Release Date: Nov 11, 2016
Record label: Omnian
Genre(s): Pop/Rock, Alternative/Indie Rock, Alternative Pop/Rock, Indie Rock, Indie Electronic, Noise Pop
Pink sunset flares over the horizon. The interstate and I are one today. Sometimes nightmares cross my mind – slipping under 16 wheels, sideswiping a sedan, flying over the curve of the exit to I-85. But not today, not today. Lean into the turn, sweep two lanes at 80 miles per hour, glide past ….
In the ‘90s, we took soft-loud dynamic shifts for granted, since everyone and their kid brother thought they’d written the next “Smells Like Teen Spirit. ” Now that soft-loud dynamic shifts are out of fashion, we only take Sleigh Bells for granted, a loudness-obsessed novelty band who were supposed to disappear after their debut or something. Instead, they’ve already gone on to make more great records than The Jesus and Mary Chain ever did, all sonically distinct.
2010’s Treats delivered on its title; Sleigh Bells married abrasion and melody across a bite-sized cavalcade of anthemic esotericism. Noisepop, candustrial, mathcore - whatever you want to call it, it was a blast, and unpredictably influential. Complemented by Crystal Castles’ sophomore II, together they demonstrated that applying metal and hardcore strictures to a synth pop chic could click, and has arguably informed the likes of Grimes and CHVRCHES in their own aesthetic heterogeneity.
Since their rill-rillin’ early days, Sleigh Bells have always specialised in a particular kind of sucker punch; the sort of diamond-toothed rock music that whacks like a hit of sweet-sour gobstopper. In the years following their ‘Treats’ debut, Alexis Krauss has grown from a self-confessed “session singer” to an all-out collaborator, and Miller’s experiments with darkness have grown more shadowy and pronounced; with admittedly varied results. For every ‘Comeback Kid’ and ‘Bitter Rivals,’ there was also the nagging feeling that Sleigh Bells hadn’t nailed the sweet spot they occupied so effortlessly on their debut.
For Sleigh Bells, the blurring boundaries between pop's mainstream and underground were a blessing and a curse. Though they cranked out three albums of subversive sweetness and noise in as many years, Top 40 pop caught up with them almost as quickly: Demi Lovato's 2015 album Confident featured a song that sounded similar enough to their work that they sued for copyright infringement. More importantly, by the time they released Bitter Rivals, it felt like Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss had exhausted their music's extremes.
When Sleigh Bells first roared into view in 2010, it felt as if they were less a band and more a conundrum: namely, can a group simultaneously be cranium-crushingly loud and chart-botheringly sweet? Four albums later, and with that question conclusively answered, the noisepop duo have decided to branch out a little. Jessica Rabbit is still clearly a Sleigh Bells album – the recognisable thud of Derek Miller’s distorted guitar lines on bruising opening track It’s Just Us Now stands as punishing confirmation of that – but there’s a wider sonic palette on show than on previous efforts: snatches of synth and glitchy breakbeats jostle for attention alongside Alex Krauss’s clean, poppy vocals. Indeed, where once Krauss’s voice felt overwhelmed by the cacophony behind it, here it’s given star billing, gliding over the rap-rock riff of I Can’t Stand You Anymore and providing a punchy counterpoint to I Can Only Stare’s frosty R&B.
When they first made waves back in 2010, Sleigh Bells were championed for their esoteric approach to pop music. Simply put, no one sounded like them. The template of Derek Miller’s metal guitar shredding and primitive, bomb-detonating percussion contrasted with Alexis Krauss’ sickly sweet cooing and a backing choir of deranged cheerleader chanting.
There’s always been a weird, dystopian euphoria to be found in the violent and swiftly executed songs of Sleigh Bells. The Brooklyn-based noise pop duo’s 2010 debut release, Treats, essentially forged its own genre, melding crunching glass percussion, machine gun guitars, and a general distorted, in-the-red aesthetic with the angelic, girlish, and dead-eyed croon of vocalist Alexis Krauss to create a soundscape that took great joy in its own nightmarish qualities. It was loud for loudness’ sake, yes, but it always managed to retain its nuance.
When Brooklyn duo Sleigh Bells arrived six years ago, their wild-style hip-hop/noise-punk seemed like an explosive novelty. Four records into their run, they're still building on it – from the metal fight song "Unlimited Dark Paths" to the chiming art pop of "Baptism by Fire" to "I Can't Stand You Anymore," where singer Alexis Krauss goes full Eighties diva. She sounds at once playful and vengeful: "God only knows the hell that I chose," she shouts over tornado guitars on "Rule Number One," like Brian Wilson high on a holy migraine.
Sleigh Bells burst into musical flames in 2010 with their debut album Treats, creating a high-tension, gloriously processed brand of electro-punk. They arrived fully formed, and with killer singles in tow. But how does a band with such a distinct and identifiable stamp develop without losing what made them special in the first place? With the release of their fourth studio album Jessica Rabbit, not much seems to have changed.
