Sleigh Bells' Positive Rock

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If their first album was about sound, their second is about time—and how to bend it.

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Patrick O'Dell

Sleigh Bells are a band with style. Blending hard rock with R&B, their songs are brash, loud, and catchy. Instead of the usual rock uniform or pop's current vogue of futuristic cyber-couture, they wear jacket-and-sunglass ensembles that both look cool and mesh with their musical focus on late-80s pop-metal. And not only are they on M.I.A.'s label, but they got a call from Beyonce's people about the reigning queen of pop possibly sampling one of their songs.

All that style, though, has made some people assume there's no substance to back it up. Of a Sleigh Bells show, William Bowers wrote in Pitchfork that "This preening and pose-striking strikes me as very Now, in that it acknowledges phone-camera culture and the Facebook generation's tendency to spend lots of energy creating occasion-less, advert-like images of themselves." Sleigh Bells attracts a lot of these sorts of backhanded compliments. Later in the piece, Bowers admits to being troubled that the band "flatter-pander the audience," and laments that they don't act more like '90s slack-rockers Pavement, who would "deny requests and even stop mid-noodle if we 'woo!'-ed too joyously."

They're trying to make us realize how cool we already are, slowing things down so we can appreciate the details.

The implication here is that though Sleigh Bells may be good at reflecting the present moment, they don't have much to say about it. In fairness, the band doesn't exactly try to disabuse us of that notion, admirably so. Sleigh Bells avoids the intentional difficulty we expect of indie-leaning bands, pulling us in instead of pushing us away. They wear fun clothes, they make cool videos, they want to get us excited. But it's worth considering that maybe that's the whole point.

The assumption most modern rock bands (indie or otherwise) seem to make is that their audience needs to be made aware of the darkness that exists within the world. Sleigh Bells' music assumes we all already know that the world is an awful place, and that their role is to give us something different, to help us feel better for a little while. Treats was stuffed full of inspirational chants, and in making gigantic sounds out of the cheap aloneness of a guitar, a laptop, and a voice, it sent the implicit message that small things can have power, too. But if that album was about playing offense, giving you a weapon to use against the world, their new album, Reign of Terror, is a playbook for when you're on defense. It builds a shield against the world out of hazy images of the past and the ability to manipulate the sound in your own head.

It's a needed change. Even if they loved the music, some listeners had a hard time connecting emotionally with Treats. This was, in some ways, an intentional strategy the band pursued. "In interviews, I never said anything personal," Miller said in a recent Spin cover story. "I didn't want to let anyone in who wasn't close to me. I don't like talking about my feelings."

As it turned out, there were a lot of feelings to talk about. Miller's father died in a motorcycle crash just as the band was forming, and as the band was getting big, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. Reign of Terror is, in some ways, his way of dealing with all that. "It sounds ridiculous, but I felt this record would save my life because it was my way of dealing with what happened," he told Spin. "Stuff like Def Leppard and Cyndi Lauper—that's what I listened to when I was a kid and everything with my family was perfect."

That influence is abundantly clear in the images surrounding Terror: Letterman jackets, Wayfarer sunglasses, studded black leather jackets, Eddie Van Halen guitars, skateboarding, suburban streets, sunshine. What's great about Sleigh Bells is that they neither wallow in nor lazily darken those nostalgic images. They turn them into something new. "For me, and I know for Derek, the '80s represent a kind of safe, innocent childhood time," Krauss said in the same article. "But things that you think are safe can turn scary on a dime. That's what Reign of Terror is really about."

You spot what she's talking about in the video for "Comeback Kid," the lead single from Terror. In slow motion, we see Krauss jumping on a very grandma-looking bed while smiling and holding a rifle; in slow motion, Miller and Krauss (in full concert getup) push a shopping cart down the snack aisle of a supermarket, and Miller coolly flips a bottle of mustard into the basket. If that first image is the initial impression you might get of Sleigh Bells—the current domesticity of guitar rock made simultaneously more cozy and more threatening—the second is how you come to understand them. Like the John Woo action movies the slow-mo effect is taken from, they're badass but welcoming, here not to destroy but to put everyday life into such a highly-stylized order that we all feel like superstars. They're not trying to be cooler than us and failing, as when James Franco's character in Pineapple Express tries to shoot Rosie Perez in slow-mo (while quoting NWA) and misses; they're trying to make us realize how cool we already are, slowing things down so we can appreciate the details, taking their existing culture and burnishing it to a bright shine.

