“Terror” dishes out more junk than “Treats”

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Sleigh Bells' latest, "Reign of Terror," is cohesive, but lacks substance.

By Nick Desideri, Staff Writer

Excluding that one time she flipped off over 125 million Americans and upstaged Madonna at the Superbowl, or the time she spent nearly an entire concert actively spitting on concertgoers, Mathangi Arulpragasam (or M.I.A.) is actually a pretty smart business woman.

M.I.A. owns her own record label, N.E.E.T Recordings, from which she draws various artists to help her collaborate on her albums. It’s a smart tactic really.

She nabs up-and-comers, apes some of their sound and both parties profit. She maintains her indie cred, while bands gain at least some exposure.

At least it worked for Sleigh Bells. Working with M.I.A. on her third album, 2010’s MAYA, Brooklyn noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells released their debut, Treats.

The album cover was the first clue the band was masterful at using juxtaposition, with a gaggle of cheerleaders standing on top of each other, their bodies distorted beyond any humanity.

It’s a picture perfect representation of Sleigh Bells’ sound: cheerleader chants over face-melting guitar riffs, like if “Mickey” from the 1980s joined a grunge band.  Not only did the album garner an impressive 84 out of 100 on Metacritic, but advertisers from Honda to Microsoft featured songs from Treats on their commercials.

All of a sudden, Sleigh Bells was trapped in Indie Hell, or had caught what is otherwise known as “Vampire Weekend Syndrome.”

The band became far more popular than they anticipated (mostly, like Vampire Weekend, from having their songs constantly played on television), and felt immense pressure to deliver on their follow-up, Reign of Terror.

Anyone expecting the non-stop head-banging party music of Treats will be sorely disappointed by Terror. Gone are the joyous cheerleader chants, and instead, Sleigh Bells creates a far darker fare than Treats suggested they could.

While it’s a mostly solid listening experience, Terror feels more like a distorted reflection of the band’s debut than an actual artistic advancement.

The most surprising aspect of Terror is Sleigh Bells’ newfound restraint with production. For the first time, singer Alexis Krauss’ airy vocals sit front and center.

Not that I expected her to sound anything but gorgeous beneath all the noise, but even her detached vocals carry an attitude most songstresses would cut out their tongues for, Little Mermaid style.

Terror’s newfound emphasis on Krauss’ voice also lets songwriter Derek Miller really display his lyrics. Written after his father’s death and mother’s fight with cancer, Terror is incredibly depressing to listen to all the way through.

But this melancholy keeps the album feeling cohesive. “Heard you say suicide in your sleep/ Just get on with it you were born to lose,” she murmurs on second track and buzz single, “Born to Lose.”

After urging the listener to “Burn down the orphanage” on Demons, Krauss seems delirious with grief by the final track, the aptly titled “D.O.A,” asking repeatedly “Does anyone know/how this chorus should go?”

Even uptempo tracks like the standout “Never Say Die” surge with a sense of urgent gloom, like Krauss is trapped in a burning building but meandering towards the exit.

But the only tracks that truly stand out on Terror are the complete duds. “Crush” tries to recapture the party spunk of Treats but simply falls flat. “Road to Hell” shoots for 1980s power ballad, but misses with its repetitive and unimaginative chorus.

So why then does “Terror” sound so average? Other than “Comeback Kid,” and “Never Say Die,” nothing sounds particular gripping. Emotional? Yes. Catchy? Not nearly enough.

While Terror is cohesive, something is lacking. If Treats felt overstuffed with clatter, Terror has a certain hollowness that needs to be heard to understand fully.

Terror, though an interesting change of direction for the band, it’s not satisfying. The album feels cohesive, but lacks the spark of “Treats.” The albums sound more like awkward twins than two separate projects.