Wasn't it enough that the duo known as Sleigh Bells were already attempting a tricky mixture of sugary pop, indie rock, and dreamy electronic textures on their celebrated debut album? On the followup, “Reign of Terror,” they throw caution and lightness to the wind and toss in considerable dollops of death-metal. Emphasis on the “death.”
You might not have guessed it from their reasonably jolly “Saturday Night Live” appearance last weekend, but these indie favorites’ new effort is heavily steeped in concerns of mortality. How morbid is it? Enough so that they even make a sort of wisecrack about the underlying melancholy streak in the song “Never Say Die”: “When I say dark, I don’t mean the shade,” frontwoman Alexis Krauss sings, sweetly, presumably speaking for band auteur Derek Miller.
The metal riffs are thicker and louder than anything on the duo's 2010 debut. And new song titles run along the lines of “End of the Line,” “Demons,” “Road to Hell,” and, perhaps inevitably, “DOA.”
Death knells ring… are ya listening?
There's an explanation for this: Hovering over the spirit of the album is the fact that Miller’s father died in a motorcycle crash in 2009. He even has the temerity to name one song “Leader of the Pack." (With Krauss repeating the line “Don’t you know he’s never coming back again,” presumably in relation to her partner's father, no one will ever mistake for the girl-group oldie of the same name.)
On paper, this all sounds… deathly. But on record, Miller’s musings have plenty of life, even if “Reign of Terror” never exactly rises to the level of levity. As a songwriter, he’s constantly introducing slight elements of musical or lyrical cheekiness – and, once or twice, even some hope – that make the album much more of a kick than a slog.
Miller isn’t introducing the slamming guitars just to make the arrangements more gloom-laden… though that’s sometimes the effect. It turns out he has a real fondness for the Def Leppard of his youth, as well as those more obscure and truly doomy Norwegian black metal. So between that and the Roxette nods, he’s revisiting some of the comforts of his '80s youth.
“You Lost Me” imagines “teenage metalheads” of decades past plotting their own demise “behind the Circle K,” resulting in the refrain, “What a way to die in 1985.” Not too many rockers write nostalgically about fetishizing death as a kid. It’s a funny, almost sweet conceit.
A couple of times, these two trudge too far down the monotonous path to near-pure hard rock. But mostly the balance is just right. Typically, the soft-voice Krauss is cooing in the foreground and yelling in the background, with Miller starts off with the electronic melodies that captivated fans the first time around, then brings the hair-metal riffs and lead guitar lines in for a dynamic boost.
If it all sounds too dark, proceed directly to “Comeback Kid,” which provides a terrific mid-album pep talk as Krauss tells a depressed Miller (or, Miller tells himself) that “you gotta try a little harder, you’re the comeback kid” — over a frantic but delicious track that sounds like the perfect marriage of the Sundays and Metallica.
After that respite, it’s back to mega-death and grappling with “Demons." But try as they might to delve into the deepest and darkest indie-grieving, the lift never entirely goes away.