The New York indie outfit School of Seven Bells continue to expand their innovative sound on their dazzlingly bright third album despite shrinking their number.
Ghostory: smaller School of Seven Bells retains their brilliance
The departure of a band member can usually be guaranteed to throw fanbases into consternation. It implies that all is not well, that there might be consequences ahead for their sound. This is especially the case if the band's aesthetic is so finely honed and so carefully balanced that they sound as though the slightest alteration could make their entire edifice fold into nothing. For instance, when The xx's guitarist, Baria Qureshi, departed just a few months after the release of their debut album, it was feared that the sparse, delicately crafted atmosphere that her erstwhile band traded upon would be permanently ruptured. These concerns were partially allayed when The xx proved able to recreate the same magic live as a trio. Nonetheless, three years on, their second album is yet to appear.
New York's School of Seven Bells fall squarely into the same category. The erstwhile trio was itself formed by musicians abandoning projects they were already involved with and falling in together instead: guitarist Benjamin Curtis left the space-rock group Secret Machines to hook up with twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, who themselves departed the post-rock outfit On!Air!Library. The fruits of their decision to elope together more than justified it. School of Seven Bells' 2008 debut album, Alpinisms, combined neo-shoegaze textures and engrossing percussion with ethereal ring chants and mantras; its 2010 follow-up, Disconnect From Desire, found them expanding their sound, with Curtis' walls of guitar and the twins' soaring harmonies sweeping the listener upwards and outwards, like standing at the top of a mountain and gazing up into the wind.
On both, the success of the band's music seemed to be based on an intuitive mutual understanding as much as their formidable musical prowess. The harmonies and rounds sung by the Deheza twins were otherworldly in their perfect precision, from the eerily hypnotic rising and falling "Iamundernodisguise" to the simultaneous melodic explosions in different directions on Windstorm. The importance of this dual vocal seemed so integral to their music that when Claudia Deheza announced her departure in late 2010 - for "personal reasons" - one had to wonder whether something irreplaceable had been lost.
Ghostory's opening two cuts sound like consolidation, with the pair working out how to be School of Seven Bells as a duo: lead single The Night is a perfectly adequate and entirely typical distillation of everything their fans have come to expect and Love Play is a gorgeously gauzy slow burn, executed with great care.
It's only three tracks in that the album really hits its stride: Lafaye explodes in a pounding house beat and with harmonies that reach up towards the sun. It's indicative of how School of Seven Bells have continued to expand in all directions on their third album that the production is even more polished than before: the New Orderisms in both Curtis' bass guitar sounds and the increased interest in dance structures and beats are more evident than ever. The resultant songs are as dazzlingly bright as music can get.
At several points, the sheer physicality of the music leaves the listener gasping for breath. White Wind is an immersive, elemental rush that swerves between chord changes before pulling the safety net of the instrumentation away in its closing seconds. "This restlessness has always been," intones Alejandra, half catharsis and half incantation, suddenly suspended in thin air. The same trick is pulled on an even grander scale on the eight-minute closer When You Sing, while on Low Times the band indulge in an unexpected house break, complete with a lush electronic synth hanging in space, before essaying a recriminatory climax with a weightless fury.
In the lead-up to Ghostory's release, the duo have downplayed Claudia's involvement in the creative process. In an interview with Spinner.com, Curtis said, "There's no disrespect to Claudia at all, but as far as writing and ... hatching our musical plans, it's really been Alley and I's thing since the beginning."
The duo are currently touring with a backing vocalist to handle harmonies, as well as a new live drummer; and if there isn't the same uncanny accuracy in the way the two voices interplay, Alejandra has been growing into her role as the band's frontwoman. At their show last week at London's Relentless Garage, she seized control of the stage and the spotlight with an authority that hadn't been evident before.
The sound versus songcraft binary has always been a reductive one with School of Seven Bells, but there has been a definite tilt in the balance of the two. Previously, the pure swoop of the Deheza twins' harmonies would often have the effect of covering up the song they were actually singing. Rather than being vehicles for words, they acted as abstract textures in much the same way as Curtis' walls of guitars. The initial visceral impact was primarily sonic, with the specific emotional impact of the band's songs only sneaking in later.
Both live and on Ghostory, the new line-up seems to have been a catalyst for Alejandra Deheza: for the first time her narratives and words seem to take precedence. As on previous projects, the songs on Ghostory are linked by a unifying concept: the part-autobiographical tale of a girl named Lafaye and the ghosts that surround her. Indeed, the importance of memory, and words unspoken, are integral to Ghostory's emotional pull: as the portmanteau of the title implies, the various characters who emerge are a means of piecing together a personal history. (The concept has brought some left-field comparisons to pop-country singer-songwriter Taylor Swift's Speak Now, on which each song is, according to her, "made up of words I didn't say when the moment was right in front of me" - but the purpose of the exercise, it turns out, is exploration of the self rather than other people.)
Ghostory is an emotional, sonic roller-coaster on which Alejandra picks over unfinished business. Scavenger is more bluntly angry than any School of Seven Bells song has ever been, and while it's hard to imagine the serene Alejandra ever really spitting out a line, there's a thrillingly jarring note of anger as she sings, "You only take, cuz you're a coward." Elsewhere, Show Me Love appears to be a reflection on the same situation from a third-party perspective: "He only takes from you what he can break," she whispers, before delivering the tender kicker: "I'd never take from you ... babe." Throughout, the sense of closure that comes with exorcising ghosts in song is a perfect fit for the sense of expansion in the sound: the neatness of it all makes the combination seem intuitive and natural. On Ghostory, School of Seven Bells close one chapter to open a brand new one that has even more possibilities.
Alex Macpherson is a regular contributor to The Review.