Those early Sleigh Bells demos like “Crown on the Ground” and “Infinity Guitars” weren’t just lo-fi because Miller couldn’t afford professional studio gear. They were sonic petit fours, ideological representations of some of the loudest music ever made. Even notoriously loud bands like My Bloody Valentine made recordings that balanced the rush of distorted guitars with softened, pristine vocals or synthesizers. Sleigh Bells’ early work was exciting because it raised the bar (or should I say lowered it?), suggesting pop music that was ‘too loud’ to be heard properly, yet more exciting for it.
On Reign of Terror, the band’s sophomore album, all of that is gone. This music is loud but manageable in the traditional studio sense. Miller now attempts to use his guitar—windmilled on power chords in homage to Def Leppard, et al—as a stand-in for the holistic distortion he used to employ. The result is an album that squanders its catchy R&B melodies and surprising pop poignance on a fool’s errand of overproduction. Everything from the mid-range drum machines to Krauss’ sing-song voice is coated in gloss. Terror hides behind its buffed-up sound because, well, it’s Sleigh Bells. Distortion is their thing. And if they’re not going to use actual distortion, they have to muddle their sound somehow, right? It would be a bold move if they wore it well, but the gutless kick drum rolls of “Comeback Kid” and the unending reverb of “Crush” sit as poor excuses for badassery that are still outdone by those grubby little loop exercises where they knowingly implied being louder and more forceful than anything our pathetic flesh-and-blood ears could handle. Miller recently told Spin that he’d grown sick of guitars when the band first started but has since fallen back in love with them. The sad fact he seems to miss is that, in the process of trying to abandon guitars, he crafted a sound that turned everything at his disposal—even Krauss herself—into one big, heavy electric guitar. To hear him regress to well-worn sonic ground is disappointing to say the least.
This take seems to me to be intensely, perceptively, overwhelmingly correct. (I really ratcheted up the anticipation there, huh?) The first time I listened to Reign of Terror, I was thrilled. The second time, less so. The third time — I turned it off. Now, I listen to it sometimes; probably five or eight times since it streamed/leaked earlier this week. But it’s no Treats, and it’s definitely no 2HELLWU. It doesn’t cause fatigue or anything like that. After not very long, the opposite actually occurs: it starts to sound like nothing. A whole lot of nothing.