After delivering an attention grabbing opus with their 2010 debut, Treats, Brookyln indie/noise rock duo Sleigh Bells ran into an identity crisis on the followup. Their sophomore release, Reign of Terror, was a hardcore noise rock album that was trying to be a mainstream pop album, and sounded like it couldn't decide what it wanted to be. It got stuck in an awkward gap between noise and pop, without suitably satisfying either side of the aisle. To make matters worse, the band had seemingly lost the edge that had turned so many heads on their debut, not to mention the fact that Krauss's continual cheerleader shouts added an air of superficiality to the whole affair.
Now re-energized for their third go around, Sleigh Bells sound like a band intent on dominating the globe all over again. Bitter Rivals captures the sound of Sleigh Bells not messing around. The first four tracks all hit like laser guided torpedoes, guaranteed to get you fired up. "Sugarcane" hits like a jack knife with Derek Miller's buzzsaw guitar, while Alexis Krauss's lighter than air vocals provide a compelling contrast. The title track, meanwhile, sees Krauss's vocals hitting like a jackhammer in the verses, while still managing to toss in an oh so infectious chorus riff. The song's lyrics are also packed with attitude, as Krauss tells about her victorious confrontation with the town sheriff. Lyrically, the album still tends to be incoherent/scatterbrained in terms of lyrics, but it is clear they are meant to get the listener pumped up even if they tend to lack cohesion.
"Sing Like a Wire" is the hardest hitting track the album has to offer. It sounds like a stadium/arena rock anthem that recalls shades of Treats with its pulsing and pounding electronic work and percussion. The album begins to slow down as it progresses, however. "Young Legends" and "To Hell With You" flash of heavy dose of girlpop vocal melodies, with the latter sounding like it literally could have been a Disney song if not for the loud, crashing guitars. "Tiger Kit" and "You Don't Get Me Twice" showcase the most successful blending of the band's pop and hardcore rock elements. "Tiger Kit" is one of the busiest tracks on disc, tossing in blaring electronics along with what sounds like disc scratching sounds to forge a pure adrenaline stomper.
Softer pieces near the album's close turn to some elements rarely employed by the band. "24" has a high pitched guitar line that noodles and caroms all over the place, sounding not entirely unlike circus music. During the chorus, Miller switches over to some clean strumming that wouldn't sound out of place in an 80s hair metal ballad, but it manages to work when backed by Krauss's exuberant girlpop delivery. Sleigh Bells demonstrate the harder edged numbers are still their forte, but prove they can detour into softer material and pull out fine results most of the time.
Bitter Rivals may not satisfy from start to finish, yet it is still a successful outing for this Brooklyn noise/pop outfit. It's filled with plenty of attitude and a hodgepodge of various far flung elements that seem like they should conflict but mostly don't. It won't overtake Treats as the crown jewel in their catalog, but will give it a good run for its money.