After “Reign of Terror,” the second album from noise-pop Brooklynites Sleigh Bells, it was easy to assume that the duo’s trajectory was one of producing the next level of bombast with each record. The follow-up to their excellent yet very brazen “Treats” essentially saw producer/guitarist Derek Miller turning it up a notch and singer Alexis Krauss skipping from whispers to shrills, without much in between. Sleigh Bells was distinguished exclusively with kick-drum and shred guitar; it was the sound of rage, whether or not it was actually negative music. Thankfully, “Bitter Rivals,” arriving less than two years after its predecessor, shook things up a bit.
Miller’s neatly patterned, percussive explosions are just as ubiquitous on “Bitter Rivals” as they are in the rest of band’s repertoire, but he is considerably subdued here. Such is the case in the acoustic arpeggios in the lingering quietude of “Love Sick” as well as in the pointed, picked riffs of “24.” As a result, the songs are fully developed and distinct, no longer defined solely by the screeching texture. Miller plays with different colors with his guitar this time around, bolstering a sound that is perhaps more complex but is neater and arguably poppier.
This is not all Miller’s doing. Normally overseeing 100 percent of each Sleigh Bells release, from melody to production to riffs for “Bitter Rivals,” Miller gave Krauss the lyrics sheet and nothing else, giving her melodic liberty. It shows, and it undeniably contributes to, the melodious sound of the record.
“To Hell With You” and “Love Sick” are pure power ballad and are representative of Krauss’ strength as a vocalist. She is full-blown with expression, showcasing her skill and range on both of the songs. After she chimes one of the last lines of “Love Sick’s” (“There’s a hole in my chest where my heart used to be”) she takes a moment to hum before closing out — a subtlety that asserts a lot of emotion.
Then there’s “You Don’t Get Me Twice” and “Young Legends,” both of which seem to be representative of the band’s newly found versatility. The former sees the band members dipping into the red while being able to pull back; Miller creates a new mixture of his epitomized, jangled distortion with driving acoustic, to support a Krauss who proves she can spread her voice thin and layer it with counterpoint. Miller takes on almost a wholeheartedly production roll in “Young Legends’” chorus, abandoning electric guitar — at least in its distorted sense — completely. Herein, he becomes the band behind Krauss as opposed to blending her voice into a grating, metaphysically massive sound.
The album still has its grandiloquent songs, such as the title track, “Sing Like a Wire” and even elements of “Tiger Kit.” In the case of some of these songs, Miller uses an acoustic timbre to introduce them, which only seems to tease a completely refashioned band. True to form, the music blisters and bursts into an iconic Sleigh Bells frenzy within moments.
As opposed to ripping off themselves and creating another near nu-metal record, in the shifts of “Bitter Rivals,” Sleigh Bells has established the qualities that are important to their disposition as a band. The result is not as heavy but is undoubtedly still fierce. They now seem seasoned and finely attuned to who they are as a band and the sound they wish to create. And that is probably the most exciting part of “Bitter Rivals.”