In my full-time job as a middle school band director, I’m often afforded the singular opportunity to bridge the gap between my own listening preferences and those of my students. When we’re not preparing works by the luminaries of grade school wind band music (John O’Reilly, James Swearingen, Robert W. Smith, etc.), any number of other artists’ songs can be heard wafting down the halls near the band room. In between most classes, I typically cue up one of my iTunes playlists as students are hurriedly going to and fro. This serves multiple educational purposes, not the least of which is setting the tone for the upcoming rehearsal or perhaps providing some historical perspective on the music we’re about to study. The fringe benefits are many though, and if nothing else, I’ve always got a discerning audience of anywhere from 20 to 40 children armed and ready to opine their thoughts on whatever’s emanating from the stereo speakers. Every now and then, a criticism will be reactionary. Regarding Aphex Twin’s “Blur” a student was quick to quip, “This is so depressing. Aren’t they ever going to start singing?” Often though, their observations tend to be a reflection of ephemeral pop culture trends. On “1901” by Phoenix – “Oh! Isn’t this that song from the car commercial?”
It’s no secret that what works its way into the charts was and still is the product of adolescent taste. Seismic grooves, earworm melodies, unfussy structuring, burnished production, and translucent lyrics don’t guarantee a recipe for success, but they certainly redouble the odds. Applying this concept to my decidedly unscientific experiments in the classroom, it’s always groups like Passion Pit, M83, and Sleigh Bells who emerge the indie victors in an arena of Nicki Minaj and Lady Gaga fans. All three of these acts carry out their M.O. devoid of satire, perfectly encapsulating the drama and intensity of growing up in a way that almost romanticizes those doe-eyed days of acne and orthodontics. Of them though, none has had as many superlatives flung their way as Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss.
When Sleigh Bells first materialized some two and a half years ago, they were indeed an enigma. Where else in the current landscape could one find an instance of such disparate influences – in this case, 80s hair metal and bubblegum pop – that seemed like such natural companions when fused together? Toss in some iPod-generated drum loops and deliberately serrated production levels, and you’re poised for mass appeal. Krauss sings with the same sweet naivety of any modern Top 40 starlet, and Miller’s Marshallstack riffage consistently satiated the desires of every burgeoning guitarist who ever spent hours trying to cop the style of Eddie Van Halen; this blueprint made Treats one of the most exciting debuts, if not one of the best albums, of 2010. Sleigh Bells’ sophomore LP is unlikely to be met with the same peerless adulation as its predecessor, but Reign of Terror still seduces with an uncanny knack for extracting a pioneering spirit out of musty source material.
On a cursory listen, Reign of Terror is not much of a departure from what Krauss and Miller formulated on their first record. The amplifiers are still cranked up to Marty McFly volumes, the guitars are still processed through a bevy of filtering effects, and the vocals still provide an assuaging counterpoint to the instrumental melee. Dig deeper though, and you’ll find that the scale’s been tipped. Treats was largely a Derek Miller record, one in which Alexis Krauss’ saccharine coo was often eschewed for gratuitous shredding or subwoofer-destroying drumbeats. Here the vocals are clearly placed in the foreground, and though her lyrics are rarely the stuff of poetry, there’s a propulsive energy lent to barnburner tracks like “Demons” when Krauss snarls lines like, “You’ll be taken down brick by brick by brick!” The vague hip-hop swagger that populated many older songs has been traded for an unabashed foray into the melodramatic balladry of Hagar-era Van Halen and one of Miller’s greatest influences, Def Leppard. It’s tempting to think of slow jams like “Road to Hell” and “You Lost Me” as exercises in idol worship, but Miller’s judicious fretboard work and Krauss’ quasi-Cocteau Twins vocals mark a welcome – and dexterous – departure from the bombast of most Sleigh Bells fare.
While the group is currently being derided for everything from its allegedly lackluster performance on SNL to Miller’s new arsenal of Jackson guitars, they’re also not above having a laugh at their own expense. Opening track “True Shred Guitar” mimes the banal sounds of an arena rock show circa 1980, while “Born to Lose” fetishizes shoegaze, New Wave, and thrash metal all at once. “End of the Line” melds the gauzy atmospheres of Mazzy Star with R&B vocal rhythms, quite possibly giving us a hint of what might sound like if Hope Sandoval and Rihanna co-wrote a song after getting dumped at the mall.
In the end, Reign of Terror aggrandizes all of the elements that made Treats such a buzzworthy event – the beats consistently bludgeon, the vocals dissolve like cotton candy for your ears, and the guitars attack with a searing intensity rarely heard since Appetite for Destruction. In parting, I’ll reference Back to the Future once more with one of my favorite Michael J. Fox quotes: “I guess you guys aren’t ready for that yet…but your kids are gonna love it.”