“If Sleigh Bells are brave enough to say, ‘Fuck everybody, our new record is influenced by Def Leppard,’ then they’re my kind of people.”—Def Leppard’s Joe Elliott, in the opening paragraph of the cover story on Sleigh Bells in the new issue of Spin.
Of all the things you could have reasonably expected Reign of Terror, the great sophomore Sleigh Bells album, to be—a rehash of of the band’s still great 2010 debut Treats chief among them—how many could have predicted this? An album that jocks the iconically painted guitar of Eddie Van Halen without irony? An album that bows at the temple of Hysteria? A Warrant album with bombing backbeats? How will the average denizen of Portlandia respond to this shit?
Because make no bones about it: Sleigh Bells are riding hair metal here, and they’re not doing it in the “wasn’t this music goofy?” way that that Ratt T-shirt you bought at Target does. Reign of Terror pays reverent homage to hair metal, melding Sleigh Bells’ stadium crushing sound to the last new music that truly filled stadiums. The riffs, which are even more plentiful here, can be best described as “orgasmic.” The entire album can be explained away with “it totally fucking slays.” No amount of intellectualization can explain how this stuff makes me feel like driving around in a minivan, drinking a case of cheap beer, and smashing mailboxes for the next 36 hours. Like with Treats, there will be a bevy of people who cry “INDIE ROCK JOCK JAMS” at the sound of Sleigh Bells stomping across their senses with the grace of a brontosaurus. But those people have no hearts. Reign of Terror is here, and it will shatter your cerebellum.
Opening with the sounds of a crowd freaking out, singer Alexis Krauss howls, “New Orleans, what the fuck is up?” before counting off into “True Shred Guitar,” a song that teases the skeleton crushing guitar fireworks that guitarist-producer Derek Miller sets off here. It was easy to miss last time, given that Treats was more heavily programmed than Reign of Terror, but Miller is one of the more exciting guitarists in indie right now, refashioning ‘80s pop, metal, post-hardcore, punk, and electroclash into something entirely unique and his own. Lead single “Comeback Kid” is the album’s centerpiece and highlight, a collision of Krauss’ poppier, R&B stylings (she was in a girl group, after all, and that’s not a bad thing, folks) and Miller’s scorched earth, Agent Orange chord attack. And as mentioned, there’s a lot more of it here. Miller seems less apologetic about wanting to melt faces with his guitar (see “Crush” especially) as he’s less likely to beat you into submission with the beats as he was on Treats.
Part of that could be that Krauss had a bigger hand in the creation of the album this time out, as Reign is more nuanced and varied in sound than Treats was. Now she’s singing harmonies instead of leading cheerleader chants; The wailing hellcat banshee of Treats makes way for the only occasionally snarling coo-machine of Reign of Terror. “End of the Line” is a real foray into power balladry, while “You Lost Me” imagines an Enya song with mortar attacks between the ethereality. Sleigh Bells found the way out of the noise-pop bombast corner they were seemingly painted into by turning down the volume and upping the pop. And it works like gangbusters.
By nature, Reign of Terror isn’t the gob-smacking surprise that Treats was, and that’s for good reason: There wasn’t anyone doing this music two years ago, and it still sounds so future-forward, like it’s for a distant epoch when we want all musical styles smashed together and turned up super-loud. Two years later, it’s still just Sleigh Bells’ playground, a musical mash that makes every other band in indie seem quiet, dorky, earnest, and most importantly, behind the times. And remember, this is from a band that openly claims to be influenced by Def Leppard. Think about that one for a while: Our most forward-thinking band is led by a dude who loves Hysteria non-ironically.
Reign of Terror might not be the year’s best album; it’s probably not even better than Treats. But it’s the album I want in my headphones when the Mayan apocalypse comes, and that has to count for something.