First: a cartoonishly high-pitched "Hi!" Then the metallic flash of a blade being drawn. Vague purring, a few chords on an acoustic guitar, a dog barking. And ... DUN-NUH-NUH-NUH: You're being pelted by a storm of shrill, murderous robo-rap — "I had to kill a new sheriff in town" — a cacophony that sounds like a zombie cheer squad going hand-to-hand with a cyborg offensive line, twirling grenades instead of pom-poms. A pointy guitar splooges indiscriminately; electronic drums pound and slice; a synth rains glass shards; the bass arrives with a shudder when you thought it was there already. Soon the clouds part for a chorus of caustic charm ("You are my bitter rival/But I need you for survival"), but that only makes the previous detonations seem louder.
This is your entry to a collection of deranged jock jams called Bitter Rivals, the New York duo Sleigh Bells' third album in four years. If it sounds cartoonish, that's the point. "Subtlety is not really a strength of ours," says ax captain and bass/crunch composer Derek E. Miller. But he is not completely correct. A subtle rhythmic swing, a careful spaciousness and poise, was part of what made Miller and singer Alexis Krauss' 2010 debut Treats such a seductive listen. Its assault moved with the grace of a boxer; its punches, like those in "Kids" or "Rill Rill," came with very careful timing. It was abrasive as hell, but also danceable, or at least nod-able — a brutal-sweet combination of metal, hip-hop, and pop that these two basically invented, and that earned them spots on plenty of year-end best lists.
But if the defining mission of this band is bringing pop sweetness and hard-rock coarseness and punishing beats into conflict and coitus with each other, you simply can't do that as well as they can without a little subtlety. This was confirmed by last year's Reign of Terror, where Sleigh Bells discarded much of its slinkiness. Their difficult second album was a wall of metal-guitar scrapes and rhythmic flogging, a painful bummer inspired by the death of Miller's father. Reign of Terror wasn't a bad album, but it was even less subtle than the first. And certainly much less fun. "I can't listen to it all the way through," Miller says of the record now. "It's just overwhelmingly dark."
Miller eventually came to terms with his loss, crawled out of his "very deep dark hole," and put the resulting creative energy into Bitter Rivals. This third album isn't a revelation like Treats was (it couldn't be; everyone who's seen the latest iPhone 5c commercial has heard Sleigh Bells by now), but it thankfully uses the band's ludicrous power to charming ends, rather than depressing or grating ones. Miller says the title is meant to suggest a poetic beauty in competition; so, fittingly, Bitter Rivals feels almost joyful. It restores a smidgen of Treats' funkiness, though not quite enough.
Krauss contributed far more to this album than the band's previous two, writing her own sleek vocal melodies and finally getting her voice high enough in the mix to have a chance at fighting off Miller's snotty guitars. The best tracks here are the few where Miller shuts up those distorted Jacksons (at least intermittently) and lets Krauss conjure sultry '90s R&B and millennial pop: The neck-snapping stop-start of "Young Legends"; the icy throb of "To Hell With You"; and, with a bit less success, the goofy glam-rap of "You Don't Get Me Twice." It's too bad that Krauss sounds like she's dueling against Miller in almost every second of "Sugarcane," because her candy-coated melodies carry the song far better than a nasal guitar.
Miller calls Bitter Rivals the first Sleigh Bells record that is "our record," and is openly relieved at having Krauss' increased involvement. "Now that she's a part of it, it's not just me, it's this other thing completely," he says. "I can sit back and appreciate it without having to feel like I'm looking in the mirror the whole time." He still writes the band's beats, instrumental parts, and lyrics. But Bitter Rivals suggests that the way forward for Sleigh Bells may be giving Krauss even more room to do her thing. The opening assault of the title track is where Miller's guitar-and-synth stabs prove most effective; in a lot of other places, they seem either redundant or superfluous. Besides, Sleigh Bells has done the maximalist ear-shredding thing on three albums now. Since the band shows no sign of slowing the rapid pace of putting out an album a year — "If I try to take time off, it doesn't work," Miller says — perhaps its next evolution could be even more radical: turning down.