Robert Katz, Staff Writer
Reign of Terror, noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells’ sophomore album, is the sort of record I love to see in these days of increasingly humble rock releases. It’s heavy, oppressive and polished. However, as much as I appreciate it, it isn’t actually what I wanted from the group, composed of guitarist Derek Edward Miller and vocalist Alexis Krauss. Treats, their debut LP, was explosive and vicious, taking screeching electric guitars and Krauss’s cold, computerized roars, tying them together with a pulsing electronic backing and still having a playful vibe. Reign attempts to move in a more melodic, powerful direction, yet, at times, feels as though it’s been sonically neutered.
Reign is certainly much more calculating than its predecessor was. While Treats surged loudness in every direction, Reign is more repressed, trading in constant noise that, at times, gave the record a party-music feel, for a sound that more closely resembles traditional rock. Tracks are more defined on first listen, having stricter, less layered melodies, and this becomes hard to peg as a step in the right or wrong direction. Perhaps it’s both. The album’s two singles, “Comeback Kid” and “End of the Line,” showcase this disparity in volume, with both serving as opposite ends of the spectrum. The former hits closer to previous works and still manages to carry out a catchy melody underneath all of the grunge (disregarding a rather nauseating keyboard outro). The latter manages to, quite plainly, encompass most of that “wrong direction.” The track is probably the most “emotional” on the album, revolving around a breathy chorus and the most distant-sounding guitar on the album. Unfortunately, it comes off as a rather heavy-handed effort; the raging guitar and Krauss’s vocals either don’t quite reach or shoot over the proper level of softness and end up feeling forceful and terse, as if the duo is trying to make themselves cry. Meanwhile, “Demons” feels a bit like a callback to Treats, with its violent instrumental and digitized, pop-y cheers. “Born to Lose,” arguably the best song on the album, feels most like what Sleigh Bells should have aimed for, hitting an empowering blend between sheer volume and soaring harmony. However, this mix occurs less often than it ought to and, overall, many of the songs feel like missed marks.
Krauss’s vocals are, parallel to the instrumentals, hit-or-miss. One of the standout innovations of Reign of Terror has been her transition to a much softer, breathier style, presumably to infuse the album with more heartfelt emotion. “Road to Hell” and the previously-mentioned “End of the Line” are the most profound instances of this. Unfortunately, while tonal evolution is inevitable for a group with sound as wonderfully unkempt as this, Krauss seems to be overdoing it, betraying a theme of empowerment and noise that she, within the same record, proves that she can still portray when she wants to. Her cheery screams and growls are just as gleefully explosive as they’ve ever been, and they stand out more in the music-sphere, as she roars out, “Demons, come on! You got a vision, you’re on a mission Demons, live on! I’m gonna try, see me try!” in “Demons,” than her unremarkable sighs of “Don’t go away from me, baby / Just go away from me, baby,“ in “Road to Hell.”
Managing to deliver a follow-up to such a novel, fresh release as Treats without faltering slightly is a feat rarely accomplished, and so what Reign of Terror is is not an altogether disappointing thing. It’s a well-crafted LP with that still sounds like the logical progression of Sleigh Bells as an identity, but only in that they’re allowed, in such infancy, to still search for their identity without criticism. Their quest for refinement is worth commendation and their sound still wins recommendation, but hopefully they continue to hold onto a fragment of what made them so impacting in the first place: their sense of merry chaos.