Release Date: Oct 8, 2013
Record label: Mom & Pop Music
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Indie Rock, Indie Electronic, Noise Pop
The opening title track off of the third Sleigh Bells album, Bitter Rivals, must have been carefully crafted to both introduce listeners to the record and build anticipation for what is to come. It doesn’t start with a bang—rather, the duo begins the album with a groovy guitar riff (with really great tones) and some minor backing percussion, including a quiet chorus of snapping and…barking dogs—but within a minute, the song comes crashing in to reveal the band’s signature electronic indie-pop sound. The driving rhythms, crunchy guitars and frantic synthesizers establish an entirely different, chaotic vibe (made more chaotic by Alexis Krauss’ layered and heavily affected vocals) that juxtaposes the much mellower opening.
Sleigh Bells are not just back with a bang. They’re back with a bang, kick, stamp, scream, punch and a KA-POW. There’s no doubt that Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller are at their blistering best when everything’s turned up to eleven.
Three albums within the space of four years is pretty prolific by modern standards, and that's what Sleigh Bells have achieved by releasing Bitter Rivals before the end of 2013. The rapid turnaround hasn't necessarily come at the cost of sonic progression - second album Reign Of Terror marked a record that was both sonically and emotionally heavier than their breakout debut, Treats, so there's potential for Bitter Rivals to add further refinements to the band's sound. If there's one thing that's immediately apparent, it's that Sleigh Bells haven't lost their sense of fun, as title track 'Bitter Rivals' opens the record with the goofiest possible bait-and-switch - 30 seconds of acoustic guitar strums, babbled gibberish and animal noises give way to the distorted, bratty vocals and sledgehammer-strength riffs you might more readily associate with the band.
It’s been about 20 months since we last heard from Sleigh Bells, when their second album Reign of Terror was released to a tepid reception. The mixed reaction for that record was understandable (It ranked both #58 on PopMatters’ Best Albums of 2012 and #3 on PopMatters’ Most Disappointing Albums of 2012). It’s hard to follow an album that essentially creates a new genre, or at least subgenre, of music.
Over the course of the three albums Sleigh Bells cranked out between 2010 and 2013, the pop and noise elements in their music didn't always play nicely together; 2012's Reign of Terror had almost as many frustrating moments as inspired ones. Album titles like that one and Bitter Rivals hint at the inherent tension in the duo's sound, but Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss take a more holistic approach to blending and balancing with these songs. For such a flamboyantly loud band, the tweaks they make are surprisingly subtle: Bitter Rivals' mix of Sunset Strip riffs, teeny bopper vocals, and crashing beats isn't as punishingly dense as it was on Reign of Terror, and its heavy and sweet sides work together instead of competing for attention.
Sleigh Bells’ Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller got into boxing while making this album, and the Brooklyn duo would wake, train and eat together before hitting the studio to bash out their trademark noise-pop bangers. Coming over all Kick-Ass has paid off, because ‘Bitter Rivals’ is their toughest and most focused work yet. It’s also their poppiest, which is very much a good thing.Before meeting Miller, a guitarist with an experimental hardcore background, Krauss paid her dues in a flop US girl band.
Since 2009, the Brooklyn duo of singer Alexis Krauss and guitarist Derek Miller have been turning a kitschy idea – bubblegum-pop vocals and monster guitars atop dime-store beats – into raucous, whip-smart noise rock. On their third album, the schoolyard chants are snarkier and the ooey-gooey melodies are sweeter. "You Don't Get Me Twice" isn't sure if it's a Nicki Minaj, Aerosmith or Gary Glitter song, which gives the refrain, "It's a terrifying thing, the American dream," bonus angst.
Sleigh Bells are a duo who are more than meets the ear. From their smart lyrics, always obscured by noise but dealing with topics ranging from femininity to youth to depression and suicide, to the statement that their early music made (that femininity and aggression weren’t mutually exclusive), they weren’t just some weird musical experiment from an intense cocaine high. But while they may never match the pure excitement of 2010’s Treats, Sleigh Bells have evolved.
Sleigh Bells don't really progress with each album – Bitter Rivals is their third in three years – but continually circle a central idea: the sledgehammer distortion of sugary pop. Or, as singer Alexis Krauss declares in the album's evocative closing line, "sending gummy bears to the electric chair". While Krauss spins melodies gossamer as candyfloss, multi-instrumentalist Derek Miller distresses the soundsystem with juddering keyboards, blunt guitar riffs, bellicose drums and an array of shameless pop quotes, right down to a sardonic hoedown replete with electronic cow moos and crowing cocks.
A decade ago, Derek Miller was playing guitar in a hardcore band while Alexis Krauss was singing in a teen-pop group, and they came together in Brooklyn in 2009 with the provocative idea that these two genres have more in common than conventional wisdom suggests. Sleigh Bells' spectacular 2010 debut album, Treats, was like Jock Jams for Hell's Angels; Miller's riffs went off like illegal bottle rockets, and Krauss lilted, roared, and chanted ("Did you do your best today?") with the cataclysmic cool of a cheerleader who's just hijacked a monster truck. Like all records that don’t quite sound like anything before, you either loved it or hated it, but you couldn’t ignore it.
