School of Seven Bells – Ghostory
Vagrant Records 2012
The concept surrounding Ghostory is flimsy at best – the running narrative of a girl named Lafaye and all the ghosts that one would expect to surround a girl with such a Victorian name. The loss of Claudia Deheza robs School of Seven Bells of one of their most distinctive characteristics, the angelic, unearthly harmonizing between Claudia and twin sister Alejandra. Yet Ghostory, the band’s third record and their first as a duo, is uncommonly strong and surefooted, a remarkable transformation of their gossamer-thin dream pop into something vigorous and visceral. Where 2010’s lackluster Disconnect from Desire was all style and little substance, Ghostory is surprisingly forceful and direct in its message, one that melds almost seamlessly the sublime drone of My Bloody Valentine with the nostalgia of M83. It’s dreamy and hopelessly untethered from straightforward pop, like School of Seven Bells have always been, yet for the first time Ghostory sounds like the work of an organic, spontaneous band, rather than the determined sculptors of hypnotic, icy shoegaze they had seemed content to remain.
Ghostory carries with it connotations of magic and spirituality, and if there’s an ideal word to describe Alejandra Deheza’s vocals, a good place to start would be “otherworldly.” Hers is a voice that prefers to soar rather than coo, speeding along through a storm of synths or layering on top of itself many times over, a more ethereal Florence Welch or a druggier Natasha Khan. At times it seems fragile, like on the soft, sprawling “Reappear,” shimmering above waves of reverb, but that’s an illusion – Deheza has never sounded as confident yet so tempestuous, more in touch with what she’s singing than ever before. School of Seven Bells have always tended to focus on the trees rather than the forest – as a result, the music they crafted was, more often than not, opulent but uncomfortably empty, something beautiful that could be admired but never touched. Opener “The Night” swiftly puts that notion to sleep: “our meeting lit a fuse in my heart / devoured me, devoured me,” Deheza sings, and it’s lovely and airy, as she always is, yet there’s a passion and a sensuality here that has been hard to find with this band.
The music seems effortless, which is an accomplishment in itself given just how complicated School of Seven Bells makes things. There’s a veritable blizzard of effects here, washing tones out while they brighten others, coalescing in misty bursts of guitar and mesmerizing drum attacks, a steady, mutating bass line bubbling constantly underneath. Benjamin Curtis’ former work as a member of The Secret Machines informs every aspect of the production here – that space-rock trio specialized in widescreen, full surround sound operas, the proggiest of the prog. That love of expanse, of wide open sound filling every space and constant shifts into lulls and crescendos, is what defines Ghostory. Deheza’s vocals are the driving force, of course, but the way Curtis makes the music dive into your headphones – at points rolling to an ecstatic high on the frantic “White Wind,” at others reducing things to a narcotic lull on “Show Me Love” – is pure feeling. There’s a heavy goth influence on things here, even as sparkling and lush as the production gets, and the drone of Cocteau Twins and the haunting new wave of Siouxsie and the Banshees, not to mention the hazy landscapes of My Bloody Valentine, are much in evidence throughout. Atmosphere is the priority here, yet it’s a testament to Curtis’ work and Deheza’s renewed fire that the songs on Ghostory stand well enough on their own. “The Night” might be the best track the duo have penned to date, concise by their own standards yet voluminous in its sound, with a hook that is as compelling as any in the band’s catalog. “Lafaye,” meanwhile, is haunting and vaguely foreboding; its melody calls to mind Florence’s “What The Water Gave Me,” but its chorus and the unexpected tonal shift are, simply put, enchanting.
It’s hard to explain what kind of emotions these songs engender, and I can imagine it will be different for everyone – that’s the beauty of this kind of dreamy canvas, where the words are much less important than the spirit of the vocals and the nebulous music. There’s the general ghost story conceit, of course, but that’s as much a smokescreen as it is a real narrative. At times I hear Alejandra talking to her twin, and there’s loss and regret, while at others, most noticeably the triumphant closer “When You Sing,” there is a simple catharsis, the culmination of a relentless drum pattern and a blizzard of instruments, not the least of which is Deheza’s vocals spinning wondrously out into a psychedelic haze. It reminds me a bit of M83’s latest, where lyrics were second to the vital, intense feelings the music offered up. It’s also incredibly hard to pin down without resorting to an embarrassing array of adjectives and metaphors. Dream pop, goth, shoegaze – call it what you want, but what School of Seven Bells have ended up with is a genuinely gorgeous record by any standard.
School of Seven Bells – “Lafaye”
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Release date February 28, 2012.