The shrieking, granular distortion that earmarked Sleigh Bells’ 2010 debut Treats was a novelty of such alarm that even those of us who hailed it as a relief that new noises could still be squeezed from two-dimensional guitar did not think it could be followed up. It had that perfect blend of intention and accident, both out of nowhere and sorely needed, and not much of a grip on what it actually was supposed to be doing. All the bluntest aspects of grindcore, crunk rap and chirpy bubblegum audibly fought for space, and still with time for a Funkadelic sample break on the most-celebrated, uncharacteristic “Rill Rill.” Faced with the prospect of rebuilding this freak accident in front of a large, impatient audience, the encore Reign of Terror tries to recall the magic formula and guesses wrong.
Metal, Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss correctly assume, is what sets them apart in this awkward indie-pop moment. A quick scan of current royalty on the radio (Foster the People, Kings of Leon, MGMT, Black Keys) and critically (Bon Iver, St. Vincent, Destroyer, M83, tUnE-yArDs), reveals a distinct lack of angry, cathartic, dense old riffage. The closest thing could be Wild Flag I suppose, though Carrie Brownstein’s guitar is known for its reed-thin snakiness, suitable for doubling psychedelic organ, rather than thick, stomach-churning crunch, which she dabbled with once and for all on her former band Sleater-Kinney’s swan song The Woods. And Treats was indeed the loudest rock record since The Woods, with respect to A Place to Bury Strangers’ thundering-but-textured eponymous debut. So there is a void that this music is filling indeed, for those of us who crave the power of Liturgy or Kylesa with the comforting guideline of verse/chorus/verse, maybe even hooks surfacing through the noise.
But these songs don’t have hooks. “Born to Lose” is memorable for all the wrong reasons, with its distorto-chord blasts that don’t connect into a progression in an awkward, dragging rhythm akin to a child trying to sound out each letter of a word he’s trying to speak. They wanted it to sound “wrong” obviously, which I can respect, but it doesn’t go anywhere, which I can’t. “Crush” never escapes its marriage of cheerleader chant and Pulp’s “Common People.” The single “Comeback Kid” is one of the few songs here to move from place to place rather than sit still and build on top of one idea, but it still manages to land on a whiny bridge (“You’re gonna make it/ You’ll come back somedaaaaay”) after tantalizing verses. It’s almost saved by a twin-guitar break, though this album relies so heavily on those that it lacks surprise (Treats deployed the twin-guitar novelty just once, and perfectly, on its opening hammer “Tell ‘Em”).
If I sound like I’m rooting against the band’s decision to make a conventionally-produced album and grow out of compressed noise, I’m not. But they took elements away rather than replace that gap with new ones. Losing dynamic range should’ve warranted more surprises in the audio spectrum—I don’t expect them to replicate the land mine ending to “Infinity Guitars,” but what about the horns from “Kids”? Where’s the resourcefulness that their bigger budget’s supposed to reflect?
The bigger culprit is the decision to cast off much of their hip-hop element, which kept the songs uptempo, and rely more on chugging metal, which gives even the better tracks like “Road to Hell” a dragging feel. While it’s fun to throw your inability to shred in metalheads’ faces by claiming their turf anyway (love the part in “Demons” when they “stand ‘em up six by six by six”), it’s better to back it up with memorable music. As it happens, the sweet shoegaze ballad “You Lost Me” is the best thing here, and it’s the song that has the least to do with anything you’ve read about Sleigh Bells. So maybe they didn’t go far enough in straying from the blueprint they tried hard not to repeat. Either way, Reign of Terror plays like a band with original ideas who got stuck in quicksand.