As Animal Collective were taking critical pop to new heights with a home-state love letter and Crystal Castles were engendering a new internet-infused microcosm, I was an oddball loser, writing about music on a Wordpress since lost, thankfully, to the memory hole. It was a hopelessly adolescent time. Yet it was one made lighter by the presence of a release that revealed itself out of the most left of fields.
After rattling off three albums in as many years, Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller took their time in developing Jessica Rabbit, experimenting with a more diverse range of sounds by increasing their emphasis on synths and electronic production to temper what Miller has called the “big, dumb dinosaur riffs” of Sleigh Bells’s guitar-centric past efforts, while also ditching the “dead baby doll” vocal approach that restricted the emotive power of Krauss’s voice, which had served as a complementary instrument within the duo’s repertoire rather than the driving force it becomes here. For a group whose sound was becoming increasingly predictable, Sleigh Bells tends to overcompensate on Jessica Rabbit, occasionally throwing sonic curveballs at the expense of tonal consistency and adopting a more diverse sonic approach that ends up being hit or miss. Yet in unleashing Krauss’s dynamic voice like never before, letting her wail raise the dead or soften to the point of melodic sweetness, Sleigh Bells charts a clear creative path forward on this album, one saturated in pop affect.
Having watched the shelf life for buzz bands grow ever shorter during the late ’00s, Sleigh Bells seemed to understand the need to make the most of their moment. In the wake of their breakthrough debut Treats they worked fast, firing off a couple more LPs within a year of each other, as if trying to refuse the world the chance to forget about them. Though it suffered the inevitable diminishing returns expected from a band that got everything right the first time around, 2012’s Reign of Terror nearly matched the blunt force of their debut, while distinguishing itself just enough with its arena-rock lean.
There are some parallels between Sleigh Bells’ fourth album Jessica Rabbit and cult 80s flick Who Framed Roger Rabbit, a movie where live action footage was mixed with animation and that featured a central character who provided this album its name. Like the film, Sleigh Bells' music once offered a bizarre juxtaposition; a marrying of two extremes that despite their vast differences somehow worked. Yet four records in, the duo's once fresh approach is showing signs of becoming formulaic.
Sleigh Bells 'Jessica Rabbit' (TORN CLEAN/LUCKY NUMBER)Sleigh Bells’ fourth album comes on like an uncontrollably wild house party where you just know the speakers are going to blow out. Lyricist and singer Alexis Krauss’s powerhouse vocal is even more prominent now, while Derek Miller’s relentless guitar onslaughts on tracks such as ‘Hyper Dark’ and ‘Loyal For’ are particularly sinister. ‘Rule Number One’ is a manic anthem full of headbanging and ‘Treats’-era no-bullshit lyricism, while ‘It’s Just Us Now’, which is built on hip hop beats and ruthless riffs, challenges the notion of what ‘pop’ music can be.
Sleigh Bells don’t play with ideas of pop as much as they explode them, delighting in the chaos that results not only from blowing things up but from putting the remaining pieces back together in unexpected, jarring ways. The contrast between Derek Miller’s super-size sonics and Alexis Krauss’s radio-ready lilt energized the duo’s first three albums, allowing them to occupy a spot in music at the overlap of spine-rattling noise rock and chart-ruling pop. On their fourth album, “Jessica Rabbit,” the pair tweak their formula ever so slightly.
‘I Know Not To Count On You’ splices EDM with jilted, claustrophobic acoustic balladry, ‘As If’ is a blitzkrieg of laser synths resembling Kepler-452b attacking, while ‘Rule Number One’ is a rap metal monster in which the pair have a conversation about Miller getting whacked up on stimulants and buying a rifle like a noise pop Travis Bickle – “There will be no end to my rainmaking”. It’s all deranged enough to convince us that Sleigh Bells are still menacing outliers, but on a deep cover mission to infiltrate the mainstream, horns still poking out of their ’80s mullet wigs. .
As we prepare to publish our Year-End lists (hit: it's coming very, very soon), that doesn't mean we'd still ignore our regularly scheduled Quick Takes feature. Carl and I, however, do have to acknowledge that because of the madness that goes behind-the-scenes this time of year, this month's will ….
Even as Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss have moved away from and fudged with the blown-out, hook-driven simplicity of their much-hyped 2010 debut full-length, Treats, they’ve mostly kept on keepin‘ on, tipping a hat to what made Sleigh Bells, well, Sleigh Bells. The foolproof template: Miller programs super beats to hurdle towers of beefed-up hair-metal guitar while Krauss’ vocals twirl and cut through the racket like a ballerina crossing the Santa Monica Freeway. You can refer to it as “noise pop” or “shred pop” or whatever—it’s mostly just loud and fun as hell.
Sleigh Bell’s 2010 debut album, the dazzling Treats, changed the way we listen to loud music and sound. Possessing a penchant for distortion and pop, that album answered a previously unknown question: What happens when we parody the loudness war itself? What happens when pop and noise become music? How alarmingly loud can pop be until it becomes something else? Treats is still one of this decade’s best albums because it develops, it works upon an idea until it is left explored to its fullest potential. Treats is both a pop album and a project: in it, Sleigh Bells mustered on a single idea: the loudness war is not that bad per se.