All photos: Katherine Gaines. All words: Philip Runco
Sleigh Bells would like you know that it is, first and foremost, a live band.
Peep the cover of its latest LP, Reign of Terror, where the image of Alexis Krauss’ bloodstained Keds implicitly reminds us of the act’s past performances and their reputation for physicality. Sleigh Bells rocks out, physical safety be damned.
Better yet, play the record, and the first thing you’ll hear is the sound of an audience’s roar. It’s greeted by Krauss, who goads her crowd’s members, telling them she wants to “see [their] fucking hands in the air” (among other fairly generic incitations.)
The track – “True Shred Guitar” – bleeds into a studio recording before returning to the clamor of the audience. At less than two minutes, it’s less a song than a pep rally, a not so subtle suggestion that what follows on the album is designed to be played live to adoring, shit-losing masses.
But try as they might to convince you otherwise, Sleigh Bells is not a particularly convincing live band, at least in the classical sense. It’s not a band that can take to any stage and level an audience. It’s a band that thrives only in a carefully prescribed environment of its own creation.
For proof, one need look no further than the band’s recent Saturday Night Live performance. Granted, SNL history is riddled with good bands falling prey to bad mixing, but this wasn’t a matter of soundboards. This was about a band whose live show is dependent on the right lighting (ie, strobing) and right volume (ie, loud as hell), that was suddenly being held under a monochromatic and unforgiving spotlight. Without (literal) smoke and (figurative) mirrors, Kraus and partner in crime Derek E. Miller looked a little silly – or worse, boring – prancing around while so many canned elements (wholly programmed beats, vocal tracks) did heavy lifting. Then there was Krauss’ voice, which on Reign of Terror is often employed less in the service of icy smack-talking and more for actual emoting, or at least singing; live, it strained to pull off affecting pop coo.
Sleigh Bells looked thoroughly like a fish out of water, and it was a little awkward for everyone involved.
But Sleigh Bells was firmly back in its comfort zone on Tuesday night, when it returned to the 9:30 Club for a brief and occasionally exhilarating set. The band’s musical acumen may not hold up under the closest of inspections, but in a sweaty club, when the duo is trotting out its full of bag of tricks and overloading most all of your senses, it will win you over by sheer force. Treats highlights (“Infinity Guitars”, “A/B Machines”) are still earthshaking bangers, and their spiritual descendants from Reign of Terror (“Demons”, in particular) fit in right beside them.
Unlike its predecessor, however, Reign of Terror is not a record that makes its name on sheer force alone. The album veers off into softer territory, into the land of power ballads, and the band used those songs – “End of the Line”, “Leader of the Pack” – to break up its sonic assault. Even songs with hair metal riffs, like singles “Comeback Kid” and “Born to Lose”, are buoyed by more playfully sing-songy hooks and atmospheric guitar lines. In case the contrast would be lost on its audience, the band made it readily apparent visually: these new songs found the band bathed in steady red and blue lights, while the more aggro older material was presented with the trusty seizure-tempting barrage of strobe lights.
The band is now assisted by a second guitarist, Jason Boyner, presumably to pull off Reign of Terror’s more nuanced material, though its hard to tell who up there is doing what. (It doesn’t help that Miller and Boyer have such similar builds and coordinated style, making distinguishing the two especially difficult.)
Krauss remains the focal point of Sleigh Bells though, and despite her vocal limitations, she is undoubtedly a crowd pleaser. Stripping down to studded jeans shorts and a slim pink top, she skipped and danced around the stage relentlessly. She’s a veritable Judge Dredd, dual hype man and executioner. She peppers the audience with cliches – the occasional “c’mon!”, an “alright, [insert geographical location], I want to hear you scream!” here, a “make some noise!” there – and it eats it up.
During the encore’s performance of “Rill Rill”, she launched herself into the crowd mid-song and proceeded to sing its entire second half on her back and being passed around the club. Say what you will about her pandering, but that has to be one of the more impressive displays of showmanship I’ve seen of late.
Speaking of showmanship, it’s also worth noting that while Krauss was crowd surfing through the 9:30 Club, her bandmates were nowhere to be found. Miller (and Boyer) waited until the encore’s second song, “Demons”, to reappear, leaving the composition of “Rill Rill” – including that Funkadelic guitar lick – entirely to backing track. Now, the line between live performance and programmed kabuki is admittedly blurred with Sleigh Bells – it requires a certain suspension of disbelief when it comes to sussing out what exactly is or is not piped in – but I do wonder how long the act can skate by on karaoke, particularly when the it prides itself on live performances. There were other moments where pre-recorded elements integrated slightly jarringly (how can you not sing the “ah-AH-ah” of “Infinity Guitars” - it’s probably Treats‘ most memorable vocal hook!), and at this stage, performing at this level and with this frequency, it’s time to step it up.
That being said, if we can put aside larger questions of what are reasonable expectations to have of Sleigh Bells, the quality of samples was admittedly sharp: every finger snap was crisp, every floor stomp perfectly calibrated. Sleigh Bells has never sounded this good. But can it sound better?
The set was over in a swift 45 minutes. Sleigh Bells was sure not to outlast its welcome, though I wouldn’t have minded a performance of Reign of Terror thumper “Crush”. If the audience was feeling cheated, however, Krauss would help fix that. Five minutes after the house lights came on, she came out skipping to Cyndi Lauper and would proceed to sign autographs and talk with sweat-drenched fans for over thirty minutes in front of the stage.
Black metal enthusiasts and controversial hipsters Liturgy opened the night.
And, now, more Sleigh Bells…