Noise rock’s current place in the music spectrum is both odd and interesting. Where its roots derived far from the mainstream, only to be written about in underground zine magazines, it was many of these bands that influenced new generations of genres including that of grunge. These occasional breakthroughs of bands like Nirvana, that really don’t have much in common with those noise predecessors, proves that music listeners like everything else evolve, and despite the odds and the favour of traditional music lovers, bands that describe themselves to the bible-of-noise will have their time in the music spotlight. Sleigh Bells are one of those bands, they bring more of a poppiness to their noise and have released two albums which have garnered much acclaim. Their third album Bitter Rivals, cranks up the noise even louder than before which makes for a satisfying album, but it also brings a curious doubt as to whether it’s a worthwhile noise.
Bitter Rivals is poppier and louder than the previous two albums, whether it’s their best album though might depend on your relationship with the band to this point. Newcomers to the sound may find it a little off-putting, but it may just be perspective, it’s like coming into a movie halfway through. Pop music is not supposed to work like that, but this is noise pop, and this is Sleigh Bells which no doubt will have a critically divided album on their hands here. The title track “Bitter Rivals” starts it off with some over-the-top cacophony of guitar and orchestral keyboard hits. Allison Krauss’ vocals are slightly distorted like the guitar which gives them an added aggressiveness, but that distortion gives way to the sweetness in her voice when she pines that “you are my bitter rival, but I need you for survival”.
They couldn’t have picked a better opening track, as it lays down the entire thesis for the album. “Sugarcane” is the first track that starts to remind me of The Go! Team, it’s actually one of the more straightforward pop tracks on the album, but there’s a hip hop flavour that peppers this track that is hard to pinpoint, but the Go! Team comparison seems to help. “Minnie” gets back to some guitar riffs, although there’s a part of me that feels let down by a guitar riff that doesn’t hit you in the face, here they let the giant keyboard hits do that, it’s a topsy turvy listening experience, that is intriguing but I wonder if those giant keyboard hits will get tiresome soon.
“Sing Like a Wire” might be the tipping point for those keyboard hits, they become so bombastic, but it’s more the tone of them that becomes a bit grating more than the sheer over-the-topness. I’m sure this track will sound great live, but on record it fails. “Young Legends” and “Tiger Kit” reiterate that the songs themselves are pretty neat, but I just can’t get on board with that keyboard sound, it just sounds juvenile, especially the toy animal samples that appear on the latter track.
“You Don’t Get Me Twice” simplifies things which starts to right the ship, but then “To Hell With You” is another overwhelming “keyboard hit” track that kind of ruins a pretty decent pop song. Those previous tracks are a bit frustrating because “24” is a wonderful contemplative pop song which utilizes the keyboards to better effectiveness by softening the tone. I know this is noise pop we’re talking about here, but after a few songs the aggressiveness loses its bite unless the sound is explored with more than just one tone. “Love Sick” ends the album on a high note with a light pop track that sweetly ends with “There’s a heart in my chest, where a hole used to be.” So what started off with aggressiveness has satisfyingly ended on an evolved note, but you have to wonder if the journey was worth it.
Sleigh Bells are not going to be the new Yeah Yeah Yeahs, but they will find a newer and younger audience. There’s a blandness to “Bitter Rivals” though that doesn’t come up a lot, but often enough to create some doubt as to whether this album will be more than just candy for today. At times it’s a really intriguing album, but it could be forgettable quickly.
– Michael Unger