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The most ferocious noise-makers in all of Brooklyn, the boy-girl duo Sleigh Bells, never seemed like the kind of band that would stick around for too long. Whip internet into hype with singles, release much-loved record, leave audiences around the world in ecstatic yet ruined heaps, disband at peak of popularity (with a money-spinning reformation six years later as a strictly optional additional step). It’s a career path that’s just as firmly established as ‘GCSEs, A-Levels, history degree, lifetime of unemployment’. Their 2010 début, the sonic wrecking-ball that was Treats, saw them throw together hardcore guitar, hip-hop drum machines and the demented vocals of a former teen pop-star and come out with a record that exceeded all expectations. But it was most notable for its production (or lack of), which resulted in songs so loud that an entire series of American venues were left without working sound systems.
Fortunately for Friday’s Mancunian audience, they’ve enjoyed a longer life than many critics had envisioned, having made another excellent record in the form of last month’s ‘Reign of Terror’ and then proceeded to play it at even higher volumes than ever before. The audience realised that they probably should have invested in ear plugs before they even arrived. The phrase ‘Wall of Sound’ has become clichéd, but it really is the only way to describe Sleigh Bells’ awe-inspiring on-stage set-up; an almost floor-to-ceiling arrangement of terrifyingly large speaker cabinets. No banners. No gimmicks. Just noise. It’s no wonder they don’t play with a live drummer – why have someone banging dead animals taking up space when you can have another cab instead?
The band emerged on stage with very little warning – a burst of furious lights and a bout tribal drumming welcomed Miller and a second guitarist on stage, before Krauss emerged to launch the band into an electrifying run through Reign of Terror’s opener True Shred Guitar and the metal-tinged Born to Lose. Though the performance was scorching, the long wait and the unfamiliarity of the new material resulted in a relatively muted response from the crowd. Things didn’t really get going until the more familiar guitar screech that opens Riot Rhythm rang out through the room, the riff and beats drawing fans right to the front of the venue, before the demented off-kilter guitar solo sent the entire front half of the sold-out venue into a frenzied and sprawling pit.
In order to really work in a live setting, Sleigh Bells’ music needs the heat and the sweat and the colliding bodies as much as it does Miller’s wailing guitars and Krauss’ almost too-perfect vocals. And they certainly got what they needed to thrive here, with standing still being rendred genuinely intolerable because a) how on earth are you meant to resist dancing to Infinity Guitars? and b) the bass rumbled the floor so much that it actually tickled your feet. The second half of the set sent the crowd (and guitars) into the overdrive the set deserved. Beginning with latest single ‘Comeback Kid’, Krauss urged the crowd to ‘try a little harder’, an order they obeyed with gleeful abandon. The fifty seconds of Straight A’s [sic] was filled with more energy than most other bands can muster in an entire set, and Demons proved itself to be the most enjoyable of the new songs to hear live, the bombastic metal riff coaxing the entire room into a hands in the air frenzy. There were even a couple of stage dives from the irresistibly energetic Krauss, who launched herself into the crowd at the end of the encore, during an utterly euphoric rendition of Crown on the Ground. Floating serenely over the clumsy sea of bodies that held her aloft, she was somehow able to coo out the vocal refrain whilst wrapped in an impossible tangle of sweaty limbs and microphone cable, before returning to the stage for an unexpected and overdriven coda.
Still, although this is a near-flawless example of how to play a live rock show, there were a few little niggles. A live drummer would certainly do them a lot of good, if only because it feels a little unreal when the drum sounds are so high in the mix but no one on stage is hitting anything. The same air of unreality tainted Rill-Rill. It is perhaps their most well-known song, and quite considerably different to anything else on Treats or Reign of Terror, lending itself more than any of their other songs to a full-band set up. Yet Krauss is the only one on stage for it. It’s not a massive problem – she’s certainly energetic enough to command the stage on her own – but the lack of any on-stage instrumentation is more than a little bit jarring. It might well be intentional, a critique on the pre-recorded, auto-tuned, focus-group-led nature of contemporary pop music. But it also robs Rill Rill of some of its power, especially in a song with such an enjoyable guitar part. Then again, it might just be a cunning ploy, a chance for Miller to pop backstage and have some quick reconstructive surgery on his ear-drums.
It also was very probably the single sweatiest gig that this reviewer has ever attended. People were actually slipping down the steps on the way out, coated as they were with perspiration, whisky and the smiling carcasses of discarded beer cans. Though in spite of the fact that the temperature in the room was approaching those more commonly found on the surface of Venus, I felt absolutely refreshed. Because more than anything else, that’s what Sleigh Bells are – utterly refreshing. They blast away the burden of musical history, ripping everything up and starting again; and they do it with nothing but two guitars, a sweet-voiced girl and a gargantuan wall of speakers.