By: Rich Buley
School of Seven Bells | website | facebook | twitter |
Released on February 26, 2016 via Full Time Hobby/Vagrant Records
The musical projects of guitarist/multi-instrumentalist Benjamin Curtis, originally from Dallas, Texas, have been an important part of my life for the last decade. Initially, my aural involvement was with the criminally underrated Secret Machines, purveyors of exceedingly fine and exceptionally loud space rock and psychedelia. Benjamin released two albums with his brother Brandon and the rest of the band, before unexpectedly departing in 2007.
What happened next was even more surprising, with Ben totally abandoning the sound of his previous band, focusing instead on shimmering shoegaze and electro-pop soundscapes with identical twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, who brought a celestial vocal presence and an enormous, synth-based rhythm section to the mix. School of Seven Bells was born.
Following well-received debut album Alpinisms in 2008, I caught the band a year later supporting White Lies in Manchester. The sight (and sound) of Curtis thrashing away, head down, on his guitar, in between two banks of billowing synths and the Deheza sisters, was enthralling, and the contrast between the wave upon wave of frazzled distortion and the icy electronic beats and ethereal voices utterly beguiling.
Claudia left the band shortly after the release of their fabulous second album Disconnect from Desire in 2010, to leave Ben and Alejandra, by this point in a relationship, to go it alone.
A dreamier, slightly underwhelming third album, Ghostory, followed in 2012, before, early the following year, with most of the songs already written for their fourth, the single reason for this detailed biography arrives, in devastating fashion. Benjamin Curtis was diagnosed with T-Cell Lymphoblastic Lymphona. He never recovered, and died on 29th December, 2013, less than 12 months after diagnosis, and aged just 35.
How Alejandra has found the will and fortitude to complete what she and Ben had started I will never know, but with the help of (M83, Beck) producer Justin-Meldal Johnsen, and contributions from Claudia, SVIIB, the fourth and last album, eventually sees the light of day. The album title is effectively eponymous, with SVIIB the popular abbreviation of the band’s moniker, and the name of their official website. The point of this shouldn’t be lost. For School of Seven Bells, this is the end. And this is who and what they were.
Alejandra’s decision to use this album to tell the story of her relationship with Ben, from lovers, to ex-lovers, to best friends, was made before his diagnosis. The songs had already been written. What is remarkable about that fact is how, if you didn’t know that, a lot of the lyrics could easily be interpreted to be about his illness, and their eventual, permanent parting. Whether any of the words were tweaked during completion to achieve this incredibly powerful dual meaning is of course open to debate, but I am pole-axed anyway during ‘Open Your Eyes’ when Alejandra sings “Open your eyes love, ‘cause I’ve been crying. Open your eyes love, ‘cause I’ve been sitting here all alone”. All words, melodies and timbres have been greatly magnified by Ben’s passing, and the warmth and depth of School of Seven Bells’ music makes for some very special, quite moving moments.
Operating in a genre of music that is often found wanting in the colour and soul departments, School of Seven Bells’ style of synth pop has always been bathed in a warm, enticing glow, helped enormously by Curtis’ sky-scraping riffs, a huge, pounding rhythm section, and those luscious, crystalline vocals. ‘Ablaze’, which opens SVIIB, displays these three main features in abundance, and in depicting the time when the two of them first met (“You set my heart ablaze”) is actually, despite the backdrop, uplifting and exciting.
Now I’m no pop ballad authority, but I am convinced that if the aforementioned ‘Open Your Eyes’ received even a modicum of daytime radio airtime, it would become a gigantic mega hit. Chopped, sampled voices give way to a sumptuous synth lead, a swirling, enveloping arrangement and Alejandra’s beautifully poignant vocal. It is quite simply breathtaking.
Credit must be given to Meldal-Johnsen for the way he has managed to retain all of the sparkling energy that Curtis gave to the band and their music. The latter always seemed most at home with the multi-layered, up-tempo shoegaze material, and on tracks like ‘A Thousand Times More’ and ‘Signals’, his sonic influence is still all over it. It sounds like business as usual.
Of course, tragically, it isn’t, and the hope and togetherness that runs throughout the record, ending with Alejandra’s heart-rending exclamation that ‘This is our time, and our time is indestructible’ is terribly contradicted by the huge sense of loss and desolation she must have felt in completing their album.
As a body of work, SVIIB stands up convincingly against the band’s earlier albums. I feel sure that Benjamin Curtis would be tremendously proud of what his close friend and band-mate has achieved. And as a memorial of their relationship, and a summary of all that they were together musically, it is a more than fitting epitaph. R.I.P. Benjamin.