Sleigh Bells' debut album Treats will go down as one of the most unique noise albums since the early 00s. Derek Miller's idea of becoming a Brooklyn version of a Gold Star Studios session musician came true when he found the perfect backbench vocalist in Alexis Krauss. This conceptual 'noise pop' genre had been left alone for many years, or at least held back by emerging genres in the punk genre. Dance-punk dominated the scene noise pop once thrived in. The previous slayers Yo La Tengo, The Jesus & Mary Chain, and Sonic Youth, have been pushed aside for what is essentially an indie experiment. Wavves, No Age, Best Coast, and Yuck have all released very successful noise pop albums in the post-DFA years. Sleigh Bells capitalised on that success and in the same year as Best Coast's gritty Californian debut Crazy For You, Sleigh Bells released Treats. Spoilt by an overbearing emphasis on too little = too much, Sleigh Bell's debut album received little to no attention a few months after its release. At the time of the first few listens, Treats was an album of the year contender. It took five, nine listens to realise the lack of depth in their sound and lyrics. Treats acts as a powerful modern noise pop album with focus on distorted guitars and distorted beats, it just never took off as an album that’s both imaginative and can withstand age.
Sleigh Bells' second effort Reign of Terror lost the pop - it lost the plot. The only attractive aspect of Sleigh Bells was wiped clean by Krauss' demand for a chorus. They took out the thriving experimental-esque guitar progressions for simple structures and repetitiveness that was hidden easily with poignant instrumentation on their debut. Tracks like "Born To Lose" highlighted their changed direction. They eased off on the gas and broke down. The same instrumentals were being used over and over again without any specific change or effect. It was a one track album, and that track happened to be one of their worst to date - "Comeback Kid". The noise level was still present, but it wasn't desired noise. Treats was on Christmas lists because of the beats on "Kids", the sample on "Rill Rill", and the clear guitar shredding on "Infinity Guitar". Reign of Terror didn’t have this. It took away Sleigh Bells dignity as a small duo trying to make as much noise as possible with what little production quality they have. Instead, Reign of Terror followed in the footsteps of a metal head fan - wanting big sounds that you would find in big stadiums, with 70s hard rock guitar effects and reverb ambience to signal this 'stadium rock' sound. Reign of Terror was an atrocious album that brought back memories of the unique debuts that can't follow-up because of a niche: Glasvegas' Euphoric /// Heartbreak \\\, Franz Ferdinand's You Could Have It So Much Better, The Go! Team's Proof of Youth, and Clap Your Hands Say Yeah's Some Loud Thunder.
The novelty was already wearing off, and Sleigh Bells knew it. Reign of Terror received mainly positive reviews (not from us.) Though the few negative nellys (us and the most respected music critics at The Guardian and The Quietus) focussed on Sleigh Bells inability to create clear instrumentals and allow listeners to freely enter their music without instantly regarding it as 'hipster shit'. Sleigh Bells are out to clear their name, as if they're wrongfully convicted criminals. Bitter Rivals arrives just as the Reign of Terror backlash is being forgotten. It's only been a year, and Sleigh Bells are putting out new material to keep their name at the tip of everyone's tongue and increase their stature as recording artists rather than a one-off. Being careful in present time, not to drop down into poor third album territory. Sleigh Bells aren’t treating Bitter Rivals as a third instalment; they're using it as a fresh start, a way of cleansing their past. They're using experience of the industry and the Treats to Reign of Terror crossover as a learning curve. With Reign of Terror failing to live up to Treats' expectation; it allows Bitter Rivals room to breathe. Tracks on Reign of Terror sounded far too produced. There are hand claps in areas where every single fan would expect them to be. They came across as predictable musicians playing noise rock and punk to a fraction of their Treats audience. Leaving their creative output to sound crushed, suffocating in guitar effects and noise that didn't need to be. Part of the pull factor of Treats is the space in-between the loudness. "Infinity Guitars" is a perfect example of this. With Bitter Rivals, Sleigh Bells have looked back to their debut album, and to the more structure focussed sophomore and decided to combine both. The self-titled opening track is akin to "Infinity Guitars", with its powerful loud electric guitar, but with a chorus of quiet vocals and a soft beat. It becomes something of a noise pop Mogwai with a gripping loud / quiet / loud structure.
