Sleigh Bells, Bitter Rivals

Image: (k.) Marin.
Image: (k.) Marin.

For anybody that has never had the pleasure of listening to Sleigh Bells and is perhaps wondering what the Brooklyn two-piece sound like, simply do the following: find a thesaurus, look up ‘great’, ‘loud’, ‘sound’ and ‘explosion’ and place the resulting synonyms in a sentence. For example:

“Sleigh Bells sound like an enormous, powerful, music blast.”

“Sleigh Bells debut album Treats was an immense, thundering, audio blowout.”

Read any article on the band and the above formulas are usually employed to describe a truly mind-blowing sound that transcends genre. Debut album, Treats released back in 2010, was a game changer. Those driving riffs, pounding drumbeats on loop and of course those sugar-coated coos and drizzling, effortless lyrics layered on top, combined to make something truly special. Like the first time you heard Crystal Castles, it was different; exciting. In my opinion, Treats was a mixture of everything that made music great. It was music to f*** s*** up to.

What followed was 2012’s Reign of Terror, an album covering the same boisterous territory as their previous work, but also showcasing some softer pop moments that perhaps Michael J. Foxx or members of The Breakfast Club may have found themselves slow-dancing to at Prom in the 80s. I didn’t really appreciate moments such as ‘End of the Line’ and ‘You Lost Me’, until I found myself with a moshpit-induced mouthful of blood and needing a breather at Camden’s Electric Ballroom, seven songs into one of the most intense sets that my brother (a Machinehead and Nine Inch Nails fan) and I had ever seen. On record, those softer moments did seem slightly alien compared to tracks on the juggernaut that was Treats, but after witnessing the live show I could excuse them.

A year later and we have Bitter Rivals. Work on the album allegedly started as soon as Reign of Terror had been toured in February and the tracks were finished in April (talk about momentum). In the engine room changes had taken place. No longer is Derek Miller dictating everything except the voice. Bitter Rivals saw a democratic approach with creative duties being split with his counterpart Alexis Krauss.

Other changes included a reduction in partying, a slight variation in instrumentation and textures, boxing everyday (hard to believe this was not already a staple) and a move towards health foods. Oh, and Derek Miller has ditched the shades (sadface). The end product of all of this is a strong album, but noticeably different at times from previous work.

Good news for the fans: the bangers are still there! Title track ‘Bitter Rivals’ lures us in with a ‘Hi’, the unsheathing of swords and a catchy acoustic hook before dropping us into a trademark Sleigh Bells chorus of jackhammer drumbeats and an onslaught of riffs. Breaks in between allow for Krauss to deliver lyrics “You are my bitter rival, but I need you for survival” in her cheerleader-esque croon. ‘Sing like a Wire’ follows a similar route with lows of Krauss chanting exploding into synth-riff highs. ‘Tiger Kit’ also cements itself into the bangers category providing an equally explosive synth-riff.

There are also contrasts. ‘Young Legends’ is the ‘Rill Rill’ of the album providing a catchy piano loop wrapped in those bubble-gum vocals reminding us that ‘young legends die all the time’. The varied instrumentation is noticeable throughout the album. Acoustic guitar riffs provide an interesting texture against the drumbeat backdrop of ‘Sugarcane’ and an intriguing intro into ‘Bitter Rivals’. The glitchy video-game synths are also regular throughout the album and although minor, work well. It would have been really easy to simply keep a tried and tested stance on instrumentation, but some of the changes have really payed off.

There are however, songs that do feel like filler towards the end of the album and perhaps needed a ‘Sing like a Wire’ thrown in to divide them up. ‘To Hell with You’ and ‘Lovesick’ have those video-game glitches present and arguably showcase some R&B influence but really lower the tempo of the album. Where the album could have ended on a true finale, it instead limps over the line. Perhaps I simply need to go to a live show again and they will provide a breather.

Overall, the album is not Treats, but that’s okay! The tracks will grow on you. ‘Bitter Rivals’, ‘Tiger Kit’ and ‘Sing like a Wire’ are undeniably bangers and will fit effortlessly into a moshpit inducing Sleigh Bells live set. ‘Young Legends’ is a welcome catchy pop addition that along with ‘Sugarcane’ and ‘Minnie’ will grow on the listener. The latter part of the album is perhaps a questionable tempo change but overall Sleigh Bells have given us another colossal, heavy, noise detonation- and for that we thank them!

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