Shrouded in a veil of billowing smoke and thundering bass, Sleigh Bells took to the stage for Converse City Carnage this past Saturday. It was an idyllic evening at Pier 63, with a slight breeze coming off the water and a bruise-colored sunset, which complemented Alexis Krauss’s bleach-dappled denim cut-offs.
But something wasn’t quite right.
Listening to Sleigh Bells is one thing. Seeing them live is altogether different, and slightly confusing to me as a true rock fan. For starters, they didn’t perform with a bassist or drummer. I should have expected this, considering how heavily they rely on frenetic drum machine tracks. But plenty of predominantly electronic groups tour with live backing (Nine Inch Nails comes to mind), and for a “hard rock” act to be completely without a rhythm section seemed like cheating. I’m pretty sure John Bonham and Lemmy Kilmister would agree.
The set consisted mostly of new tracks, and the hometown crowd eagerly sang along. But it all felt so glossy and perfectly produced. Supposedly tough songs -- like “Demons” and the slow, but menacing, “Born to Lose” -- sounded hard-edged, thanks to twin metal guitars, but didn’t feel dangerous.
My concert buddy pointed out that he couldn’t tell whether Derek Miller and touring guitarist Jason Boyner were playing live or not, and to be honest neither could I. Between the smoke clouds and seizure-inducing lights, no one would have noticed if they weren’t.
And therein lies the problem. For me, good rock is essentially about musicality. Sleigh Bells, however, presented catchy dance-pop trussed up in tattoos and Urban Outfitters-approved, pre-distressed t-shirts. For all the talk of “True Shred Guitar,” there really wasn’t any, and certainly not the kind of shredding that melts faces and creates icons like Jimmy Page and Glenn Tipton and Richie Faulkner of Judas Priest. If this is the future of popular rock, I think I’ll stick to the genuinely dirty underground.