Ring the Alarm

Photo: Patrick O'Dell

Sleigh Bells are a supremely head-turning band. The past decade hasn’t seen any shortage of hip new Brooklyn acts suddenly attracting buzz—and still, something about this duo’s emergence, two and a half years ago, felt a lot more momentous than the usual cycle of chatter. Part of it was just the sound they created, which is built to dilate pupils and snap necks: It’s a storm of buzzy riffage from guitarist Derek Miller, stomp-and-clap drum machines, and insistent chanting from singer Alexis Krauss, the sort of music one imagines playing over cheering crowds and explosions, or functioning as Jock Jams for some immensely popular laser-based sport of the distant future. (It’s hard not to feel at least a little overwhelmed by it, pleasurably or otherwise.) And beyond the sonic fireworks, there seemed to be something deeper going on—a kind of head-slapping reminder, for some followers of modish independent music, that this is what it sounds like when a band has a genuinely odd, unanticipated idea and is ready to follow it to its logical conclusion.

Suddenly a lot of local indie-rockers seemed a touch less daring than they had before. Even among their most imaginative New York peers, Sleigh Bells were one of the few bands willing to dive headlong into the riskier parts of modern pop—sounds others surely took for granted as untouchably gauche and gaudy. The plasticky, digital fizz of overprocessed guitars, a noise most rockers flee in favor of warm, “authentic” tones? Miller, former member of a hardcore-punk band called Poison the Well, made those noises his stock-in-trade, reveling in oversize riffs with the goofy grandeur of eighties metal and the gleam of polished chrome. The way contemporary-pop vocals have abandoned long, fluid melodies and turned toward staccato preening on two or three notes? Krauss, former member of a teen-pop combo called Rubyblue, could preen as well as anyone. The unnaturally compressed sound of modern commercial rock, built to blare and claw its way out of speakers at constant peak volume, as if the sound you’re hearing is literally too big to fit inside the radio? Sleigh Bells turned that into an aesthetic selling point.

The thing about “overwhelming” music, though, is that you reach a volume of fuzz, echo, and grandeur so huge that it becomes soothing and dreamlike, the same way the cheers of a truly massive crowd turn into the sort of oceanic white noise that people use to put themselves to sleep. There are entire rock subgenres built around this trick—like the ­early-nineties “shoegaze” scene, named for bands like My Bloody Valentine who stared moodily down at their feet, and their guitar effects pedals, while unleashing clouds of woozy noise. There’s a potent streak of this in Sleigh Bells, too; Krauss’s voice has a high, breathy register that can sound peaceful no matter how much bludgeoning surrounds her. Even the images in the band’s lyrics and videos—denim and leather, teenage metalheads, muscle cars, alleys, convenience stores, high-school cheerleaders—are nostalgic ones, dream-images of the eighties seen through a cozy aesthetic haze.

The band’s second album, Reign of ­Terror, does a marvelous job of zeroing in on the intersection between those hyperactive sonics and that dreamlike calm—between stomping on the outside and swooning on the inside. The title’s an apt one: For every terrific crushing noise, there’s something regal and elegant, sweet and cloudy. The songwriting on the band’s debut, Treats, was mostly organized around fanfares and shouts, opening with harmonized guitar riffs that might as well have been horns heralding the arrival of a king; on Reign of Terror, the guitars and the vocals are both full of swoops and glides, notes that slide down the scale as if sighing. Some of the most striking songs seem like half-remembered ballads from the late eighties—all that plastic, chrome, neon, and headbanging guitar work wrapped in immense sentimentality. (On the gorgeous “You Lost Me,” dive-bombing guitar notes sound like drops of rain on a windowpane.) Meanwhile, the massive riffs and monumental melodies have grown even more thrilling: “Demons” finds the pair tougher and more physical than ever, and the opener, “True Shred Guitar,” sounds like the kickoff to the world’s most staggering arena show. The band’s head-turning qualities haven’t worn off, even in the moments when they’re washed out and made into starry, sparkly dreams. It turns out that Sleigh Bells have no more fear of sounding cloying than they did of sounding cheap or boneheaded.

Reign of Terror
Sleigh Bells

Ring the Alarm