The Complicatist : Sleigh Bells

Even buzz bands make only tiny little buzzes

by Gordon Campbell

It can be disturbing to realise how small the music audience really is. We’re all cultural islands really, waving our shirts to each other across oceans of emptiness. Even for the few who make the ‘best of the year’ lists and seem to be part of the cultural language – hasn’t everyone heard of Animal Collective, Tuneyards, LCD Soundsystem, Skrillex etc etc – the numbers of people who are actually buying that music seems to be very, very small. Last year, that reality was a big part of the amusing “Who The Hell is Arcade Fire” meme after they beat Lady Gaga and Eminem for “Best Album” at the Grammys last year. It may have been five years since Arcade Fire peaked in significance for anyone who liked (or disliked) them with a passion. Yet obviously, most of middle America have still never heard of them and that’s despite the best efforts of the economist Paul Krugman to spread the word .

Tuneyards is a more recent example. A great show at the Kings Arms in January, and a signifier of hipness to boot – at the Laneways Festival, she was used extensively as ambient music in changeovers between sets. (Werewolf ran its first Tuneyards article back in 2009.) Her Whokill album topped many “Best of 2011” surveys, including the Village Voice meta-list of critics’ lists.

Yet as Village Voice also observes….according to Nielsen Soundscan surveys, Whokill sold only 47,000 copies across the entire 300 million plus population of the United States ! Similarly, Shabazz Palaces’ Blackup album, widely regarded as the best hip hop album of 2011, sold only a paltry 17,000 copies. Its not as if it can all be put down to an upsurge in people making illegal downloads, either. It’s always been this way. Going back a few years, LCD Soundsystem’s all conquering Sound of Silver album sold only 178,000 . And you all remember Animal Collective’s enormously Merriweather Post Pavilion album, right? Well, all up, it has still sold only 190,000 copies.

Which raises the issue – how can we continue to call it popular culture if in fact, it isn’t really very popular? Given how relatively tiny the audience for alternative music seems to be, we should probably think twice before surrendering to the backlash impulse, which assumes that because some band has apparently become so pervasively popular, they need to be taken down a peg. (Can you really be a sell-out if the market doesn’t know you exist?) Its one thing to make waves in the indie bathtub, but popular taste chooses to be awash with the music of Adele instead. At last count, Adele’s 21 album had sold 18 million copies worldwide, including 730,000 copies alone during the week after she appeared on the Grammys. Which means that in just one week (and a year or so after it was first released !) Adele’s album sold nearly four times what the most popular Animal Collective album has done over its entire lifetime.

This is all by way of a prelude to the second album by current buzz band Sleigh Bells. By the usual standards of alt/indie music, their debut album Treats has been an out-and-out smash. Some 149,000 copies have been sold in various formats, according to Neilsen Soundscan. Over the past few weeks, every major mainstream news outlet in Christendom has done a think piece on the duo of guitarist Derek Miller and vocalist Alexis Kraus…So, at this rate, the backlash must be only minutes away.

Reign of Terror is actually pretty good – if you take ‘good’ as meaning a micro-extension of the soft bomb that was Treats. It has the same combination of Miller’s 1980s guitar band assault (think Def Leppard, or Eddie Van Halen) providing a bustling sense of sonic busyness, while married to the angelic, breathy vocals from Krauss that are miked so far upfront that the overall impact is no heavier, and no less fun, than Cyndi Lauper. Tellingly, Miller has cited 1980s producer Mutt Lange (Def Leppard, AC/DC, Billy Ocean) as his major inspiration in the studio. When Treats first came out, I described them in this mid-2010 Werewolf column in these terms .

Everything (except the vocals) is projected here in messy, exhilarating overload…. As a result, Sleigh Bells are not low fi as we’ve known it from grunge or post-grunge outfits like Times New Viking a few years ago. This is loud fi, to the point where every sound is breaking up under the strain, except for the female vocal that wafts on through the storm.