Sleigh Bells have been working on their structures and pop crossover sounds. The chorus splits up fans, taking out the singular loud progressions and little care for sound quality, focusing in on lo-fi, but Bitter Rivals is a stripped back Treats, with the advanced musical development of Reign of Terror. The fifth track "Young Legends" is the most radio-friendly of all Sleigh Bells tracks to date. It uses a 90s euro dance synthesizer riff with a light electronic beat and ambience to push Krauss' vocal. Sleigh Bells actually sound like 90s pop, in the light of Spice Girls on "Young Legends". It's actually quite attractive and opens up a whole new area of music to explore. Because it sounds extremely poppy and takes simple chord progressions, Sleigh Bells actually sound listenable, from an outsider’s perspective. There's no block of noise, just pure pop with Krauss delivering her best vocal to date. Taking out the distorted effects, and her own high pitch voice has created a singular version of S Club 7 - and Sleigh Bells are owning it.
"Young Legends" is not just an irregular track, there’s more along the pop lines. "To Hell With You" has been drafted from Sleigh Bells debut EP, where it was titled "2HELLWU". It was one of the only tracks on the EP not to be recorded for Treats. Possibly Sleigh Bells waited to develop the track in to album material, which they have done for Bitter Rivals. Its big sounding beat never loses the small time structure or percussion accompaniment, as Reign of Terror would have done. My only criticism to these tracks is the criticism Sleigh Bells face daily with their music - it sounds aimless. "24" is a track that's over before any key aspect can be processed. In less than three minutes, "24" rips through guitar riffs, the old school Treats deep beat and Krauss' synthetic vocal found on these newer recordings on Bitter Rivals. There's something too orchestrated and irrelevant that gets in the way of enjoying this track.
Where Sleigh Bells increase the volume and put together their authentic features, is where Sleigh Bells inevitably fall down. "Sugarcane" is a three minute track, where each and every part of the track is similar. There's no variety or break, smothering Krauss' vocal and the background synthesizer ambience that you just want to come out of the darkness and break through all the noisy blandness. Bitter Rivals attempt at melodies and standard pop structures fails on so many levels. This album comes across as a try out rather than the real deal. "Minnie" is the weakest track on the album because of Krauss' pointless high pitched vocal and repellent chorus. It takes the same loud / quiet / loud post-rock progression as the opening track, but with the reverb found on Reign of Terror and a vocal segment found on Aqua's "Barbie Girl". The weak points on Bitter Rivals outweigh the few standout tracks. "Sing Like A Wire" sounds more like a demo than a track for your third album - there’s just too much focus on Krauss, when all the listeners really need here is further instruments instead of whispered vocals.
Bitter Rivals is somewhere between Treats and Reign of Terror. Sleigh Bells' third album is no better than the grandiose shocking sounds of their sophomore album, but in no way reaching the level of their debut Treats. With Bitter Rivals, Sleigh Bells are showing their listeners, their critics; that the whole concept of Sleigh Bells is varied and not self-focussed on the creative work of Miller, nor Krauss. It has the Miller chaos and madness found on "Sugarcane", and the Krauss' influence on "Tiger Kit", "Young Legends", and the album closer "Love Stick". Having this variety on Bitter Rivals really makes this album worth the listen. "Young Legends" is the best piece of work the duo have collaborated on, an outstanding single which will find itself on film trailers in years to come. Other than this particular track, Bitter Rivals still sounds like its lost in music’s no man's land. It's as if Sleigh Bells are failing to understand what they actually want to be - a noise pop duo, a dance-punk band, hard rock, punk rock... The possibilities are endless and they get that across through their music, it's just something that needs to be given purpose by a stark classification rather than confusion and continuing to change focus. This is backed up by the bands quick turnover since 2012s Reign of Terror - Bitter Rivals has less tracks, less time, and less decisiveness. It's the rightful follow-up to Treats, and I'll continue to forget and erase Reign of Terror from my mind, as that album should never have been. Bitter Rivals is an improvement, but alienates listeners from Treats, and new fans from Reign of Terror. Sleigh Bells will always be held back by the initial strength of their debut album, with Bitter Rivals being no different than Reign of Terror as an unfortunate follow-up comparison rather than a standalone album.