3 stars (out of 4)
Sleigh Bells' Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss dropped a grenade of a debut, "Treats," in 2010 that had bloggers doing hyperbolic hand-stands. The mix of trash-compactor guitar, abrasive samples and thundering electro-beats topped by Krauss' chirpy-cheerleader vocals made for a party record that teetered between ear-shattering chaos and fun-loving hookiness.
Now comes the follow-up, "Reign of Terror" (Mom + Pop), billed in advance by Miller as a heavier guitar record. At certain points it is. The opening "True Shred Guitar" telegraphs its reference points by evoking the sound and feel of a 1980s arena-rock concert, a celebration of an era when cod pieces, spandex and stacks 'n' stacks of amplifiers ruled. "Crush" channels the double-tracked guitars of Thin Lizzy and "Demons" sounds like a warm-up for Black Sabbath's mammoth "War Pigs" riff-fest.
"Comeback Kid" is the closest approximation of the ultra-catchy singles that peppered "Treats," but the production is more refined, the claustrophobic aggression of the debut replaced by sweet, wobbly vocals, and a more spacious arrangement.
A darker, creepier art-punk vibe dominates the rest of the album. The tone is informed by some of Miller's personal travails: his father died in a motorcycle accident, and his mother has struggled with cancer. So the crunch-and-shout of the debut has given way to a more atmospheric approach, with "Born to Lose" mashing together heaviness and haziness and then drifting into a long, hypnotic guitar fade over what sounds like a lawnmower. "End of the Line," a fabulously woozy ballad, bids goodbye over bell-like guitars and light, breathy vocals that suggest drunken angels delivering a eulogy. Melodic vocals drift over a stuttering beat in "You Lost Me," insisting, "I don't want you to see me this way." "D.O.A." sends the album into a death spiral with guitars chugging like broken machinery and Krauss singing in sweet despair. It makes for an intriguing if hardly obvious progression.
What's next? A full-on embrace of Goth-rock? An album brimming with hazy "End of the Line"-style ballads that wouldn't have sounded out of place coming out of the 4AD catalogue in the late '80s? No matter what, with "Reign of Terror" Sleigh Bells proves they've got more than one formula they can tear apart.