Sleigh Bells are a Brooklyn NY duo, comprised of Derek Millar on guitar and bass, and vocalist Alexis Kraus. Together, they manage to straddle several genres at once – poppy bright melodies, huge punk/metal riffs that sound like Varese’s fire sirens and spacious rhythms that owe more to hip hop than to the usual indie antecedents. The songs are like wraiths of airy white noise, heavily compressed but also supple and springy…This is big, bright ear candy for all the family.

The springiness is the key. As faux metal, Sleigh Bells are like those movie CGI dinosaurs that offer an illusion of bulk and heaviosity, while bouncing across the ground without any genuine stomp and crunch. If anything, that light as air springiness (and related debt to hip hop) is even more evident this time around. That’s no surprise, given the real world connectivities. (Diplo remixed ‘Tell ‘ Em’ from the first album, M.I.A. signed them up to her record label, and the influence of Timbaland, as Mike Barthel pointed out in the Atlantic, is audible throughout, especially in the way that some of the songs utilise the slower r& b tempos but then throw you off kilter with last-bar-of-the-loop double time beats.) There are more obvious changes on this second album, For one thing, Miller has all but dispensed with the ‘push into the red’ distortion evident on much of Treats, especially on beloved early tracks like “Crown On The Ground.”

Significantly though, the closest thing to a hit single from Treats was the quite lovely “Rill Rill” – a vein that “ End of the Line” mines again this time around. The floaty, staccato vocals by Krauss still make more sense as sound, than as lyric content. The shadow of personal tragedy may lurk over the Reign of Terror project – Miller’s father died in a motorcycle crash, and his mother was diagnosed with cancer while the album was being readied – but even a track called “Leader of the Pack” doesn’t wear its heart on its lyric sleeve too openly. “ Don’t you know /he’s never coming back” is about as dark as it gets. .

It isn’t merely the massive compression that prevents the sound from packing its full weight. Again, as Mike Barthel says, Miller is keen on playfully stretching the sense of time in several of these songs.

“End of the Line.” 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… 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.

More than once, Miller’s uses the chorus pedal on his guitar to multiply and spray the noise in a way that reminded me the camera array in the first Matrix movie, where the elongation of time played similar tricks with the visual data. Maybe for that reason, someone has already used Sleigh Bells as the ideal soundtrack for sensory disjunction, as in this backwards party sequence from Skins that Barthel also links to :

Music aside though, Sleigh Bells are at that point in the buzz cycle where they will be judged as much for their currently high cultural profile. William Bowers struggles with this cultural footprint / hype sandstorm issue throughout his Pitchfork report on the recent Sleigh Bells, Diplo and Liturgy tour through Florida :

Derek E. Miller and Alexis Krauss….seemed content with vogueing every few seconds. 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. (I see rookie corporate bands floating the same tactic on late-night shows, way over gesticulating, as if playing a bar chord is always orgasmic, or hitting a Korg key is epically tantric, except without a fan base to validate them, the spectacle is just awkward/painful.)

Keepin’ it superficial and quasi-sexist: Krauss consistently adorned herself in an It-frontwoman hodgepodge that contributed to her vague “identity.” As dandy as her shoegaze counterpoint to Miller’s aggro-festive blare can sound, one could still project upon her a sort of Frankenmuse persona consisting of equal parts Peaches, Pink, Pat Benatar, Alice Glass, and Karen O….. I’m told that when I first heard Sleigh Bells at an afterdrinker in 2009, I inelegantly and charmlessly appraised them as a “retarded Deerhoof,” but I’ve since come to appreciate the carefulness of their schtick, everything insanely overdriven but then compressed enough to still be palatable and distinct. Sleigh Bells’ music is even oddly pretty, just as the miraculous functionality of an anxiety-inducing traffic pattern can be pretty. I imagine that messing with any of the widgets on their console during a mixdown would result in a track that could be used to torture enemy combatants, if not to trigger Scanners-calibre cranial kablooey. In concert, they do a masterful job of conjuring a tear-the-roof-off aura without letting on how controlled the whole shebang is. They’re tightrope walkers masquerading as stampeding strongmen.

Which is to say, they’re a bit like all of us, come party time. Await the backlash on Sleigh Bells. Who-ever they are.