage to abandon the formula and give you another reason to fall in love with them, but not in the way you thought they would. In tracks such as “Road to Hell,” “You Lost Me,” and the aforementioned “End of the Line,” Sleigh Bells choose to slow down – minimizing the bursts of noise and the bombast to create something that sounds more like unadulterated pop than it does absolute chaos.
More than she was ever allowed to be on Treats, Alexis Krauss is the star of the show, anchoring the tracks with a vocal approach that almost carries the pair into dream-pop territory. She’s never sounded as at home or as in control of the musical space around her as she does on Reign of Terror, often pulling attention away from the noise around her as opposed to being swallowed by it. Perhaps most striking of all, though, is that despite her dominating presence, Krauss has never come off as more vulnerably human. There is a weight behind her vocal work that was completely absent from Treats – an emotional depth and an occasional fragility that makes the tracks resonate in a way the band’s previous output never could. Derek Miller’s guitar work adds to this effect, choosing to serve Krauss’ vocals as opposed to fighting against them – creating an ever-intensifying harmony that gives the music a sound almost larger than life. It is in this approach that the pair celebrate their victory lap – sounding more synergized and more in-tune with each other than ever, and with a focus on song-craft and melody that can only come through their increased experience.
Which is why it’s so frustrating that this is only the case in around half of the album’s tracks. Whenever Krauss and Miller venture into familiar territory, and there’s plenty of cases in which they do, the album transitions from being a thrilling reintroduction into a merely serviceable repeat. Given that the pair not only manage to redefine themselves, but do so in a way that holds more potential for growth than Treats ever did, it’s maddening that they choose to repeat the old formula at all. This makes Reign of Terror a difficult album to judge – on the one hand, there’s plenty here that suggests the band fell for the sophomore trap of playing it safe. On the other, in many instances, the album changes the very definition of what Sleigh Bells is, and even more importantly, what they could be. That’s more than can be said for many of the artists that made their name on loudness, and is enough to mark Reign of Terror down as a fairly successful, but ultimately transitional work. If what has been introduced here is any indication toward what the future holds, then the prospect of a follow-up is as bright and as full of possibility as anyone could hope for. Reign of Terror may not change everything, but at the very least, it lays some pretty stellar groundwork.