School of Seven Bells Alpinisms

[Ghostly International; 2008]

Styles: rapturous female harmonizing, shoegaze
Others: M83, On! Air! Library!

Alpinisms, the title of School of Seven Bells' debut record, is not a misnomer. As far back as November 2007, Benjamin Curtis (formerly of Secret Machines, and guitarist and chief sonic maestro for School of Seven Bells) divulged that a record had been completed, but had undergone constant revision. Evidently, the adjustments continued throughout 2008, until Curtis and the Deheza twins (Claudia and Alejandra, formerly of On! Air! Library!) were finally satisfied. In the spirit of alpinists, the group scaled monumental obstacles, offering a meticulously crafted album that was well worth the wait.

A reggaeton drum stomp opens “Iamundernodisguise,” a preview of the exotic influences found within the album. School of Seven Bells take their name from a South American myth, and fittingly, they appropriate ethnic influences all over their debut. Their affinity for the alien is heard later on the ominous “Prince of Peace” and “Wired for Light,” the latter’s thick guitar conjuring what sounds like a digital sandstorm from a sci-fi Middle East. Rather than sounding pretentious or gimmicky, these amalgams of progressive soundscapes, guitar, synth, and organic and electronic percussion actually sound natural.

Ben Curtis’ guitar is either delivered cleanly with chiming delay or in lavish, swirling washes. Rich in color and texture, these thick sonic maelstroms merit comparisons to any number of shoegaze touchstones. A combination of hand percussion, live drumset, and laptop sequencing supplies the songs’ propulsive rhythms. Atop all of this are the Deheza twins’ ethereal voices. They sound lovely alone (“For Kalaja Mari”) but are breathtaking when used to complement one another in lilting two- or three-part harmonies.

On “Sempiternal/Amaranth,” the group falls prey to the same snare that so many other bands have lately; after about seven minutes, the song feels finished, but plays on for another three. It’s overextended and uninspired, completely halting the album’s momentum. Another detriment is its homogeneity. “Face to Face On High Places,” album standout “Connjur,” and “My Cabal” all have sublime, euphoric choruses, but their effect is lessened by their similarities. While they evoke slightly different feels, the songs are obviously molded from similar materials. If one of these were replaced with a slower, sparser song, like 7-inch track “Silent Grips,” the album would have benefited.

Because the album was labored over for so long, it'd be interesting to hear its sonic evolution. How different is the first version of the album? What elements were holding the album back from release? Although this final version could have featured more diverse song selections, Alpinisms is an undoubtedly singular album, setting the bar quite high for this burgeoning trio.

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