In a market where trends, even whole genres, can come and go in a matter of months, Sleigh Bells’s novelty was almost too perfectly calibrated when they made their debut with 2010’s Treats. The blunt juxtaposition of Derek Miller’s absurdly loud, overdriven guitars and Alexis Krauss’s sugary, melodic voice was an oversaturation of paradoxes: hard and soft, heavy and light, rock and pop, “masculine” and “feminine.” It made for an interesting art statement—not to mention a killer album—but where could they possibly go from there?
And yet, to at least this critic’s surprise, the Brooklyn duo have continued to tweak their core ethos to greater and lesser degrees. On 2012’s Reign of Terror, the guitars got louder; on 2013’s Bitter Rivals, the pop got glossier. Last year’s Jessica Rabbit mixed things up even more, leaning more on electronic textures and swapping out some of the loud guitars with loud keyboards, and, a year later, their “mini-album” Kid Kruschev carries on in a similar direction.
With great nuance, the first minute-and-a-half of opening track “Blue Trash Mattress Fire” builds up with an icy synthesizer pattern and Krauss’s muted vocals before Miller lurches into an obligatory speaker-shredding riff. The moody “Rainmaker” barely has any guitars at all, pairing the classic “Ashley’s Roachclip” beat with overdriven synth horns straight out of TNGHT’s “R U Ready.” The group’s sound has grown more dynamic and expansive, but that isn’t always a good thing. One’s enjoyment of the album’s second half, from “Panic Drills” to the atmospheric closer “And Saints,” is likely to almost entirely depend on how many bad memories of Evanescence are dredged up by Krauss’s emotive wailing over Miller’s turgid techno-rock soundscapes.
Listening to Kid Kruschev throws into relief Sleigh Bells’s thorniest paradoxes: Seven years after their debut, they remain both confined and defined by their early novelty as the twee pop group with the loud guitars. Back in 2010, one could have uncharitably called them a hard-rock band for those who don’t want to admit they like hard rock. Now, they’ve unquestionably moved beyond that label but have lost some of their identity in the process.