Sleigh Bells, Danny Brown @ Terminal 5, NYC 11/22/13
At first glance, Danny Brown and Sleigh Bells on the same bill doesn’t necessarily make a whole lot of sense, almost as incongruous—though not half as offensive—as the fact that Dinosaur Jr. will be opening for MGMT next month. It’s one of those shows where you almost feel like there are different groups of people who bought tickets for each, and in between sets the crowd will be entirely switched out. Turns out that’s not entirely true. Though plenty of people seemed to be there for Brown as much as (and occasionally, more than) Sleigh Bells, both were greeted with an equal amount of fervor from the crowd that synced up nicely with each act’s tendency toward a live set that’s equal parts aggression and unabashed entertainment. While there’s ostensibly little sonic overlap between the two, that proved to be the connective tissue between Brown and Sleigh Bells: Each ran their show like an intense, visceral party of a concert.
After a break following Doldrums’ opening set, Brown’s DJ came out to start getting everyone amped up, which wasn’t really needed—it was already clear the crowd possessed the same ball-of-wire-waiting-to-unspool kind of energy that Brown unleashes onstage. Brown finally appeared after about five or ten minutes of his DJ teasing various tracks from Old, the album he released this year and a likely shoo-in for many end of year lists. When he does come out, it’s exactly as you’d hope: he hopped onstage, tongue lolling out of his mouth, wearing what looked to be a black leather t-shirt, his haywire hair initially protruding in a single stream out from under an impressively long slouch beanie that’s almost immediately removed. Perhaps because he was functioning as an opening act, Brown’s set leaned heavily on his more party-oriented tracks, eschewing the songs from Old that are obviously dark in favor of the ones that are more surreptitiously so. No “Torture” or “25 Bucks” or “Clean Up,” but impressively frenetic runs through the Side B material, the highlights being intense runs through “Side B (Dope Song)” and “Smokin & Drinkin.” Which is fine—this allowed Brown to maintain a good time through his opening set, repeatedly thrusting his hand in the air and putting Miley Cyrus to shame with all the contorted forms in which he stuck his tongue out. He hardly paused for breath or to say anything until towards the end, when the music stopped for him to briefly announce “My name is Daniel” and then giggle his weird raspy giggle. He closed with the blearily EDM-quoting “Dip,” his challenge of “Don’t let me into my zone” a triumphant joke at the end of a set where he’d been in it all along.
Soon after Brown left the stage, Kanye West’s “On Sight” played over the soundsystem, West’s own mix of danceable and aggressive, rap and distortion a fitting cross-section and segue for the night. The intensity of Brown’s performance was matched by Sleigh Bells’ and both seemed to (perhaps unintentionally) exploit the oft-derided acoustics of Terminal 5 for their own benefit. With Brown that meant throbbing bass notes reverberating through the steel and concrete, with Sleigh Bells that meant predictably massive guitars dialed up into a technological artificiality that was fitting for the space. Collectively it meant a show that demanded a physical reaction from you, the sort where even if you didn’t want to move, they’d make damn sure you felt their sounds coursing underneath your skin.
Alexis Krauss, as it turns out, stormed onto the stage in a way not entirely dissimilar from Brown. Preceded by Inception-bwaaams and a flurry of marching band drums, when Krauss walked on stage there was an immediate transference of energy before the first notes of “Minnie” even rang out. Briefly draped in the leopard-print robe she wore for the “Bitter Rivals” video, she mugged like an MC, or a hair-rock god, or an angsty punk, neatly providing a visual summation of all the bizarre strands that collide in Sleigh Bells’ music. Like Sleigh Bells’ stylistic blend, Krauss’ live presence has a foot in multiple worlds. The way she flails amongst the strobes and squalor seems born from and for sweaty club shows, for spaces small enough where all the pent-up energy released quickly bounces back down, intensifying with each feedback loop. On the other hand, her impressive magnetism seems to beg for a bigger stage. Even the hot pink of Derek Miller’s guitar seemed to recede into the background as a functioning prop, just one more tool in a maelstrom steered by Krauss.
If you’re of a certain age, Sleigh Bells’ debut was inescapable any time you walked down a college dorm hallway and people had alcohol within reach. “Infinity Guitars” and “Crown on the Ground” (or, the incredible mash-up with Jay-Z’s “Dirt Off Your Shoulder,” “Dirt on Your Crown”) were the kind of things people would put on to immediately quicken the pulse of a room, but you also had the (still sort of) ubiquitous “Rill Rill.” The latter, an uncharacteristically chilled out moment that’s essentially a lullaby with a groove, is the only conspicuous omission from their setlists. Only three albums deep, willfully neglecting your most recognizable song scans as bristling at what people expect of you, perhaps wanting to come off edgy and intense in a challenging way. Despite that, Sleigh Bells seem to understand and are consciously manipulating themselves as an intentionally cartoonized version of the disparate genres they’ve assimilated. They were a band I’d always imagined as one that became a party band but probably didn’t want to be considered as such, but their show is a carefully calibrated endorphin rush, the highlights from Bitter Rivals nestled with “Comeback Kid” and “Riot Rhythm” and a maybe-too-early “Crown on the Ground.” In the best moments, Sleigh Bells’ synths and guitars are crystalline and corrosive at the same time, sounding like an old Super Mario Bros. game on a sugar high raging against its confines.
So despite what some of the more mixed reactions to Bitter Rivals would suggest, it doesn’t seem like Sleigh Bells are having any issues figuring out exactly what they’re supposed to be. If you were sold on the sound the first time around, their live show delivers on any level you’d imagine, overloading the pleasure centers attuned to those particularly Sleigh Bells moments. Krauss yells a bit more live, but she still has the look and sound of a would-be girl group singer filtered through a handful of harder-edged genres—through torn tights and tattoos and those searingly pink guitars. At the end of the show, the band offered one flare of decontextualized distortion, and Krauss bleated a thank you lost in the fuzz. It served as one last twist, but also a reminder. Being a fun artist doesn’t equate being weak or ephemeral, and Sleigh Bells still has the sound of a band that would prefer not to move mountains, but to obliterate them entirely.