IT'S AN INTERESTING PARADIGM when music can reach a growing audience less through the hooks and melodies of their songs, than by the sheer volume at which it is produced. Loud, decayed, and blown out to the brink of unlistenable—it's as though a sound engineer passed out on the soundboard with all the levels maxed out at 10 when Sleigh Bells entered the studio, left them there until the reel ran out, and decided not to master the final product. The Brooklyn duo didn't title their first self-released EP Demo for nothing.
From the beginning of Sleigh Bells' career, praise has been hailed on them for defying the cleanliness of pop music and compromising sound quality for sound quantity. When the band released "Tell 'Em," the first single from 2010's Treats, it was offered as a free download, ensuring that almost everyone who listened heard it not only as a compressed audio file, but on some of the crappiest sound equipment known to man—computer speakers and iPod earbuds. "Tell 'Em" mulched Derek E. Miller's three-chord stadium-rock riffing and simple ghetto-tech beats with the shrill, dissonant voice of Alexis Krauss. Through my laptop speakers, it was a garbled mess; I've heard diarrhea blowouts sound cleaner.
That initial listen left me with very low expectations of what they would sound like live. If sound isn't dialed in the studio, a live mix could only be worse. When Sleigh Bells opened for Yeasayer, their stage setup was minimal: a microphone, an electric guitar, and one lonely little iPod sitting alone on its very own stool. Yes, they had an iPod acting as their drum machine. I put in my earplugs (which I never wear), and braced myself for 30 minutes of affected noise pop. While the PA system was abuzz with their saturated in-the-rad sound, Krauss proved to be a pretty evocative frontperson, whipping the gathering crowd into an epileptic frenzy with dramatic sass and pose. It was like Beyoncé collaborating with Merzbow onstage, a cross-pollination of pop music in noise clothing. And as I predicted, it sounded terrible.
I'm tolerant of abrasive music, but Sleigh Bells left my stomach unsettled and irritable, as though I just consumed a very large meal on an already full stomach. I promptly made my way to the nearest available toilet. And it was not pretty.