On a sunny afternoon in Atlanta, the New York rock duo Sleigh Bells arrives for sound check at a venue called Vinyl, a sports-bar-sized room in a confusing triple-stage compound. A Braves game is on TV, and the room is practically empty except for a promoter stabbing at a salad.
The door opens and guitarist Derek Miller walks in, wearing shorts and a backpack. "This is Vinyl, right?" Told that it is, he promptly starts setting up. Miller, 29, is battle-scarred after six years playing in Florida hardcore band Poison the Well, which he joined at age 16. He has a bulldog's tenacity and a state trooper's affinity for dark Ray-Bans, and he's built like a spark plug: small, hard, coursing with electricity.
Joining him is singer Alexis Krauss, 24, who emerges from the band's touring van in a black tank top, black cutoff jeans and $8 Kmart canvas shoes with a hole in one toe. "I move around a lot," she tells Vinyl's sound man, understating what will happen six hours later when she douses fans with water, springs into jumping jacks, hops into the crowd and pulls a young woman onstage to sing. "This song is called 'Kids,' " she'll inform the audience. "You should dance. It's fun."
The cover of Sleigh Bells' debut album, Treats, depicts a pyramid of cheerleaders — their teenage smiles defaced beyond recognition — and Krauss sometimes seems to be one of those twisted pom-pom girls. She's a peppy vocalist with a dark side, a former kiddie-pop singer now draped with tattoos, a gripping performer who fuses Karen O's art-punk theatrics with OJ Da Juiceman's gasping rap. Her voice often is buried beneath an avalanche of Miller's guitar, but instead of crying out for help, she seems to be crooning the Shangri-Las.
This tension between mirth and menace makes Sleigh Bells the year's most compelling new band. With Treats (released in May on Mom+Pop Records) and in their brutal, thrilling concerts — October 15 at the Hollywood Bowl and October 20 at El Rey — Krauss and Miller distort the boundary between art and noise.
Their melodies are almost childlike, often resembling school-yard chants or nursery rhymes, yet their rhythms pile heavy-metal riffage atop cheap mechanical beats that emphasize kicks, claps and snaps. Every element in the mix is full-blast, forcing Krauss' voice to fight for attention. Lyrics are indecipherable and so beside the point that Sleigh Bells hasn't bothered to print them.
While Krauss and Miller are hardly the first to deconstruct rock & roll, they're among the most successful to harness such sonic extremes since Nirvana. Every Sleigh Bells song is made to sound broken. The blown-out bass tones, the bone-saw guitar, the listener's sense of disorientation — that's all supposed to be there, even when it sounds like a recording flub.
Sleigh Bells makes no distinction between beauty and terror.
The overpowering effect of their music is in realizing how intertwined the two really are. Onstage, at two different lulls during the Atlanta sound check, Miller's guitar drifts into other bands' tunes: One is the Beatles' "Here Comes the Sun," the other is Slayer's "Angel of Death."
Krauss and Miller both had musical childhoods. Krauss' father was a professional singer and guitarist, and she was a classically trained pianist with Broadway dreams. Miller learned guitar as a kid, and by eighth grade was carrying his instrument to school along with a loose-leaf sheet of paper listing all the songs he knew, so that classmates could make requests. In high school he drove a pickup truck with a 10-inch woofer behind the seats (all the better to blare Pantera). He started touring around the time his classmates attended their first prom.
Krauss got her start with a now-notorious stint in the kiddie-pop quartet Rubyblue; the band tanked, but she gained enough experience to launch her career as a singer. She moved from her childhood Jersey Shore home to New York in 2003 to attend Marymount Manhattan College, paying the bills with her voice: She sang in a wedding band, which stretched her range from Ella Fitzgerald to AC/DC. She worked as a vocal coach. And she performed demo or "scratch" vocals for professional songwriters wanting to shop their material. The work strengthened her chops, kept her in the business and made her the kind of vocalist who could sing just about anything.
Krauss graduated college in 2007 and began teaching bilingual fourth grade at P.S. 30 in the South Bronx. In July 2008 she took her mother, a nurse, to dinner at Miss Favela, a Brazilian restaurant in Brooklyn. Miller was their waiter. He'd just moved to New York after a long dormant period following his amicable 2004 departure from Poison the Well, which had scraped its way up to playing 1,000-seat venues before he quit and moved home to South Florida, bar-backing to make ends meet.