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.


Iam said...

I've loved School Of Seven Bells since I heard it on KCRW.

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