Sitting on the stage is a rack of 12 Marshall amps—a literal wall of sound primed for the audience. In front of the multi-thousand watt array stands Sleigh Bells vixen diva, Alexis Krauss, and beside her the timid composer Derek Miller stands, almost hiding behind his Jackson USA Soloist guitar, wayfarers, and denim jacket. High above them, an oversized American flag floats. “New Orleans! What The Fuck’s Up?” yells Krauss like an arena-rock mating call. The amps explode with guitar-beat soup, the crowd roils with cosmic fury, and so starts Sleigh Bells sophomore album Reign of Terror.
For those familiar with Sleigh Bells 2010 debut Treats, the opening to Reign of Terror should bring back the familiar cheerleading, and ear-crushing sounds. “On Treats I was still thinking, ‘Fuck guitars.’ I was into beat production,” Derek Miller told Spin Magazine. Treats was saturated with chants of excitement. The album was just a guy and girl—a laptop, guitar and a voice—with the intent to draw out the massive voice of rock in all things.
In 2008, Miller had abandoned his previous band, Poison the Well, and was living in New York waiting tables at Miss Favela, a Brazilian bistro in Brooklyn. Miller had a head full of songs and was in New York with the goal of finding a female vocalist. After his time with Poison the Well, he grew tired of testosterone fueled music and was determined to find a female sound to actualize the ideas he had.
Krauss had her own experiences with music before Sleigh Bells. From ages twelve to sixteen she was in a teen-pop group Rubyblue. The band fell out of favor, which she was thankful for. She didn’t care about the music or the people. When their album tanked, Krauss felt she had another chance. She went to college to study political science and post graduation participated in Teach for America where she spent two years teaching Spanish to the lowest performing elementary school in the South Bronx.
In April of 2008, Krauss went to Miss Favela with her mother and sat at a table Miller was waiting. Her mother struck up a conversation with Miller, who brought up Florida and mentioned he was a musician looking for a female singer. Krauss’s mother told Miller her daughter was doing demos and volunteered her on the spot. Krauss could tell Miller was sincere and agreed to meet with him later to listen to the music he had written. While Krauss was a nominee for a Rhodes scholarship at the time, after listening to Miller’s music she decided to defer post-grad work and pursue Sleigh Bells.
Treats was an album already constructed before Krauss was on board. Miller had written almost the entire thing and Krauss was just there to be his singer. “When Derek and I first started working together, it was like a really interesting session gig for me,” Krauss told Spin. “Then it became something else when things took off so quickly. But I always knew it was Derek’s thing — he was producing and writing the songs. He had very specific ideas about what the vocals should be like. He wanted to be in control.” This isn’t to say Krauss wasn’t essential to the musical intentions of Sleigh Bells debut album. Recording Engineer Shane Stoneback (Vampire Weekend, Cults) spoke highly of Krauss’s high attention to detail. She would spend weeks listening to individual drum tracks, tweaking, altering, and shifting the triggers to perfect a certain feel.
The way Sleigh Bells records is technical and fragmented. Because laptop driven samples and beat-engineering power so much of the back end of their sound, each song is built up from that fundamental level. Miller programs the beats and records short guitar riffs over them then loops the part. The parts build and expand from there. Any time a change is made, Krauss records it in a notebook like a recipe guide for their bludgeoning style and badditude flavor.
“I felt this record would save my life… Def Leppard and Cyndi Lauper — that’s what I listened to when I was a kid and everything with my family was perfect.”
After the first track of Reign of Terror it’s clear there is a musical departure from their first effort. “Reign of Terror isn’t a clever title,” Miller told Spin “That’s what I felt like I was going through the last two years. Back when we were doing press for Treats, I didn’t feel it was anybody’s business. But on tour you’re sitting in a van with your headphones on and you can’t escape from your own head.” On June 25, 2009, weeks into Sleigh Bells launch, Miller’s father was killed while on a motorcycle trip in Canada. Miller didn’t want to taint his current album, but Treat’s energetic, dance style felt inherently dishonest. It was an album of denial. Onstage, Krauss would be singing joyful, but aggressive, pop-rock, and Miller’s state would be 180 degrees from their music. Sometimes the loudest voice at the party has the heaviest heart. “I was going through a nightmare at the same time that my dream was coming true. So I didn’t tell anyone. In interviews, I never said anything personal. I didn’t want to let anyone in who wasn’t close to me.”
