22 Oct, 2012

Why This Band Should be Re-Named “Slay Bells”

I’ve always had a difficult time deciding to either resent or enjoy when music critics write grand, sweeping reviews that reveal (in the most decidedly snarky and specifically condescending of tones) how allegedly shitty something is. On one hand, it’s entertaining to read and while said critic usually ends up looking like an ass, it establishes his/her “integrity” in musical taste. On the other hand, I always feel as if the whole basis of harsh music criticism is, at its core, a bit blasphemous. I say this because most of the time, while the person writing the review typically has a well-versed knowledge of popular music and what makes it good or bad, they probably can’t pick up a guitar and write a song that’s any better than what they’re harping on. Essentially: “This person really sucks at their job, but I (secretly) couldn’t do any better. But still, look at how good I am at making them look like a damn fool.”

So as much as that seemed like an unnecessary explication, it will serve as a preface and disclaimer for these next couple scathing, douchey paragraphs you’re about to read.

Ever since Rusko involuntarily grandfathered one of the most obnoxious widespread music scene movements since disco, I have vehemently clarified to people that I do listen to and appreciate electronic music, but only “good” electronic music. You see, to me, artists who produce predominately electronic tunes are a different breed of songwriters. Instead of an emphasis on lyrics or live tracking of analog instruments, the focus is placed more on atmosphere and concepts. This idea is definitively a progressive one and has birthed artists who have perfected the art of sound engineering to a point where grooving, dancing, and getting absolutely lost in dreamy soundscapes are simply unavoidable catharsis. However, there are also a lot of bros who thought Skrillex was pretty chill(ex) so they broke out their Macbook Pros and decided to emulate this bastardized American interpretation of dubstep – which we’ll refer to as Brostep from now on – and things have never been the same since. Frat dudes have opted out of listening to hardcore hip-hop, and now a characteristic party sounds like a wobbly lightsaber duel within a nightmarish screech factory. And although Abraham Orellana (aka AraabMuzik) put out some tracks that weren’t completely boorish, his live set would have put me to sleep if it wasn’t so damn loud.

AraabMuzik at Sleigh Bells

AraabMuzik at Sleigh Bells

Abraham Orellana

Abraham Orellana

Orellana’s live presence was forgettable at best. At the beginning of the set, some rando dude who was probably Araabmuzik’s manager or just a bro-groupie tried to “pump the crowd up” by yelling generic introductions like, “Are you guys readyyyy for AraabMuziiiiiikkkkk?!” This annoyed me, but it seemed like the crowd was, indeed, ready. Most of the performance was heavily dependent on Orellana’s dexterity on an MPC and was otherwise dominated by severely distorted synth loops and pre-routed beats. The lighting was limited to single colors lazily changing while Orellana half-heartedly swayed to and fro, his gaze fixated on his rig the entire time as if Master DJ status can only be achieved through staring. Notable samples used were Flux Pavilion’s infamously overplayed and underwhelming “I Can’t Stop,” the intro and beat from “A Milli” looped for 12 hours, and some Skrillex vocal crap, along with the occasional “scream” immediately prefacing a drop (gag me).
To be honest, as the set dragged on, I was more interested in the audience’s reaction to this bombardment of macho Sludgestep shaking the walls of the Boulder Theater, and they began to appear as disinterested as I was; of course there were a notable amount of drunk girls enthusiastically thrashing about, their cries for attention sadder than a litter of orphaned puppies. Perhaps the only relief from the constant barrage of booming bass and shrill synth leads were the brief moments where attention was placed on Araabmuzik’s percussive breaks: there were a few moments where his lightning-fast fingers produced sounds resembling drum ‘n’ bass, which was a much appreciated occurrence. One of the worst parts about it, though, didn’t lie with Orellana himself: the aforementioned groupie-manager stood off to the side on stage the entire time, making hilariously lame movements (one arm moving up and down to the beat, as if he were repeatedly hi-fiving a really short guy) and insipid exclamations like, “Yeeeeeeah!” and, “Keep yo’ hands up!” I did not appreciate him. After what seemed like hours, Araabmuzik was finished, and I was left scratching my head at what I just witnessed.

