When Sleigh Bells announced the release of this third record – pretty much out of the blue – I noticed the news being met with quite a bit of cynicism and dismissal on social networks. I’m not sure quite what it is about this band that seems to get people’s backs up; the garish nature of their music videos perhaps – see this album’s title track, as well as ‘Comeback Kid‘ – or maybe the dubious nature of their ‘live’ shows, which have so far involved a couple of guitars and effect-laden vocals, with everything else a backing track. Regardless, there’s certainly no faulting their work ethic; Bitter Rivals is their third full-length in as many years.
For the uninitiated – and there can’t be many – Sleigh Bells take the concept of blending pop and rock to a cartoonish extreme, with Alexis Krauss’ saccharine, bubblegum vocals incongruously accompanied by Derek Miller’s brutally loud guitar work and a veritable army of drum machines. There was a touch of lo-fi about their debut, Treats, most of which sounded like it was being played through a blown-out speaker, but on last year’s Reign of Terror, they managed to pull off a cleaner sound without sacrificing much sonic punch. Bitter Rivals’ opening title track suggests further exploration of that avenue, with acoustic guitar and finger clicks – both of which would have been redundant amidst Treats‘ maelstrom of noise – providing the intro.
The other major progression on the last record was the shifting of Krauss’ vocals; previously just another sonic component, they were moved firmly to the foreground on Reign of Terror, and it’s an approach retained here. The difference is, she’s become far more stylistically flexible; previously, she’d flit between the sugary and the shouty with little regard for a middle ground, but she adapts well when there’s flirtation with different genres on Bitter Rivals. ‘Young Legends’ sounds like Sleigh Bells remixing Aaliyah, and there’s a sassiness to Krauss’ delivery that suits the track’s R&B-tinged tone, whilst she provides a fine foil for The Go! Team-esque double Dutch chants on ‘You Don’t Get Me Twice’.
As much as Sleigh Bells will likely never produce a record that could reasonably be classified as mellow, Bitter Rivals is probably as far as they’ve strayed yet from their traditional heaviness. ‘Sing Like a Wire’ marries striking keyboards with crushing beats, and there’s a nod to Treats‘ busted-speaker sound on ‘Minnie’, but otherwise there’s plenty of compromise on the old appetite for maximum volume at all times. The guitars are merely chirpy on ’24′, and on the misleadingly-titled ‘To Hell with You’, they’re almost reserved.
As thrilling as Treats was, I’m not sure anybody could have honestly said they saw the sheer absurdity of its concept as a sustainable model where career longevity was concerned, so credit to Sleigh Bells for continuing to explore ways to diversify their sound. On Reign of Terror, they plucked influences from a sub-division of rock largely concerned with posturing and egotism, and infused them with a real humanity and earnestness. Bitter Rivals‘ more diffuse nature seems to have prevented them from impressing their personality on their music in quite the same manner; it’s difficult to rate it as highly as a result, but this remains a solid effort from a band I didn’t expect to still be showing quite so much potential on their third full-length.