Album Review: Sleigh Bells - Bitter Rivals

Album Reviews
Gerrit Feenstra

There are some people that say there is art in restraint. Those are the types of people Sleigh Bells eat for breakfast. Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss are back for round three this week with Bitter Rivals, and they are going even harder and even heavier. And it’s a good thing too – now more than ever, Sleigh Bells are set to break on the scene. You’ve heard their music in every memorable movie trailer in the last two years, and you heard tracks from their debut album Treats sound-tracking Sofia Coppola’s The Bling Ring in a snotty, fitting manner. Now they have Rolling Stone asking for interviews and another tour lined up ahead of them with no line on the horizon. With sophomore record Reign of Terror, Sleigh Bells descended into darker territory, drawing from hard experiences at home for both members of the duo. The lyrics were heavy and Derek’s production tended further towards metal than the hip-hop fusion of their debut. But perhaps in the wake of recent, broader exposure (and now that Treats has stopped ringing in the deafened ears of the more conservative), Derek and Alexis are returning to the sound that made them for a tighter, louder, and more explosive redefining of what Sleigh Bells is. You’d better run for cover.

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times”, Kruass quotes to open the Bitter Rivals opener title track. Sleigh Bells have always had an epic vibe beyond their high school musical death squad choice of styling and appearance. We heard it break into a blitzkrieg sprint with Reign of Terror cuts like “Comeback Kid” (complete with double bass), but here, Sleigh Bells are settling in for the long run as the leader of the pack. There are two things Sleigh Bells love singing about: kicking ass and sticking up for the ones you love. On their best cuts, they are doing both at the same time. Even on the misleadingly titled “To Hell With You”, Krauss lets a friend know that she is willing to venture there with them if need be. Thus, Sleigh Bells continue holding the title for most encouraging hardcore band ever. “Tiger Kit” gives a friend the tools needed to take on a menacing world. “You Don’t Get Me Twice” comes back from a failure with relentless determination. Even “Bitter Rivals” looks at the competition with the glass half full, reminding us that without it, there would be no drive to win. But not all of the heaviness that daunted Reign of Terror is gone here. Krauss digs deeper on cuts like “Young Legends” and “Love Sick”, where everything isn’t wonderful, and the outcome may in fact be certain death, but that doesn’t mean things are irreconcilable. Both in the past and here on Bitter Rivals, Sleigh Bells exercise their gift for taking the pain in their lives (whatever it may be) and musically expressing not the pain itself, but the rebound from it and the lessons learned in a lighter shade of black.

But if you didn’t come here for lyrics, fear not. Bitter Rivals sees Miller at the top of his game. The Treats-style hip-hop and dance production is back at full volume on some tracks. “Sing Like A Wire” may be the biggest, baddest track Sleigh Bells have ever strung together (yes, that means it indeed gives “A/B Machines” a run for its money), and tracks like “Young Legends” and the title track add a bit more production (some punchy synthesizer lines and whatnot) to the mix to compensate for the lost clipping of old while maintaining volume and size – something that many felt Reign of Terror wasn’t quite able to do. But if you know Sleigh Bells at all, Derek has never been a hip-hop guy through and through. He’s a metal head, and both he and Alexis love pulling from the gaudiest and most glamorous bits of the 80s to make for an over the top production that beats you into smiling submission. But on Bitter Rivals, Derek is pulling from some of those classic rock roots to write his own guitar lines. Yes, those sparkling neon guitars are on the cover for a reason: Sleigh Bells are embracing hair metal. Not to a point where it overshadows their own sound, of course, but on tunes like “24” especially, we see Derek ripping out some glossy solos in totally classic fashion. Other places, the mixture of bouncy acoustic guitar and electric add in scream back to the best of Def Leppard and their equals. It’s a great addition to the overall sound and an entirely complimentary new factor in a sound that many predicted wouldn’t age much past a single LP. As Sleigh Bells continue exploding into the future, we’ll happily go with them. Their relentless positivity and earth-shattering volume haven’t begun to quiet one bit.

Bitter Rivals is out October 8 on CD and vinyl through Mom + Pop. Don’t miss Sleigh Bells this Saturday, October 12, at Showbox at the Market with opener Doldrums! Tickets are available here.

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