Sunday, December 14, 2008


i never much cared for secret machines, so let's just say that benjamin curtis, now of school of seven bells, used to play with that (reasonably successful) band, but left to work on this project. musically, it's pretty clear he made the right choice.

as i said previously, 2008 has been an amazing year of music for me, mainly due to a newfound love of electronica. it's a way to make music that isn't subject to any physical restraints, it's only limitation is imagination. well, it's not like the genre isn't decades old, but i'm talking about my personal epiphany here, and my enthusiasm for it is like any greenhorn's. so, in a year when i delighted in taking in everything from gary numan to booka shade, the fact that alpinisms, school of seven bells's debut record, has riveted me is a testament to it. full disclosure here: school of seven bells reminds me more than a little bit of my previous electro-crush, last year's award winning au revoir simone, and not just because SVIIB (which, p.s., is a wicked acronym) also have dark hair and are from brooklyn. but just because i'm predisposed to like them doesn't mean that i'm wrong, and you'll hear why just around thirty seconds in. then, in the span of three minutes, the combination of intelligent harmonizing, imaginative beats, and the dramatic contrast of minimalist beats and swirling psychedelia will hook your brain, line and sinker. then, all of a sudden, you'll realize it's three hours later. time flies when you're having fun.

the first taste of alpinisms is the potent "iamundernodisguise," previously a prefuse 73 single ("class of 73 bells") with the band, which retains its powerful, sensuous undercurrents and indulges in a wash of hypnotic distortion and canonical vocals. these come courtesy of alejandra and claudia deheza, who helm the band alongside benjamin curtis. previously in on! air! library!, they met curtis on a tour, and the idea for school of seven bells was born. channeling the mysticism and beauty of classical indian form, and combining it with swirling distortion, SVIIB's approach is nothing short of seductive. in addition, the production on this record is totally immaculate (done by the band themselves), which makes it all that more of a joy to listen to - the vocal mixes are sublime, the perfect amount of reverb. it's probably the best sounding record i've heard since the magic position.

alpinisms is nearly bookended by its best songs, "iamundernodisguise" and penultimate track "prince of peace," both of which combine brooding distortion with explosive choruses. urgent and propulsive, "prince of peace" is delivered with no small hint of menace - there is no safety in the deheza sisters voices when they sing "we are the prince of peace / we are the hand of god." this isn't a song praising the munificence of a generous god, this is accompaniment to a deluge of some straight up old testament fire and brimstone, and the dehezas' are the killing angels singing a siren song. these two are the most pronouncedly ominous, but SVIIB don't ditch a good thing - while none of alpinisms's other songs come closer to the implicit threat of "iamundernodisguise" or "prince of peace," "wired for light" builds slowly but relentlessly, voices soaring (thanks to even more reverb than normal) over the sounds of a restless sitar, dropping out suddenly, leaving us startled and hollow.

school of seven bells's psychedelic bent reaches its climax on the 11 minute opus, "sempiternal-amaranth," which is notable chiefly because it hardly feels like more than 4 or 5 minutes long - it lulls you into a SVIIB stupor that is both impossible and undesirable to rise from. yet despite alpinisms's fluidity, there is a rather large conflict at its center, which is difficult to navigate for the critical listener. it's pretty clear that i favor heavy SVIIB, but what about the rest of the album? at times it seems odd, the juxtaposition of intense, transcendental tunes with upbeat, in-your-face treble ones, epitomized by "face to face on high places" and "half asleep," which many consider album highlights. i don't deny their quality, yet the (abrupt) transition from "iamundernodisguise" to the substantially more pop "face to face on high places" is rarely anything but jarring. the battle between pop and psychedelia rages throughout the record, and while the two are not always mutually exclusive, it does occasionally put SVIIB at odds with themselves. that being said, "half asleep" well deserves its release as a single, being one of those instances when pop and psychedelia blend to create something excellent.

alpinisms's press releases speak of the band's desire to literally climb above the physical world, a goal they have neatly accomplished. every second of music strives to elevate the listener above the conventional, to disappear among the folds in the music, to find a groove and follow it. pragmatically, alpinisms is almost flawlessly constructed, each song progressing and adding elements at deliberate speed, enough to hook but not to overindulge, so that you keep coming back for more, time and again. it is a curious twining, of restlessness and repetition, but SVIIB easily make it their own, especially on songs like "white elephant coat." drawing you into its clutches with a simple drum pattern, expansive guitar lines, and the same ethereal vocals that make the record essential, "white elephant coat" reflects alpinisms as a whole. for a remarkable first record, both in style and substance, school of seven bells' alpinisms is one of the most important albums of 2008.

