Talk about stark. The cover of Reign of Terror — the sophomore guitar-squealing masterpiece from New York noise-pop duo Sleigh Bells — is undeniably attention-getting, thanks to a scarlet-spattered pair of weathered Keds, the kind that frontwoman Alexis Krauss wears in concert.
"And they are 100 percent her bloody shoes!" declares axeman Derek Miller, proudly. "It happened in Atlanta when we were on tour with CSS — I cracked her in the head with my guitar, which is really pointy, basically a weapon. I grabbed her by the shoulders and looked her in the eye and said 'Oh, my God! Are you OK?' And she had blood coming down her face and her eyes were crossed, and she was like, 'I'm fine!' And I was like, 'Holy shit!' So we just held on to those shoes."
Putting together the artwork for Reign, Miller was reminded of the fearsome footwear. "I basically wanted to do almost like commercial stock photography of items that were just sitting around my apartment," he says of the decidedly grim CD booklet. Miller incorporated a bullet-riddled canteen used by his paratrooper grandfather in World War II, and his Purple Heart as well. "So the shoes were just another one of the items that I photographed, and I just thought that it was such a striking image, it had to be the cover."
The photo is a crystal-clear warning of what awaits listeners inside. For those brave enough to continue on, Reign of Terror will stand as one of the best records of the year, awash in waves of Def-Leppard-inspired guitar, with Krauss' voice wafting above like some lonely shorebird.
The album is a real-life cathartic purge, an exorcism of the debilitating demons that have haunted Miller for the past three years. First, his father was killed in a motorcycle accident. Shortly thereafter, his mother was diagnosed with cancer. "So Reign of Terror is not about the French Revolution, is not a historical reference," sighs Miller. "It was a literal description of what I felt like I was going through."
His mother is in remission now, for which the musician is grateful. When he received her original diagnosis, he recalls, "I was already in total, utter darkness, and then when that happened, I just threw my hands in the air. I was like 'That's it, man — my life is over.' But I immediately started working — I just threw myself into the band, so for me, the record kind of arcs downward."
Reign is also more cohesive than Sleigh Bells' eclectic 2010 debut, Treats. It opens with the celebratory "True Shred Guitar," then segues into a stomping "Born to Lose," the ethereal "End of the Line," a funereal juggernaut called "Road to Hell," and a closing "D.O.A." — which Miller calls "the period at the end of the sentence."
It's not all doom and gloom; Two tracks, "Never Say Die" and the sunny "Comeback Kid," are, according to the composer, "points where lyrically I'm trying so hard to be optimistic and — as corny as it sounds — literally giving myself pep talks, like 'C'mon! Pull it together!'
"But it was difficult, and I'm self-destructive by nature," admits Miller. "So I certainly explored the parts of myself that I'm, uhh, not sure that I needed to know about."