Reign of Terror introduces itself to us with the dull roar of a canned audience. “There we go,” Alexis Krauss snarls in approval, “There we fucking go.” Her partner in crime, Derek Miller, can be heard in the background grinding out a scorching solo while Krauss leads the imaginary concert-goers in a clap-along. Things get serious about a minute in, when the drums and guitar fall into sync for an amp’d-up Sabbath riff while Krauss intones “Push it/ Push it/ Push it/ True shred guitar.” It’s an innocuous enough opening gambit, and in a certain light, even a charming one, but I honestly feel like everything that’s wrong with Sleigh Bells’ sophomore set can be first glimpsed right here.
Sleigh Bells have never been shy about their trash rock infatuation. “Infinity Guitars” was not merely an oath of allegiance to deaf chords and devil horns; it was a thesis statement to one of the loudest pop records in history. Krauss and Miller took big, dumb metal riffs, stacked and amplified them into a sound vast beyond imagination, and then crammed it all into punk-sized bursts of ear-shredding electro-pop. No surprise, then, that roughly a quarter of the tracks on Reign allude to or just plain swipe from other rock songs; see: “Born to Lose,” “Leader of the Pack,” “Never Say Die,” “Road to Hell,” “D.O.A.”
The nakedness of their adulation is more evident in the songs themselves, too. Miller’s searing riffs are front and center in a way they never were before. But instead of ratchetting up the intensity of the tracks, his showboating actually saps away much of what made Treats so invigorating. Even the album’s heaviest offering, “Demons,” with its repetitive guitar loops and occasional dual kick-drum rave-ups, feels a little threadbare when compared to the shrieking alarums and shuddering bass tremors of a song like “Tell ‘Em.” The cleaner approach to production holds a share of the blame for Sleigh Bells’ public castration. The duo pumps out plenty of volume, but the whole thing is less assaultive. We no longer feel the audio levels battering themselves up against the limits of the recordings the way they did so magnificently on tracks like “Straight A’s” and “Crown on the Ground.”
Taking these shortcomings into account, Krauss and Miller still manage some solid moments. The dual kick-drums eruptions that occur throughout “Born to Lose” create an enjoyable counterpoint to the song’s mid-tempo groove. “Leader of the Pack” comes closest to recovering the shambolic majesty of their best work. Miller creates a delightful contrast between a jackhammer guitar riff and delicate synth melody, while Krauss’s multi-tracked vocals lilt above the din. As on Treats, however, the ballads are pretty worthless. Songs like “End of the Line” and “You Lost Me” suggest that when Sleigh Bells let up on the volume, there’s not much there to hold our attention.
The movement from Treats to Reign is subtle on the scale of artistic progression — we’re not talking about the gulf between Psychocandy and Darklands here. But the problem is that all of the moves feel like they’re pointed in the wrong direction: the wide-eyed heavy metal idol worship that was so endearing in measured doses just feels cloying now, while the first record’s howling, scrotum-clenching noizzze has receded into a series of shiny guitar licks, resulting in none of the irresistible grooves that made Treats the party album of 2010. The differences are all in the details, but as any acolyte of metal should know, the details are exactly where the devil lies.