In his New York apartment, guitarist Derek Miller found curious objects to photograph for the CD booklet of “Reign of Terror,” the new sophomore salvo from his dissonant duo Sleigh Bells — items such as his paratrooper grandfather’s Purple Heart and bullet-holed World War II canteen.
But only one was such a striking image it had to be the cover: Blood-spattered tennis shoes belonging to Sleigh Bells’ frontwoman Alexis Krauss, from an onstage tour mishap in Atlanta, where he accidentally clocked her with his sharp-necked Jackson-model ax.
“My guitar went up and came down with a thud right on her head, and I was super worried,” says Miller, who plays Noise Pop in San Francisco on Thursday.
“So I threw my guitar behind my back, grabbed her by the shoulders and gasped, ‘Oh, my God! Are you OK?’” he says. “She had blood coming down her face, her eyes were crossed, but she was like, ‘I’m fine!’ And she sang the next song, ‘Rill Rill,’ with a bloody towel in her left hand, pressed against her head, and a mic in the right. And we just held on to those shoes.”
The snapshot echoes the mind-numbing pain that Miller, 30, personally endured during “Reign.”
Just as the buzz on Sleigh Bells — and their sweet-and-sour 2010 debut “Treats” — kicked off, he was broadsided by two tragedies: His father died in a motorcycle accident, and shortly thereafter, his mother was diagnosed with cancer.
With his dad’s passing, he says, “I was already in total, utter darkness. Then when that happened to my mom, I just threw my hands up in the air, like, ‘That’s it, man — my life is over.’ Nothing in the world can prepare you for something like that.”
Sleigh Bells saved the suffering artist — he simply threw himself into emotive writing and recording and ignored reality, sparking the stunning catharsis of “Reign of Terror.”
Inspired by the squealing fretwork of “Hysteria”-era Def Leppard — and sculpted around Krauss’ marshmallowy vocals — Miller first swaggers, on the opening “True Shred Guitar” and “Crush,” then descends, flailing, into the despairing “Demons,” “Road To Hell” and “D.O.A.”
“There are moments on the record, like ‘Comeback Kid’ and ‘Never Say Die’ where lyrically I’m trying so hard to be optimistic, I’m giving myself pep talks,” he says.
Miller doesn’t want to sound like a victim. His mother’s cancer is in remission, and he’s grateful for the magical chemistry he and Krauss have in Sleigh Bells.
“So in the grand scheme of things, ‘Reign of Terror’ is just another record,” he says. “But for me? It’s by far the most important thing I’ve ever done in my life.”
IF YOU GO
Where: Regency Ballroom, 1300 Van Ness Ave., San Francisco
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Tickets: $22.50 to $25
Contact: (888) 929-7849, www.axs.com