On its latest release, Bitter Rivals, Sleigh Bells reminds every teenage boy with a drum machine of what it really is to create a mashup. The noise pop duo—made up of vocalist Alexis Krauss and guitarist Derek E. Miller—has been creating mashups together since 2009. However, they aren’t mashing up sound bites, samples or amateur “beats.” Instead, they’re mashing up genres, pairing heavy metal screaming and noisy electronic instrumentals with sticky-sweet, pop-influenced melodies. Bitter Rivals is the most mature album in Sleigh Bell’s aesthetically cohesive oeuvre. It maintains the band’s focus on the confusion of America’s youth, rejecting authority and damaging eardrums the same way they began with Treats in 2010 and (less successfully) on Reign of Terror in 2012. On Bitter Rivals, the group has a more grown-up, refined sound with slicker production and even further emphasis on melody.
While the production and content has been tightened, listeners shouldn’t expect much of a fundamental shift. The band may be growing up, but it’s experiencing growing pains in hot leather pants while screaming into a microphone. Bitter Rivals carries all the explosions of sound seen in the rest of Sleigh Bells’ work in a more cleaned-up, tightened and slightly quieter way. On the album, the mashup that is “noise pop” has slid its emphasis away from the “noise” a bit, putting more focus on pop influences and melody than in previous albums.
The cacophony of sound, the screaming and the complete conviction are still very much present. However, quirky samples and more discernible lyrics have balanced these elements. Sleigh Bells’ sound still won’t fully commit to either noise or pop, but that’s exactly how it should be. The saccharine pop wouldn’t work if it weren’t for the cathartic emotional purging of shredding guitars and musical shouting. Sleigh Bells operates as a set of contrasts. This is best exemplified on the title track. It opens with a bright, sunny “HI!” which is overtaken by an arresting mix of electronics and snarky vocals, only to turn into a poppy, snappy dance beat accompanied by Krauss cooing into the microphone.
The group is clearly looking to its past as it moves into the future, refining its usual sound and methods. In many ways, it is a study of growing up. The track “To Hell With You” is an excellent example. The song is a reworking of “2HELLWU” from the band’s self-titled EP. They didn’t just spell-check the title, they also layered the song with pop, metal, electronic riffs and slick production. It’s a far cry from the pared-down version of four years ago and a much more effective manipulation of sound than on Treats.
They still have all the snark and bite of young America, but it’s been cleaned up for an adult world. While many artists seem to be screaming that they are adults, Sleigh Bells holds on to the naïve angst of youth but with a cleaner, slicker sound and the mature sense that youth doesn’t last. As Krauss screams on “You Don’t Get Me Twice”: “It’s a terrifying thing / The American dream.” Growing up is an imbalanced, confusing thing. Sleigh Bells’ sound reflects this. The band has been experimenting with that clash of the frightening and the cheerful since day one, but never has it been done so well as on Bitter Rivals.
4.5 out of 5 stars