Wednesday, December 3, 2008

future reflections

as another year draws near its close, wetter and far warmer than the last, a healthy dose of perspective is vital to comprehend 2008 as a music lover, and a registered american voter. the election overshadowed all else, and our optimism and hope foreshadowed the still-exhilarating phrase "president-elect obama." but even as it became slightly more tolerable to be an american citizen, the stateside music scene left little to choice but to shop the import section. brooklyn spewed forth another crop of aspiring scene queens, their local triumphs spearheaded by overzealous brooklynvegan commenters, but the best american album of the year was issued by some hip pop outcasts from the left coast; though yoni wolf's bitterness suited our collective national disgust from january to june, one hopes change has come to him as well. but president-elect obama's administration is too fresh for its successes to be rewritten as music, and the election cycle, though it dominated virtually everything else this year, is not much of a yardstick to evaluate music by.

so what, then, defines 2008 in music?

the internet continues to redefine our understanding and appreciation of music in ways that continues to send shockwaves through the industry (and its observers), from the FBI-sanctioned intervention in a leak of chinese democracy to the blogosphere's self-serving, endorsed explosion of bands like vampire weekend, for whom the backlash is hopefully just beginning. the virulence and dogmatism of chat room crusaders and anonymous respondents is certainly nothing new (though the depths to which the dialogue can sometime stoop still has the power to bewilder), but talking shit about a pretty sunset is what made the internet famous. though the reach of blogs and other democratic music promoters has grown longer since 2007, its weaknesses are nearly as numerous as its successes, which i realize is an odd statement if you're reading this. i turned away from reading music blogs (save the ever reliable BV) sometime soon after january, and found a less self-referential (and more exciting) font for new music in the form of the now-defunct album blog robin hood of indie music. facilitated by the loss of OiNK, album blogs are the new medium for serious piracy, and pose few of the dangers associated with torrenting or (god forbid) file sharers. for me, 2008 in music meant a literal cornucopia of new bands every day, new and old releases that radically reshaped my tastes simply by virtue of their availability.

in april, i was hired by a concert venue in what has become the undisputed best job of my (albeit short) life, but its implications were much further reaching than my happiness - it has altogether changed my perception of hearing music. reading a review earlier this year, i was struck by the author's claim that we rarely think about how music is made, and just appreciate the end result. since april, i have been learning about the process of music-making, and i'm not talking about the notes. which microphone to use, how guitar amps work, the best way to mic a snare drum (one on the top and one on the bottom), small details that add up to determining how we experience music, specifically in a live setting. why you're an idiot if you stand in the front row and complain about how bad the sound is. simple things for someone who plays music, or works with sound, but significant developments for a layman like me, though i don't think i can call myself a layman anymore.

i'm not sure how these two factors add up, album blogs and working at a nightclub, but the timing is proof enough of my ear's evolution, an unexpected and bold change of course. in just a couple months, i've discovered how wide the world of electronica really is, and immersed myself in its numerous pleasures. though i was not a stranger to its appeal, i have opened myself up to every corner of the genre in a much more dramatic fashion, appreciating artists as diverse as julien chaptal, venetian snares, and róisín murphy with equal vigor. in short, 2008 was a year for joyous aural exploration, and my favorite albums of the year reflect that. as with last year, i still have a problem with the word "best," and am shying away from that with a list of records that were important to me this year. without further ado, here they are, listed alphabetically.

camille - music hole
cut copy - in ghost colours
foals - antidotes
i am robot and proud - uphill city
iglomat - iglomat
mogwai - the hawk is howling
mr. scruff - ninja tuna
mutyumu - il y a
school of seven bells - alpinisms
slaraffenland - private cinema
spiritualized - songs in a & e
why? - alopecia
wild beasts - limbo, panto

provided i am blessed with enough time, i will do a short writeup for each album (of course with mp3s), so stay tuned.