In March 2011, as Sleigh Bells was being accelerated to stardom, Miller’s mother was diagnosed with cancer.
“I felt this record would save my life because it was my way of dealing with what happened. Stuff like Def Leppard and Cyndi Lauper — that’s what I listened to when I was a kid and everything with my family was perfect… Everything I felt is in the album,” Miller told Spin.
With Reign of Terror, both Miller’s and Krauss’s sensibilities fused. “The first album was Derek’s,” says Krauss. “This album has my R&B and pop influence. It’s more melodic. It’s also more personal. I was able to plug into the narrative.”
The melodies present in Reign of Terror are essential to extracting meaning. Miller’s and Krauss’s contributions to the album are at odds but magically fit together like obscure puzzle pieces from different ends of the earth. While Miller is tweaking double time Brazilian Baile and Favela beats, Krauss is somersaulting over them with melodies reminiscent of 80s ballads. Electronic Chorus effects dominate every pitch. Every sound is replicated, slightly pitch modulated, and played out of phase. There’s so much structure, craft, and positioning that it becomes difficult to tell where one sound begins and another ends. Time is a play-thing for Miller and it facilitates an interaction between the listener and the mixed sonic waves coming out of the speakers.
After listening to the album a couple of times, I sat down at a piano and began to pick out the melodies and chord progressions. In an almost a cappella fashion, Krauss’s melodies sang out of the piano sans gunshot fury and background beats. The chord structures on most of the songs are highly repetitive and the verse and chorus follow the same movements and shifts in sound—I’d liken it to the Beyonce style of composition which is curious as Beyonce evidently called Sleigh Bells asking for permission to sample from one of their songs. “Leader of the Pack,” which makes a nod to the 1964 Shangri-Las track about a motorcycle accident, is one of the more aggressive ground-rumbling songs on the album. But when you pull back the layers of metal guitar and hard-hitting percussion, you’re left with a slow and melodic reduction. With utmost craft, Krauss sings “don’t you know, he’s never coming back.” The “don’t you know” follows a D major triad while “never” lands on a the dissonant and chromatically abrasive major 7th. The effect is both despondent and cathartic. “Comeback Kid” pulls on their loud sound but is probably the best mix of Krauss’s and Miller’s styles. Toward the end of the track, the harmonic layers are stacked so deep it’s hard to tell distinguish original sounds from their reverberated afterimages. Again, the musical ground work is simple. The verse explores a G major chord inside and out by switching inversions, adding notes, and suspending the sonorities. In a rare exception on the album, Comeback Kid has its own chorus focused around a chromatic succession of just three notes. Krauss pats everybody, including Miller on the back as she sings “I know you tried so hard, but you can’t even win/ you gotta try a little harder, you’re the comeback kid” At this point in the album, I began to realize just how pretty Reign of Terror is, despite its aggressive veneer.
“Demons” is perhaps closest to the face-punching energy found in Treats, but anger and emotional intensity linger even there.
On “End of the Line,” Krauss lyrics actually begin to matter. It’s no longer a typical torch song. Rather, Krauss describes depressive episodes in harrowing detail. Krauss sings in a floating shoegaze coo which extends to the second half of the album where the melodies begin to overwhelm Miller’s beats. “Don’t run away from me, baby/ just go away from me, baby,” sings Krauss on “Road to Hell,” a track that blends into the albums most mesmerizing track “You Lost Me.” The moxie of the album’s first half has waned in a way that suggests Miller and Krauss accept that Reign of Terror signifies a transformation of Sleigh Bells from dance to rock. Beautiful drone tones hang over the song like descending rockets. For a moment at the end of the song, punchy, hyper-active guitar returns in a last attempt to re-claim the song. But, Krauss’s vocals swell to new heights and shut the grunge out.
