School Of Seven Bells: SVIIB | Virgin Media
School Of Seven Bells: SVIIB

School Of Seven Bells: SVIIBRating: ★★★☆☆ | by Ian Gittins

11/02/2016

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In the summer of 2012, US duo Alejandra Deheza and Benjamin Curtis decided that their fifth album would tell the story to date of their art-pop band, School Of Seven Bells.

That story was to take an unexpected and tragic twist. Within weeks of the album being written, multi-instrumentalist Curtis was diagnosed with a rare form of T-Cell lymphoblastic lymphoma. Less than a year later, he was dead.

After the requisite period of grieving, singer Deheza repaired to LA with Beck and Nine Inch Nails producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen to complete the record, declaring that her aim was to “feature Benjamin as much as possible”. Even though the songs were written before the pair knew of Curtis’s illness, it is thus hard to listen to without imagining intimations of mortality.

The band always functioned on the cusp between shoegaze rock and synth-pop: their nearest musical precursor was probably the influential 1990s UK duo Curve. Here, opening track Ablaze sounds horribly prescient as Deheza reflects on the love affair that she and Curtis shared for the first five years of Seven Bells’ existence: “When it died, I fell apart”.

The band always functioned on the cusp between shoegaze rock and synth-pop

Yet even though the album was recorded in horrendously tragic circumstances, it lacks the gravitas truly to reflect the import of Curtis’s demise. School Of Seven Bells are big on shimmering surfaces and sleek production but light on unique identity and memorable song hooks. They wash over you beautifully, but they still wash over you.

On My Heart features Curtis’s voice from beyond the grave, a ghost in the machine in both a literal and very affecting sense. On the stately and sepulchral Elias, Deheza’s voice recalls Cocteau Twins’ Liz Fraser, or Portishead’s Beth Gibbons.

Best of all is A Thousand Times More, where the pair’s usual amorphous synth haze is disturbed by a gorgeous thrum of vivid bass guitar, as if Peter Hook had gatecrashed a Slowdive dream. Yet too many tracks sigh then subside into a morose murmur, so slight and inconsequential that they seem barely to exist.

Well, that is understandable. “Our time is indestructible,” trills Deheza defiantly on the closing, La Roux-like This Is Our Time: at the very least, you admire the spirit of this posthumous tribute to her fallen ex-bandmate and lover.