It took roughly three albums to get there, but Sleigh Bells’ bombastic piss-n’-vinegar metal-pop has finally devolved into gimmickry. The band’s debut, Treats, remains a master class on how to produce music that’s a lot more dangerous sounding than it really is (not to mention a hell of a lot of fun to listen to), but the wheels started to come off on last year’s Reign of Terror, a highly polished but merely passable recycle job of Treats’s stronger points. Bitter Rivals works along those same lines, further refining the duo’s rhapsodic cheerleader-meets-headbanger shtick, but adding little to the overall dynamic. Bitter Rivals is, in a word, predictable, and predictability is absolutely backbreaking to a band like Sleigh Bells, whose whiplash anthems once landed like bunker busters, as Matthew Cole put it in his review of Reign of Terror.
Of course, as calculated as their music has become, bandmates Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller still revel in the white-knuckled joyride of stupidly fun hair metal. But there’s only so much they can do with canned orchestral hits, treble-heavy percussion, and barking-dog samples before they start sounding like a Weird Al parody of Twisted Sister. Certainly, much of Bitter Rivals is self-aware, a kind of winking farce playing up the band’s fictional personae as leather-clad, shit-stirring hellions terrorizing suburban Florida. But after three albums, any punchline derived from that imagery has long been exhausted, and with entries like “Love Sick” and “Minnie” tacking so heavily to the band’s unchanged formula, Bitter Rivals plays out, at best, as a mere amendment to Sleigh Bells’ first two albums, and at worst, an unfunny caricature, as if some tacky cover band recorded its own sloppy interpretation of Treats.
Interestingly enough, Bitter Rivals’s two bright spots arrive when Krauss and Miller smooth out the harsher edges, turn down the volume, and adopt a more pop-centric approach. “To Hell with You” takes the black humor of “Rill Rill” and injects it into a bouncy, piano-dotted beatline that could easily find a home on a Sky Ferreira record, while “24” might be the best song Sleigh Bells have penned to date, layering harmonic-drenched guitar riffs and crunchy arpeggios with the band’s usual twitchy percussion. The latter is one of the few moments on Bitter Rivals where the group repurposes the Treats blueprint into something fresh, lacing the punchy sounds with just enough bubblegum to result in a perfect balance of sweet and caustic. The rest of the album doesn’t fare so well, and like the proverbial Potemkin village, its bravado is illusory, its songs precarious, one-dimensional façades that sag under anything more than a passing listen.