Full disclosure: Sleigh Bells have been one of my pet bands since their searing debut EP leaked from the 2009 CMJ Festival, and this live review of their set at Mr.Small’s Wednesday evening will probably be wildly biased as a result. If an indie-rock laboratory existed in a parallel universe somewhere and an engineer was capable of constructing a band perfectly tailored to make me smile and head-bang for hours on end, that band would probably bear an uncanny resemblance to Sleigh Bells. It’s downright stupid to play one of their songs like “Crown on the Ground” at a volume any lower than 11, and the Brooklyn natives' sound is like a raging id managed by classic Brittney Spears: buzzsaw, stadium god guitars, chunky, shamelessly distorted synth and bass hits, and Alexis Krauss’s diamond sharp 90s pop vocals slicing the whole damn thing in half, song after song.
Since the release of the duo’s (Krauss and guitarist/producer Derek Miller) two proper albums, 2010’s Treats and 2012’s awesomely named Reign of Terror, and the subsequent tours that supported them, there’s been a general consensus within the indie-rock world that few bands can match the sheer intensity of their live show. Their set at Mr. Small’s was the second time I’ve seen them live in Pittsburgh. The first instance was a 28-minute shotgun blast at CMU in 2010 which caused included multiple stage rushes, Miller karate kicking Krauss’s mic stand (almost taking out a music major running sound in the process) and plaster flakes vibrating off the music hall’s ceiling for the entire performance.
The group’s stage set-up this time around was a cartoonish array of oversized Marshall amps (which I believe were used only for aesthetic purposes), six stacks in all, adorned by a collection of strobe lights. Krauss and Miller strutted on stage, with the support of second touring guitarist Jason Boyd, and immediately launched into “Demons,” arguably the heaviest track in their catalog. From the first monstrous guitar riff, it was apparent the monitor levels were pushing the limits of Mr. Small’s soundsystem, and as an audience member, I constantly felt like the air in the room would ignite.
The three subsequent tracks, the aforementioned “Crown on The Ground”, “True Shred Guitar, and “Kids,” all maintained the pummeling atmosphere, and gave Krauss a chance to showcase her commanding stage presence. She head bangs, pines, whispers, screams, and fist pumps, while coaxing everyone in the crowd to do her bidding. (“I need more,” she said at one point, “I don’t see a sign in here that says no crowd surfing.”) There was also room for what could be considered their “mid-tempo” tracks like the gorgeous, shimmering “End of the Line” and vamping metal-pop of “Leader of the Pack.” Miller’s guitar work was augmented greatly by Boyd’s presence, and the solo in “Leader” really shredded like it did on record. The second half of the set leaned heavily on three of Treats' most obliterating tracks: the artillery assault of “Tell Em,” the death metal mess of “Treats,” and the fucked-up, hardcore high school taunt of “Infinity Guitars.”
The summer bliss of “Rill Rill” got the usual crowd support (probably SB’s most well-known song), but brought the set to a close on a more subdued note. When Miller, Krauss and Boyd left the stage, I really hoped the encore wouldn’t pull punches. Luckily, the double shot of the snotty “Riot Rhythm” and the lizard brain techno-rock hybrid “A/B Machines” (the only lyrics are “I’ve got my A machines on the table/I’ve got my B machines on the floor”) pushed the crowd over the edge, literally. Everyone was dancing, crowd surfing, repeatedly throwing glow sticks, and eventually, pouring on stage for the climax of “Machines” (which must have been hell for security). The song ended, but the guitars were still howling from feedback, and the audience, on and off the stage was a goddamn sweaty mess. Krauss lifted up her wrist, covered in leather and silver studs, and grabbed the mic from the mob that was dancing with her to give her sign-off.
“Pittsburgh...we love you!” she panted. “Now, get the fuck off the stage.”