Album Review: Sleigh Bells, “Bitter Rivals”

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I cannot get an iota of work done with any type of substantial music playing in the background; I’m just the type of person who is completely drawn in by a song and distracted from all other endeavors in the midst of one. Classical or light instrumental tunes I can deal with depending on the levity of the work, but any form of lyrical rock or pop? Forget about it.

Here is the conundrum: Sleigh Bells’ screaming new album Bitter Rivals blasted at my laptop’s highest volume straight through my entire writing of this review. How is that even possible?

Photo Credit: Petra Collins
Photo Credit: Petra Collins

The word that comes to mind is, ironically, “mindless.” Known for their iconic albeit unconventional hardcore-meets-bubblegum sound, noise pop duo Derek Miller and Alexis Krauss have delivered what may be their noisiest album yet. This record is loud, bold and chaotic, with enough shrieking guitar riffs clamming for attention at once to create a sound similar to actual white noise: constant, fuzzy and mind-numbing.

Bitter Rivals is an enigmatic compilation of songs that can appeal to a startling variety of people, considering its rather unusual musical direction. For instance, it opens with what sounds like an anime character exclaiming “hi!” in an eerie excitement, followed by the sound of a blade opening and the strangest 30-second audio montage of dogs barking over high-pitched women purring like cats—an apt foreword to a record riddled with quirky twists in every song, such as the farm animal noises at the start of “Tiger Kit” and video game sound effects in “Sing Like a Wire.”

But that’s the great thing about Sleigh Bells — their work possesses enough experimentation and artistic innovation to please the snootiest of music critics but enough sweet melodies that are accessible to the average pop listener. This new album features plenty of girly romantic lyrics (“Say that you’ll love and you’ll never love”) to offset the heavy hardcore guitar, with a couple head-turners sprinkled throughout (“I’m sending gummy bears to the electric chair”).

Photo Credit: Petra Collins
Photo Credit: Petra Collins

In terms of singing quality, the production on the vocal tracks actually adds to the white noise effect, making Krauss sound like she’s buzzing in over a static-ridden walkie-talkie. Sleigh Bells is one of the few pop outfits that use vocals as instrumentation rather than the focus of the song (EDM disc jockeys, on the other hand, have mastered the art of using vocals as just another sound effect). In songs like “Minnie,” title track “Bitter Rivals” and many others, Krauss’s voice blends almost completely into the screaming guitar blasts. However, her beautifully light, high-altitude gasp shines through in patches of “Sing Like a Wire” and softer closing track “Love Sick.”

Overall, I highly enjoyed the eclectic nature of this album — “You Don’t Get Me Twice,” for instance, sounds like schizophrenia in musical form, fluctuating between electropop, bluesy campfire acoustic guitar and fuzzy Madonna remakes.

That being said, however, Bitter Rivals has one fatal flaw: Its ten tracks sound nearly the same as every other song on Sleigh Bells’ discography and, to be honest, each other. The record fails to capture much variance from track to track, making them all blend into one big 30-minute mess, and long-time Sleigh Bells fans will likely notice what sounds like a rehash of the same stuff of the first two albums. Just a lot louder.

Nonetheless, there are some killer tracks on this record and some absolutely glorious moments (the trancelike outro to “24,” for instance) in every track. If you’ve got an open mind, I definitely recommend losing it to the brilliant mindlessness that is Bitter Rivals.