Release Date: February 21, 2012
For all their retro-reverence, Sleigh Bells aren’t a nostalgia act — they’re the future-perfect and imperviously eternal now of pure teenage dissonance. The duo’s sophomore effort, the blaring Reign of Terror, is a long, blank stare that signifies little more than a wish to live fast and die pretty. Katy Perry’s teenage dreams are some puerile Cinderella shit compared to these 11 tracks of casual hate served in a pearly-pink candy shell. Sleigh Bells’ anthems aren’t about the bad seed huffing behind the bleachers; they’re the secret monologue of the everykid, rebelling without a cause. The only sentimentality lies in Derek Miller’s guitar tone, its shimmery whine a love letter to circa-1985 cheese metal.
Miller and vocalist Alexis Krauss are young enough to still remember their teen years,’80s babies born under the reign of Mutt Lange, the producer who crafted the stadium thunder and reverse reverb of Def Leppard; Reign of Terror is evidence that these kids never stopped Armageddonit even once they got punk cool. Their embrace of Lange’s trademark crunch’n’sheen is absolute: Even downtempo ballads like “You Lost Me” are relentless and unapologetically huge. Every space is filled with sound, and the result is cheerfully airless, rendering the listener helpless against the crushing tidal pull of the chorus. The pleasure is deafening.
Meanwhile, first single “Comeback Kid” is as instant and assaultive as party rock gets. Krauss coos and trills sweetly, her voice a throwback to girly-girls like the Bangles’ Susanna Hoffs and peppy prep Debbie Gibson; she’s a classic coquette, pre-Britney, pre-virginal teen-sexy. You imagine her more as a dance-team captain with a wide smile and bouncing ponytail than as the tatted-up thrasher with a black bra strap slipping down her shoulder who stalks the stage during live shows. She sounds carefree, even while commanding, “Burn the orphanage!” one song later. There is no moral center; there is only the party, and the party don’t stop. The songs’ mortality bounce is set to a drumline beat.
Yet all that bomp and glee works as good cover for the bummer and gloom underneath; Krauss’ black-metal fandom and the unexpected passing of Miller’s dad almost shroud the lyrics entirely. Much of Reign of Terror deals, however obliquely and exuberantly, with death. There is a gun on “Comeback Kid,” and someone is going away, but there is no blood, no suicidal wish, no funeral. Whereas the punchy “Born to Lose” explicitly mentions a suicide by hanging and a shot to the head, album-opener “Tune Shred Guitar” specifically references a rifle and a burial, and “Demons” splits the difference with a hanging and a burial. (Plus the aforementioned orphanage-burning.) There is plenty here to keep an undertaker busy.
In recent interviews, Miller says he’s grown comfortable with clichés, embracing the power and sureness of that familiarity. Songs like “End of the Line” couples lines like “It didn’t have to be this way… but it’s the end of the line / So goodbye,” with stuff about bleeding birds and the afterlife. Sleigh Bells’ violence isn’t a sexy violence — it’s not Bonnie and Clyde ditching fifth period. It’s self-harm, righteous vengeance, and more heavenly ascension and pooling blood than the Book of Mormon.
It’s tempting to view Reign of Terror as somehow ironic, pairing Krauss’ saccharine cheerleader delivery with raging guitars and martial dance beats, but it doesn’t feel that purposeful. Such a juxtaposition seems to arise naturally out of what they like and what they want to express: cheesy pop triumphalism dialed to “mosh” and drenched in tar-black bloodlust. It lacks cynicism, and goes for nothing deeper than the sacred ideal of teen gimme-gimme: the glorious joy of the big, loud, timeless Fuck You.