Though the album is also about the particular cultural image of '80s metal, Krauss and Miller are trying to reclaim it without being ironically retro. On "You Lost Me," Krauss sings, "Teenage metalheads / in your denim vests / cause you're holding hands / to your favorite bands / all your favorite bands," a lovely little summation of the romantic view we now have of this once-threatening genre and of Miller's idea that this could save him. It's there in Miller's guitar, too, a perfect little encapsulation of the image of guitarists as awesome but accessible projected by Guitar Player magazine and its ilk. You Can Play Like Derek Miller, Rock God, and you really can. Just dial in preset 8D on your POD amp modeler and there's the sound of album opener "True Shred Guitar."

If the lyrical and emotional content on Terror is more accessible, the music is also increasingly relatable. It was hard to pick out any influences on Treats, which sounded like the product of someone who'd been in a coma for 40 years trying to recreate pop-punk solely on the basis of hyperbolic 1990s NME reviews and a laptop loaded with samples. That's especially true on "End of the Line." It begins with a chiming, open guitar arpeggio that wouldn't sound out of place on a Jesus and Mary Chain record—but then the drums come in, skittering, double-time, and the vocals match it, like a Britpop song being played at normal and fast-forward speeds simultaneously. You hear Timbaland all over the album, too, and his trick of taking R&B's slower tempos and filling in the last bar of a loop with double-time drums. Other tracks sound like Shamantis' "Justin Bieber 800% Slower" trick applied to hardcore. "Born to Lose" (above) is a slow-motion headbang, the driving tempos of frantic rock processed into slow-mo.

If you're looking for a meaning in Terror—and you should—you want to look not only to the lyris but the music. That manipulation of time is where the emotional content of the album truly comes through. The band's first album was very much about volume, making things so loud they overwhelmed not only the ability of audio equipment to process it, but your own senses as well. That wasn't the band's interest on Terror, though. "I'm done blowing things out," he told me back in July. "Not a single thing is in the red, and I couldn't be more excited about it." But that doesn't mean they were done manipulating sound. Miller also told me: "I usually blur the vocals so people spend less time thinking about the lyrics and more time responding on a purely emotional level."

The effect of combining those blurred vocals with the relentless repetition of drum sounds and the similar blurring of guitar lines is to warp our sense of time. It's something that people picked up visually in Sleigh Bells' music from the start. A memorable ad for the American version of the TV show Skins let "Kids," a track from Treats, play forward as we saw a party unfold in reverse chronology, the film running backwards, and often speeding up to increase the pace or slowing down to emphasize a puff of smoke or a kiss.

The guitar on this album is soaked in chorus, an anachronistic effect most commonly associated with '80s pop-metal. But Miller's not using it to be retro. What a chorus pedal does is take a single note and replicate it numerous times immediately after the note is played; the effect is supposed to be like when a chorus of vocalists sings a note together, making a single tone rich and full. The artificiality of the chorus pedal, though, merely smears it, extending a single sound across a longer stretch of time. The moment is extended past the point of origin; things that happened at one point happen at many points, their timestamp made meaningless. This is even more pronounced with the echo that's all over Terror, sometimes in Miller's guitar and sometimes on Krauss' voice, blending them together into one giant sound.

In that Spin piece, here's how Miller described his emotional state while making the album:

"Reign of Terror isn't a clever title," he says. "That's what I felt like I was going through the last two years. Back when we were doing press for Treats, I didn't feel it was anybody's business. But on tour you're sitting in a van with your headphones on and you can't escape from your own head."

You can't escape from your own head—that is the thing Reign of Terror takes for granted. Even though artistic expression is supposed to be a way of communicating with other people, even though the live rock show is a communal experience, you spend the vast majority of your time trapped inside your own perceptions. What the album proposes is a kind of audio-cognitive therapy: Instead of trying to change the outside world, try fighting directly with your brain, overwhelming it so those negative emotions can be replaced with something more positive.

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A still from the BBC documentary "Total Isolation"

When you're put into a sensory deprivation rig, you're left in a small, enclosed space, dark glasses are put on your eyes, and headphones are strapped to your ears to block out all outside sound. That's the image Derek described of his experience of the "reign of terror": in the back of a van, headphones on, and, presumably, still wearing his sunglasses. Sleigh Bells' music has always been about overwhelming your senses, making things so loud and so blurred that you don't know where one thing stops and another ends, how fast the day is passing. Slow things run at double-time, fast things run at half-time; the world runs backwards, slows down, speeds up. Like a casino without any clocks, lacking any cues about the passage of time, you begin to be disoriented and float in a timeless void. Sleigh Bells' first album warped your sense of space, making it seem like sound has a physical presence that could affect your body. Reign of Terror turns sound into a second hand, capable of running time at a different rate. And in so doing, it lets you reclaim that interior world for yourself.

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Mike Barthel is a writer living in Seattle. His work has appeared in The Village Voice's Sound of the City blog, the Awl, and Salon.

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