It’s worth noting that Derek Miller, the multi-instrumentalist who is one-half of Sleigh Bells, cut his chops in the seminal Florida hardcore act Poison the Well. Worth noting for those already attuned to the considerable hype surrounding Treats, because that band’s 2003 release, You Before You, is one of the heaviest and downright strangest records ever to come out on a major label, and it would right a sad oversight if Miller’s recent critical currency found it a new audience. But his hardcore roots should be plastered across the cover of Treats for the sake of all newcomers too, who might believe critics when they bill Sleigh Bells as an electro-pop/dance act. Not that those labels are wrong, but buyer beware: Passion Pit this is not.
When it comes to high-decibel dance-rock carnage, no one does it quite like Sleigh Bells. The international underground scene surrounding acts like Crystal Castles and Fuck Buttons has encouraged electronic musicians to seek inspiration in rock music’s more ear-splitting environs, but even so, electro-pop has never sounded this furiously kinetic. The searing finale to “Infinity Guitars,” the ruthless atonal chug of “Crown on the Ground,” and at least a half dozen other moments on Treats could chew straight through Justice’s amp-frying arena rave.
The whole affair is over and done within one visceral half-hour, which means Miller and his conspirator, vocalist Alexis Krauss, don’t have a minute to waste. So they don’t even squander a second. “Tell ‘Em,” is the best album opener I’ve heard all year, with Miller’s heavy metal guitar riffs soaring right over the stop-stuttered bazooka beats and syncopated snaps, while Krauss slant-rhymes “Drink champagne” with “Do your best today,” centered, aloof, and poised amid Miller’s blustering sonic hurricane. As a call to the dance floor, mosh pit, or wherever it is that folks from your scene get down, it’s undeniable. Closing track “Treats” cribs as much from Sabbath as the opener does from Maiden, but there’s a lot more to Miller’s box of tricks than hard rock idolatry. For one thing, he’s as capable behind his laptop as he is with a six-string, as demonstrated by the rumbling electro-clash synths on “Rachel” or the rubbery dub-step beats that push “Run the Heart” along.
Miller might be the group’s genius soundsmith, but Krauss is at least his equal as an entertainer. Her vocals range as freely in their influences as Miller’s riffs and beats, borrowing cadences and sing-songy melodies from the likes of ‘80s hip-hop, jump-rope rhymes, and vintage girl-group pop. On “Rill, Rill,” she doesn’t rap, but the airy confidence with which she sings over a sample from Funkadelic’s “Can You Get to That” hearkens back to the old-school rap game, when MCs would rhyme over classic soul and funk samples, emphasizing stylish entertainment over chest-thumping athleticism. Her charming lyrics about schoolgirl anxieties over boyfriends and braces, not to mention her appealing flow on “Kids,” suggest a spiritual sisterhood with the Go! Team’s similarly likeable frontwoman, Ninja.
Still, talking about the album this way, with the individual ideas and performances dissected for close scrutiny, does the album a disservice. Ninety percent of what makes Treats the exhilarating, inexhaustibly repeatable listen that is comes from the dynamic interplay between the component parts. In that respect, Treats recalls one of last year’s much-lauded debuts: the xx’s xx. Like those British upstarts, Miller and Krauss have a knack for making the smallest variations on their sound come across as revelations, a gift for subtle dynamism which gives its most gratifying payout when, already seven thrilling cuts deep, you realize that Sleigh Bells has saved their five best songs for last. “Straight A’s” sounds like the Yeah Yeahs Yeahs covering Lightning Bolt, but “A/B Machines” sounds like absolutely nothing else: It’s a seamless, three-minute mashup of three decades’ worth of underground music from no wave to grime, but it doesn’t sound like someone’s idea of an art project. It just rocks, making serrated guitar leads and groovy synths sound like the most natural of combinations.
Which is maybe the coolest thing about Treats: Even though it’s as ambitious an exercise in freeform genre-splicing and pure, amp-blowing volume as has been attempted in the past few years, it’s always at least as fun as it is smart, taking the three great pillars of guilty-pleasure music (deafening arena-rock swagger, sugary pop hooks, and delirious dance beats) and rolling them together into a singularly appealing cacophony. Which means it’s no surprise that Treats is a giddy delight on the first listen. And for listeners afraid that music so dependent on its sense of immediacy won’t hold up after a few months of listening, I say go ahead and try ‘em: If it’s Sleigh Bells’s hooks versus your ear drums, I have a feeling the latter’s going to give out first.