School of Seven Bells-Alpinisms (2008, Ghostly International)
School Of Seven Bells was a band that I first listened to because I liked their name. The moniker, drawn from a mythical Colombian pickpocket school, sounded intriguingly dreamy and magical, and I hoped that the music would follow suit. My parents got the band’s 2008 debut Alpinisms for me last Christmas, and I was not disappointed. This is another album, like Tacocat’s NVM, that I don’t have a super long history with, but I’ve grown to love it in a relatively short time.
School of Seven Bells was formed basically on a whim by the late Benjamin Curtis (formerly of Secret Machines) and identical twins Alejandra and Claudia Deheza (of On!Air!Library!) when the two musical forces collided in New York City and decided to drop everything, move into a living area turned workspace, and create a band. You’ve got to respect the confidence of these newly acquainted people deciding that their ideas were good enough to make this kind of leap; luckily, Curtis and the two Dehezas were vindicated by the results. Their creative process was both constant and spontaneous, with sessions never really beginning or ending because they lived and worked in the same place. 2008’s Alpinisms was the first result of this inspired collaboration, and it’s a truly unique sonic document.
I’ve heard the term dream pop used to describe School of Seven Bells’ sound, but that doesn’t seem quite appropriate to me. That classification brings to mind languid tempos, gossamer guitars, and hazy, indistinct vocals; Alpinisms is more elemental, definitely hallucinatory, but lucid rather than narcotic. It’s a hard sound to describe; it does draw from the blurry guitar textures of shoegaze, but is powered by a turbocharged, electronic thrum that groups like CHVRCHES would go on to popularize a few years later. There’s even a trace of a chillier, more synthy version of Dead Can Dance’s creepy mysticism in there somewhere, especially on moody album opener “Iamundernodisguise,” during which Alejandra Deheza calls her heart a “drum of water,” a proclamation that you could easily imagine coming from Lisa Gerrard.
The interwoven vocals of the Deheza sisters are the defining aspects of the group’s style; the two harmonize their way through melodically complex vocal lines that give life to cryptic, poetic lyrics. Since they’re twins, their voices are nearly identical, to the point of being surreal; it’s the same effect featured on some of the Beach Boys’ masterpieces, for the same reason. On an opposite note, their harmonic intervals sometimes remind me of Layne Staley and Jerry Cantrell’s spooky 5ths from their Alice In Chains work. The Dehezas’ joint performance is deliberate and precise, each word being given its own corresponding melodic emphasis, lending the songs an almost hymnal or religious aura. The best image to sum up the collective musical effect is that of some massive, cave-bound, shamanic half-human, half-machine, shaking itself awake from an idyllic, hundred year slumber before walking out onto a mountain peak and sending forth a beautiful song into the heavens.
Although I disputed School of Seven Bells’ “dream pop” classification just a few paragraphs ago, there is a way in which the term applies, and that way is literally. A lot of Alejandra Deheza’s lyrics touch on the themes of sleep and dreaming. 7 of Alpinism’s 11 tracks feature some variation on the word “sleep,” 3 use the word “dream,” and only 3 songs contain neither; including, surprisingly, the mantra-like “Sempiternal/Amaranth,” which has over eleven minutes to do it. Deheza likes to blur the line between dreams and reality, expressing a preference for the freedom allowed by lucid dreaming on “Half Asleep” and shuddering album standout “Wired For Light.” Besides the loose dream theme, though, the album’s lyrics are generally mysterious and difficult to parse. One of the more straightforward songs is the soothing ballad “For Kalaja Maria,” which submerges pensive piano beneath titanic pools of reverb. Deheza reassures an acquaintance, “There’s no need to get depressed/There’s no need for anxiousness,” one of the few readily understandable sentiments conveyed on the album. Especially intriguing are the lyrics on “Prince Of Peace,” in which Deheza identifies herself as the titular figure in both English and Spanish after repeating the phrase “Hinges that swing,” over and over. It’s almost as if her words are riddles that follow some sort of dream logic, understandable to her and nobody else.
An aesthetic or style will only get an artist so far, and the most important thing about the School of Seven Bells folks is that they created some great songs. Alpinisms includes something for everyone; it’s got blissful, traditionalist shoegaze (“Half Asleep,” “Connjur”), jittery, exotic bangers (“Wired For Light,” “Prince of Peace”), proggy slow-builders (“White Elephant Coat,” “Sempiternal/Amaranth”), and skyscraping anthems (“Face To Face On High Places,” “My Cabal”). The aforementioned “Face to Face” is my personal favorite from the album; a droning, glitchy juggernaut that manages to sound both thrilling and wistful, featuring distorted vocal hums and what could possibly be the snapping of a massive metallic rubber band during the second verse. An incredible song to play at top volume and let yourself be overwhelmed by.
It’s difficult to listen to Alpinisms without an underlying sadness; after all, Claudia Deheza left the group in 2010 and Curtis died of lymphoma a few years later in 2013. The record captured a true moment of artistic inspiration during which three people decided to disrupt their professional and personal lives in service of a common musical goal. The circumstances of its creation make this album a singular achievement; emotional yet elusive, dreamy and wide awake at the same time. Listening to it on repeat this past week has only given me more appreciation for it, and I highly recommend it to anyone who hasn’t heard it by this point.