Compilations / Mixes
School of Seven Bells: Ghostory
Say School of Seven Bells and the first thought that comes to mind might be of a band coming out of a shoegaze tradition that regards My Bloody Valentine as the Holy Grail. But, in actual fact, School Of Seven Bells' third release, Ghostory, suggests that the group might have more in common, surprising though it may sound, with the shoegaze strand associated with Cocteau Twins. Certainly the vocal delivery in songs such as “The Night” and “Show Me Love” aren't too far removed from the wondrous sound Liz Fraser brought to Blue Bell Knoll, Heaven or Las Vegas, and other classics. It's interesting, too, that Cocteau Twins' Robin Guthrie contributed a remix of “My Cabal” to a seven-inch single of the same name School Of Seven Bells' issued on Sonic Cathedral Recordings in 2007. The comparison can't be pushed too far, however, as most of Ghostory is delivered with an aggressive fury that is rarely if ever heard on any given Cocteau Twins outing.
Ghostory, incidentally, is a concept album of a kind, though in no way prog-like—more simply that the songs constellate around a single story, specifically one concerning “a young girl named Lafaye and the ghosts that surround her life,” ghosts in this case referring to the betrayal and heartbreak that remain when relationships end and love dies. Initially a trio, School of Seven Bells now counts only guitarist-producer Benjamin Curtis and vocalist Alejandra Deheza as members (Claudia Deheza having departed), and the group's material is now so polished that its immaculate dream-pop can sometimes start to resemble some Garbage-meets-Cocteau Twins hybrid. While that's not necessarily a bad thing, it does point to one of the album's weaknesses: for an album rooted in notions of heartbreak, Deheza's delivery proves to be a tad lacking in humanity—that is, an expression of emotional vulnerability proves wanting when her vocals are executed with such surgical precision. One of the album's restrained songs, the melancholy and percussion-free“Reappear,” offers an ideal opportunity to bring that emotional dimension to the surface, but the group chooses control over a naked outpouring of feeling. That tendency extends to other tracks, too, like “White Wind,” for example, though in this case an argument could be made that the track needs such tight control to prevent its stampeding groove from going off the rails.
Despite an insistent guitar riff that persists throughout as an undercurrent, “The Night” is especially Cocteau Twins-like in its soaring vocal melodies, while a rhythm base sometimes reminiscent of David Bowie's “Modern Love” blazes below. References aside, the tune is about as strong an opener as one might hope for, and the songs that immediately follow make good on its promise. “Love Play” catches one's ear for the heavy bottom-end the group fashions as a funky counterweight to the choir-like mass of Alejandras that fills the song's upper levels. That epic attack carries on into “Lafaye,” which roars as ecstatically as its predecessors and strikes a well-tuned balance between the grime of the instrumental attack and the crystalline clarity of the vocals. The fourth tune, “Low Times,” is less striking melodically than the opening triad, but it's rescued in part by the aggressive stomp of its rhythm track and the omnipresent throb of the guitars. However, whatever weaknesses emerge are immediately forgotten when “When You Sing” roars ecstatically for an almost unstoppable nine minutes, with guitars, drums, and vocals locking together into the tautest of grooves as a faint chorus of background vocals does its best “Sympathy for the Devil” imitation. One comes away from the album satisfied and largely won over yet hopeful that the group might choose to loosen the reins, so to speak, next time around so that a greater degree of human feeling emerges to balance the machine-like perfection of its attack.