Sleigh Bells’ development from its debut album to its newest release, “Bitter Rivals,” demonstrates a fascinating progression. When the band’s first album “Treats” dropped in 2010, the bandmates displayed a clear knowledge of their profession. They knew how to craft hard-hitting, distorted drums and electric guitar lines, and turn such formidable ingredients into sticky, powerful pop. The band gained a reputation for a gritty, layered, sound, and “Treats” offered a diverse tracklist — for instance, the standout, funk-inspired “Rill Rill,” which built on a sample of “Can You Get to That” by Funkadelic.
After “Treats,” sophomore album “Reign of Terror” proved more ambitious, employing sophisticated chord changes. Unfortunately, the results were often disappointing. After all, the standout moments on “Treats” weren’t ones of intricate construction, but rather of broad gestures — a recognizable sample, or an excellent guitar jag.
In its third album, “Rivals,” Sleigh Bells takes the direction from “Reign of Terror” a step further. “Minnie,” the album’s third track, encapsulates the band’s current state — a lone electric guitar introduces chord changes from the outset. The track feels calculated and obvious, whereas “Treats” taught us the band is best in sweeping, innovative strokes. When contrasted with its predecessor, which delighted in head-banging sounds, “Bitter Rivals” is a frustrating showing.
Still, for all its frustrations, “Rivals” can be stimulating — Sleigh Bells does not shy away from experimentation. Now more than ever, the two members of Sleigh Bells, Alexis Krauss and Derek Miller, find it fitting to match harsh production with harsh music. The guitar hooks sound more metal than ever. Krauss and Miller have abandoned the less-evocative riffs of yesterday that suggested a new, playful blend of punk and noise-pop.
When it’s not the chord changes, it’s the melodies Krauss is crooning that sound off-putting. “24” starts off promising, with a harmonious bout of guitar picking, but the song feels like a bad joke. Krauss sings a melody incongruous to the rest of the song — the percussion and guitar pummel on, while Krauss sings a mellow, dreamy, echoey middle eight, evocative of bad ’80s music.
“Young Legends” is the one song on “Rivals” that gives reason to be optimistic about the band’s musical future. The drums and guitars are gaudy enough to make the listener feel the Sleigh Bells wallop that fans adore, but the music is more melodic and tonal. While their musical experimentation is admirable, hopefully in the future Sleigh Bells can strike the right balance — wicked instrumentation with meticulous musical construction.
A version of this article appeared in the Tuesday, Oct. 8 print edition. Zach Michel is a contributing writer. Email him at [email protected]