Things picked up though, don’t you worry. Sleigh Bells formed in 2009 and released their debut, hugely popular LP Treats in 2010. I’ll admit, when I heard “Tell ‘Em” and “Infinity Guitars” for the first time, I wasn’t entirely blown away. I watched them gain critical acclaim and listened to a few of my friends talk about how badass they were, but never exactly got into their music. However, I was very much intrigued and supportive of the concept of the duo: combining hardcore punk breakdowns with giant drum beats and abrasive female vocals. Supposedly guitarist Derek Miller of Poison the Well, a Florida hardcore group, met Alexis Krauss (and her mother) at a Brazilian restaurant in Brooklyn that he happened to be working in at the time. Shortly after proposing his idea and recording some demos, they blew up. I realize why now.

Sleigh Bells’ Alexis Krauss

Sleigh Bells’ Alexis Krauss

Strike a pose.

Strike a pose.

As the audience waited anxiously for the impending explosion of sound, choral notes twinkled mischievously, and Miller and Jason Boyer (a touring member) hi-fived over their guitars in the darkness. Then, in an instant, everything changed: the lights burst into a flash of white, the wall of Marshall amplifiers roared with crunchy guitars, and she appeared; it was like seeing a punk-rock sex goddess emerge from the skies. Krauss pirouetted and shifted across the stage, cramming the theater with her semi-screamed vocals. The crowd, including myself, absolutely ate it up.
Alexis Krauss

Alexis Krauss

Sleigh Bells’ Jason Boyer

Sleigh Bells’ Jason Boyer

Krauss beckoning.

Krauss beckoning.

The indie scene (or at least the most popularized corner of it), in my opinion, is hard-pressed for hard rock. I’m not saying there aren’t any hardcore bands that Pitchfork recognizes, but there are few and far between that definitively fill the void for modern rock that actually rocks. After experiencing their live presence, I can understand why Sleigh Bells blasted off into indie stardom a few years ago. Every period needs something that is loud and big, plain and simply. An eardrum-shattering rendition of “Infinity Guitars” followed the opener, Krauss’ dissonant chanting accompanied by heavy bass and handclaps, Miller’s trademark incessantly pounding Gibson surging like a battle-axe through the middle of the song. This was followed by Reign of Terror’s “Born to Lose” something that sounded like the Cure with a chick in the beginning, the guitars taking a backseat to Krauss’ crooning vocals. Eventually the whirlwind pitter-patter of a bass drum cut through the noir-like atmosphere and the track peaked with Alexis repeating the chorus, “Where did you go?” to a helplessly infatuated audience.

Reach for the stars!

Reach for the stars!

Jason Boyer

Jason Boyer

That...jacket.

That…jacket.

If I had to put it bluntly, Sleigh Bells’ energy on stage could be described as “insane” and “relentless.” Their dynamic contrast between and within songs was aptly defined, the vocals, bass an guitar tight enough to mesh flawlessly. Although they may have been labeled as Lo-Fi at their conception, the mere spectacle of their show has evolved into something past that: the guitars are still gritty as all hell, the drums are as hard-hitting as they could be, but a Lo-Fi band conventionally doesn’t have synchronized strobes highlighting every other bass-hit like a punk tweaker’s dream show.

Wild fans.

Wild fans.

I about died just then.

I about died just then.

To say I basically always fall in love with the girl band member at shows would be putting it lightly, but this time was different. It wasn’t some vacuous, short-lived charm that I felt. I wanted to propose to Krauss right there. I could barely believe what I was seeing – as she swayed seductively and sang to the front row on “Rill Rill,” the closer solo performance of the set, I couldn’t help but stare in dumbstruck awe. Her (half) shirt had “Back to School, PS 666” stenciled on it, and she was wearing fishnets under her frayed denim shorts. Her raven hair fell down past the shoulders of her leather jacket, and as every breath exited her blood-red lips, my heart melted a little. When the last marching band cadence on meth blasted through the speakers and the final guitar note was picked, Krauss ceased her dancing and yelled into the mic: “Thank you! We love you Boulder.” “I love you, too,” I muttered under my breath.

Their set was succinct, but their impact was enormous. Sleigh Bells killed it. Wait, no, they slayed it. And so October 22nd will be remembered as the night I learned how I need a punk-rock girlfriend, or I will never truly be happy.

Review and photos by Sigmund Steiger. 

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