So I found this new album by a band called School of Seven Bells. They’ve been around for a while and I thought I’d check the album because it sounded interesting in an old school kind of way. You see that’s my problem with new music. Nothing really sounds inspired to me because I’m a retro sort of chap, I prefer the old sounds, the old school B-boying, the thunderous crunch of a Fender Strat. I’ve said this before, and maybe it’s a stupid point, but I can’t think of any genre that is currently at the peak of its artistry or creativity. Any genre of music that I can think of has been done much better at some point in history. So to me, music nowadays sounds tired, and the only real way I can take interest is if it sounds a bit retro, sounds like it’s indicative of another era. And it also means I more or less ignore a lot of new releases simply because I’m prejudiced against this era. You may have noticed this by how infrequently I write about new music, and in fact the proportion of music from the last 3 or 4 years that I’ve written about is not at all representative of how much I actually listen to. I normally listen to a lot less. I do feel it’s my duty, to a certain extent, to try and write about new music now that I’m on this blog and it’s getting a fair number of readers. Steven does it and I feel I should do the same, plus it’s an attempt to keep it fresh for the readers. (I hope you’re grateful, I go through great pains to do this) So what I’m trying to say really boils down to this: I got this album because it sounds quite retro, and it’s new. And you know what? It’s not bad, not bad at all.
Okay, it’s not incredible either. But I paid a whole £3.78 for this album (A man could get a pretty decent lunch for that money) with the intention of reviewing it, so I’ll be damned if I’m not going to cough up a review about it. And it certainly is noteworthy, don’t get me wrong. Blurring the lines between neo-shoegaze, trip hop and dream pop, School of Seven Bells are among the more unusual bands working in this present age. What’s more interesting is that, until the release of this album, the band’s two singers were two beautiful identical twins, whose ethereal harmonies were staggering, luscious and were an integral component of their sound. The loss of one sister Claudia (who quit “for personal reasons”) was the equivalent of losing a kidney: School of Seven Bells still functioned, but at half capacity, and some drastic overhauls would be required to regain that function or at least alter it somewhat. Well, perhaps not drastic, but subtle. This largely succeeds. For starters, Ghostory is a concept album, an idea that usually makes me cringe in horror because for every The Wall there’s a 21st Century Breakdown, a Metal Machine Music and a dozen other lousy concepts in between. I’m going to need to be sold on the concept pretty convincingly, and to be honest the explanation of this album’s concept as "the tale of a young girl named Lafaye and the ghosts that surround her life” is already making me raise an eyebrow. But this concept allows School of Seven Bells to delve into some rather devilish territory. From the onset there is a subtle change in the band’s sound from before: all of their hallmarks are still there – the electronical drums, the resonant guitar, sweeping synthesizer backdrops – but endued with a more downbeat sensibility, both lyrically and musically. Listen, par example, to the dark, descending minor chords of Lafaye when the drums kick in. Combined with the metallic drumming and the Gothic lyrics “(You broke into the fabric house, a stranger, Lafaye, and there your heart was taken from you”) a pervading nihilism and Victorian-esque tragedy comes through in the music. Concept and content are united: a concept album that actually seems to work.
With the stunning Low Times, influences of the likes of New Order and Portishead are evident as the band creates an industrial backdrop of arpeggiated synth bass and live, pounding drums. And suddenly, just like that, the furor stops and the next track – Reappear – is beatless, pensive, a synthesizer led excursion into a musical dreamworld. Ghostory covers a series of highs and lows, interspersing hazy synths, biting guitars and Alejandra Deheza’s spectral vocals in its exploration of this concept, its own ghost story. Admittedly the concept begins to wear thin a bit towards the end, with the “ghosts” of Lafaye’s life mostly involving heartbreak and regret at the loss of love. Plenty of albums have songs like these throughout them and don’t make the distinction of classing them as a concept, so what makes the concept of Ghostory so unique? Well nothing, really. It’s a bit of a gimmick in truth. The musical concept should really be the area of focus, as it’s an unnerving blend of the mysterious and the dark, the mechanical and the natural, some of the more beautiful vocals committed to tape laid over crunching drums and acidic, artificial bass. As I mentioned at the beginning, School of Seven Bells’ sound is strongly indicative of a past era or even several eras musically. The lyrics of a young girl’s crushed romantic dreams and ghostly visions are irrevocably tied into the Gothic, the electronic bass and synthesizer sounds hearken back to the post-punk/disco years of the 80’s, and Ben Curtis’ shimmering tremolo guitar is almost blatantly evocative of My Bloody Valentine. Nowhere is this better exemplified than the closer When You Sing, whose name even hints at a connection to MBV. With Deheza’s vocals overdubbed over the tribal beat, Curtis’ many-layered guitar, while still hinting at anguish ultimately overcomes it with its urgency, providing a welcome moment of catharsis at the end of an otherwise despairing album. If you forget much of the in-between tracks, you won’t forget this one.
Okay, so there’s not a whole pile new here, but School of Seven Bells have created a stellar work of music that’s certainly worth listening to. The concept works up to a point, but I wouldn’t dwell on it. Instead, let the invigorated incarnation of School of Seven Bells take you on a 45-minute journey through a mysterious and ethereal musical landscape, which, while perhaps not convincingly showing you the ghosts in their concept, certainly show you the ghosts of their influences.
Words – Adam.