When Sleigh Bells appear on stage, opinions quickly shift. Because their sound is so crafted, timed, and coordinated it doesn’t converge quite right in real time. In the studio, time and perfectionism is Miller’s sword, on stage, the red-lining wall of Marshall amps is his shield. When playing shows, it seems they use a simpler version of their beat samples and there’s one more guy on stage with a jean jacket and guitar. In their recent SNL performance, “Comeback Kid” came off as a incomplete attempt at musicianship. The sample track was reduced to the most simple beats and it seemed to pull Miller, Krauss, and the other guy along, like a leashed dog ready to escape at any moment. This incongruity between their studio and live sound became more apparent when they performed “End of the Line.” It took Krauss one chorus to figure out how to phase her staccato, triplet verses into the track. Hemiola turned catastrophic, if only for a moment, before Krauss recovered.
While Alexis Krauss’s cotton-candy vocals may go misrepresented, her glamour-death look will not. The Sleigh Bells look is unmistakably now as fuck—it rides on the coattails of every up-and-coming alt-culture trend—but has origins in trepidation. “I didn’t even want to have my photograph taken two years ago,” Miller told Spin while wearing a monogrammed red, white, and blue varsity jacket.” [With Reign of Terror] this is the first time we’re actually taking the time to think about how we’re presenting ourselves to the world.” Krauss followed up, “That’s why I’m so interested in MTV — there were so many iconic images during its heyday. I don’t think that’s something artists think about as much anymore because music videos aren’t as important. For me, and I know for Derek, the ’80s represent a kind of safe, innocent childhood time. But things that you think are safe can turn scary on a dime. That’s what Reign of Terror is really about.”
They were sourcing their music from the likes of Def Leppard, Cyndi Lauper, Belinda Carlisle, Pale Saints, ZZ Top, etc., so why not derive their look from those icons as well. Krauss’s preening, gesticulation, and encouragement of the crowd’s revelry come off as insincere at times. It looks to be an act intended to create an image, but with little to back it up.
Putting Sleigh Bells on primetime television may not give the best representation of their work, but sitting back and cranking Reign of Terror to red-lining, speaker-blowing levels can induce a phantasmagoric state. While Treats demanded listeners to get on their feet and move, Reign of Terror almost pins you to the ground asking you listen for every sound, echo, image, and lyric. However, Sleigh Bells’s sophomore effort doesn’t retain that feel for the entire album. Songs like “Crush” and “Demons” seem like half-measures taken to ensure they didn’t alienate fans of Treats. While this is certainly a respectable maneuver for a band concerned about falling short with their second album, it seems to belie the conceptual intent of the album. Because Reign of Terror doesn’t commit to one style, it’s actually difficult to listen to the album as a whole.
Before Reign of Terror I always associated Sleigh Bells with the Skins USA “Reverse Party” video. Their music oscillates from the fore- to background accentuating different layers of the sound. It wove itself into life in normal, fast, and slow motion. Krauss’s high melodies were columns of smoke and Miller’s beats were stomps on a floor. Listening to Treats loud was akin to overstimulating oneself with the intent of forcing everything internal to the surface. Because it was so detached from reality, the album was definitely fun but entirely immature. It was a form of expression that was overpowering but unsubstantial, like a diet of snack food or candy, or fleeting and guttural interactions with other people.
With Treats, only time, space, and sound mattered. There was no deeper feeling to be extracted from the tracks beyond what a listener could project there. And essentially, they were blank pages, ready to be filled with anything. Reign of Terror asks for a little bit more attention. The lyrics matter beyond melody, the levels have been pulled back, and the beats are more precise. Sleigh Bells now seems like a completely different band, which is a really good thing. On the whole, Reign of Terror may not be a better album than Treats, but because Krauss and Miller are now writing together, Sleigh Bells is on the right trajectory. I’m going to call Reign of Terror Sleigh Bells’s second debut album. If they try a little harder, find their center, and let the buzz die down, their third will be the real comeback kid.
Cover Image: Pop Break