"You are my bitter rival/And I need you for survival" sings Sleigh Bells frontwoman Alexis Krauss on Bitter Rivals' opening and title track—a sentiment that applies well to Sleigh Bells in general, when you think about it. The New York noisemongers' strength has always been in the tensions and conflicts that pull at every song until it's taut and quivering: Krauss' outgoing performances versus guitar-wielding Derek Miller's behind-sunglasses reticence. Simple, catchy pop melodies at odds with the ear-bleeding metal tones they're rendered in.
It took roughly three albums to get there, but Sleigh Bells' bombastic piss-n'-vinegar metal-pop has finally devolved into gimmickry. The band's debut, Treats, remains a master class on how to produce music that's a lot more dangerous sounding than it really is (not to mention a hell of a lot of fun to listen to), but the wheels started to come off on last year's Reign of Terror, a highly polished but merely passable recycle job of Treats's stronger points. Bitter Rivals works along those same lines, further refining the duo's rhapsodic cheerleader-meets-headbanger shtick, but adding little to the overall dynamic.
Sleigh Bells quickly painted themselves into a corner with 2010 debut Treats. Armed with the unabashedly bombastic sound of Derek Miller's noise rock riffs and Alexis Krauss's sugary-sweet pop delivery, the dynamic duo struck a balanced sound of noise-pop perfection. Since then, it's been an experiment of sorts for the pair to try and uphold a signature sound while expanding beyond its very narrow confines.
There’s a flip side to this post-mashup, instant access generation and its orgy of influences, one that has cultivated a new standard that we now use to weigh music’s relevance and irrelevance. While fans and critics paddle into the wave that Stereogum’s Chris DeVille calls “the monogenre,” the adage of questioning whether nothing’s sacred should be updated for 2013 to ask, “Is nothing not sacred?” Sleigh Bells have rarely been talked about in the same terms as recent success stories HAIM and Lorde, but the duo of Alexis Krauss and Derek E. Miller have been blurring the lines of rock and pop (as well as art and trash) for two albums, both of which maintain their charms after repeat listens.
opinion byBENJI TAYLOR A time existed when pop, metal and the various categories of music sat snugly and unmolested in their respective domains, rather like Trivial Pursuit wedges – distinct, separate; divergent parts of a greater whole. The Digital Age changed all that – as the internet smashed down the barriers and relevance of geographical distance, so it hastened the blurring and deconstruction of the partitions between genres of music too. When noise-pop connoisseurs Sleigh Bells’ debut album Treats appeared in 2010 it positioned the Brooklyn-based twosome at the vanguard of a host of emergent genre-straddling and pigeonhole-defying groups.
“Bitter Rivals” is the third album by Sleigh Bells, the New York duo — the singer Alexis Krauss and the guitarist-producer Derek Miller — that emerged fully formed four years ago with a straight-ahead concept: pulverizing guitars, block-rocking bass, sweet but durable vocals. It was music ….
When Sleigh Bells announced the release of this third record – pretty much out of the blue – I noticed the news being met with quite a bit of cynicism and dismissal on social networks. I’m not sure quite what it is about this band that seems to get people’s backs up; the garish nature of their music videos perhaps – see this album’s title track, as well as ‘Comeback Kid‘ – or maybe the dubious nature of their ‘live’ shows, which have so far involved a couple of guitars and effect-laden vocals, with everything else a backing track. Regardless, there’s certainly no faulting their work ethic; Bitter Rivals is their third full-length in as many years.
Like Michael Bay or Coca-Cola, Sleigh Bells didn’t need to change its formula. On its first two albums – both critics’ favorites that led to lucrative placements in a Honda commercial and several movie trailers – this wily Brooklyn duo made a perfectly realized racket out of jagged jock-rock guitars, booming hip-hop beats and airy girl-group vocals. The music was simple but profound, the embodiment of an idea that felt as though it might keep playing out forever.
You’ve gotta figure Sleigh Bells are in a little bit of a weird spot. The dynamic they crashed into popular consciousness with on 2010’s Treats—the dense, high-gain thrash of mastermind Derek E. Miller and the alternately whispered and shouted gibberish of Alexis Krauss—wasn’t particularly built for the long haul; not professionally, at least.
With the lines between “indie” and pop as we’ve known them obliterated by now, credit is due to Brooklyn, N.Y., duo Sleigh Bells for maintaining a bulwark of noise around music that could very easily have surrendered to the allure of crossover success. While they dally with more approachable material on their third LP with songs like “Young Legends,” it’s the rare number not bracketed by abrasively chintzy guitar noise meant to read as “rawk,” shudder-inducing synths, and jarring percussive machinery. The balance of the album is, as with the two before it, stubbornly pop-contrarian.