Review: Sleigh Bells bring 'Treats,' 'Reign of Terror' to Mayan
Sleigh Bells hammers through songs from its two albums at Mayan Theater. The energy is contagious; the message is muddled.
At the Mayan Theater alcohol isn’t allowed on the floor in front of the stage. You want a grown-up drink, you stick to the bar on the mezzanine. This was the case, anyway, on Tuesday night, when New York’s Sleigh Bells arrived at the downtown venue for a sold-out concert mere hours after releasing its new album, “Reign of Terror.” That title happens to reflect the way lots of rock acts might view the Mayan’s strict booze policy.
But Sleigh Bells had no reason to worry: Within seconds of the group’s opening number, the floor had become a writhing mass of outstretched limbs, fists pumping in time to a beat that felt loud enough to crumble plaster. The band was eliminating the need for liquid encouragement by flooding its audience with something more elemental: pure adrenaline.
Sleigh Bells’ animating idea amounts to a reimagining — a reclamation, perhaps — of rap-rock, with Derek Miller’s economy-sized guitar riffs laid over stark drum-machine beats; Alexis Krauss adds pop polish with her breathy, chant-like vocals.
On “Treats,” the band’s 2010 debut, the sound appeared fully formed, as though Miller and Krauss had somehow accessed the spirit of Run-DMC without bogging down in the memory of Alien Ant Farm. The record earned ecstatic reviews and led to high-profile placements in a Honda commercial and on “Gossip Girl”; Sleigh Bells played Coachella and toured Europe with M.I.A., who later hired Miller to produce a track on her album “Maya.”
Not surprisingly, “Reign of Terror” is more expansive than its predecessor: There are several cuts in the power-ballad tradition once embodied by Def Leppard (an avowed Sleigh Bells influence), and Miller has spoken of writing songs about the death of his father and his mother’s battle with cancer. The new music still bludgeons, but does so with newfound finesse.
Sleigh Bells didn’t bother much with that finesse Tuesday, hammering through tunes from both of its albums before a wall built from a dozen Marshall amplifiers. A third member, Jason Boyer, joined Miller and Krauss on additional guitar, beefing up power chords already fattened by digital effects; drums came from a machine somewhere out of sight. In the band’s best songs — “Tell ’Em,” “Comeback Kid,” the perfectly titled “Infinity Guitars” — it projected so much energy that it made you wonder if more groups might not benefit from renouncing detail.
Yet “Reign of Terror” seems to argue that Sleigh Bells is deeper than a simple party band, and that saddled the outfit (unfairly or not) with the expectation of some kind of coherent message. At the Mayan it offered the raw materials of one, performing in front of powerful backlighting that served to obscure the musicians’ faces; in a similar way, Krauss’ onstage banter consisted almost entirely of rock-star boilerplate: “I can’t hear you!” “Are you with me?” “That’s what I like to see!” Coupled with Miller’s denim jacket and a striped backdrop suggestive of the American flag, these gestures felt like the beginning of a critique — of the United States, of rock music, of (heaven forbid) the loss of self in the age of social media — that never fully took shape .
And on the rare occasion when Sleigh Bells did soften its attack, as in the new album’s very pretty “End of the Line,” it sounded diminished, like just another indie band with another well of remorse. It had established a sturdy chemical-delivery system and was using it to dispense weak sauce.
Photo: Alexis Krauss of the band Sleigh Bells at the Mayan Theatre. Credit: Lawrence K. Ho/Los Angeles Times