School of Seven Bells - Biography
At this point in the history of music, especially pop music, originality is defined by the synthesis of various influences to form a new sound. New York City based School of Seven Bells is nothing if not a perfect example of this. Twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza, along with Benjamin Curtis, bring a short history of New York art-rock to the table. The Deheza sisters fronted the dream-pop band On!Air!Library! while Curtis was the guitarist in prog-pop group Secret Machines. In 2006 the three came together to forge the most original music of their careers as School of Seven Bells. The trio melds obvious staples from genres like shoegaze, dub, various folk traditions, kraturock and hip-hop to create a truly fresh take on psychedelic music.
The circular development of School of Seven Bells (SVIIB) has been interesting to follow, and it has happened fairly quickly. The debut 7", My Cabal (2006 Sonic Cathedral), was a more than auspicious beginning, even if it now sounds pale in comparison to the full-blown grandeur of the band's debut long player. The 7" features a version of a regularly performed song from SVIIB's excellent live show, "My Cabal," as well as a remix from Cocteau Twins main man Robin Guthrie. The song features lush vocal harmonies as well as shimmering guitar work and simple, danceable beats. The Cocteau Twins influence on the band is obvious, most notably in the Elizabeth Fraser-inspired vocals. The real distinction here, and it's one that Guthrie’s club friendly remix picks up on, is the groove of the band’s approach. Combining the droning fog of shoegaze with a minimal Manchester groove would prove to be the band’s lasting moment of epiphany. Curtis soon parted ways with Secret Machines to concentrate solely on SVIIB, citing that he felt cramped in the more typical rock style of his former band. With the first SVIIB single you can hear the promise of the unique direction in which he wanted to take his new music.
SVIIB took a slight detour between the 7" and its full-length. Working in 2007 with drummer Joe Stickney and ambient producer James Elliott (aka Ateleia) on bass and electronics, SVIIB made an overlooked 12” for the Table of the Elements label. Face To Face On High Places (2007 Table of the Elements) dove into complex hard hitting beats and droning textural soundscapes to fascinating results. But augmenting their songwriting with extra band members proved problematic for Curtis and the Dehezas. Although the EP is an aesthetic success, it certainly explores a much more difficult sound than the band’s previous or future work. Stickney is a fierce drummer, and his parts on tracks like “Limb By Limb” are intricate and at times overwhelming. The same could be said for Elliott’s electronics; the ending section of the title track fades into a constantly shifting disorienting swirl of gritty ambience, swallowing the song that came before. It’s a different sounding band than on that first single, one more indebted to the harder edges of This Heat or the Raincoats than to the dreamy whispers of shoegaze. It's an interesting proposition to imagine the SVIIB that continued in this direction, but that was not to be the case. The sound of this 12” is not a sound the band would explore further, eschewing the convoluted rhythms and claustrophobic drones to focus on bringing out the melodic qualities of the songs. Stickney left soon after the release of the 12”.
Around the same time the band collaborated with underground hip-hop producer Prefuse 73 on the single for his then upcoming record. What resulted was a cover of a SVIIB song called “iamundernodisguise.” Prefuse 73’s version was a sunny, flute driven take featuring the elegantly choppy phrasing of the Dehezas and was released as “The Class of 73 Bells” on Preparations (2007 Warp).
After two countrywide tours with Blonde Redhead and Prefuse 73 at the end of 2007, Elliott left the band was well. Emerging as the original core trio, SVIIB continued to play shows around New York. During this time they recorded what arguably is the transitional release for the band. The Silent Grips 7” (2008 Suicide Squeeze) takes the textural detail of Face To Face On High Places and merges it with the focus on simple electronic beats and open production of the My Cabal 7”. With the two tracks on this single SVIIB had created its most effectively engaging and forward thinking sound to date. “Silent Grips” is a stone cold groove. The song’s sparse hip-hop beats, dubwise effects and space rock guitar flourishes bubble underneath a cryptically catchy vocal melody. The Dehezas are in great form on this track, creating a tension and release effect in the joining of their utterly unique voices. The B-side is a wild version of Wire’s classic “Used To.” Pumping beats and growling distorted synths push the song forward into new territory. This single is the purest expression of the band’s production prowess, which they handle themselves. It hints at the fully realized style of the LP to come.
Signing with the eclectic Ghostly International label in 2008, the band released its debut full length Alpinisms (2008 Ghostly International). With this record SVIIB has marked out its stylistic territory completely. The songs spin beautiful webs of atmosphere with gurgling synths, soaring guitars and detailed production techniques. It’s also filled with booming beats inspired by hip-hop and minimal techno as well as the motorik groove of Neu! and Can. In fact Curtis’ beat programming is a defining part of the band’s sound, cleaving it away from the vast legions of sloppy devotees to the post-Loveless shoegaze throne. In this bump and grind exploration, Curtis manages to make dirty RZA beats with an ethno-funk tinge sound perfectly designed for anchoring psychedelic rock guitars, cosmic synth pads and the strange pop-infected vocals of the Dehezas. And here is the other defining aspect of the band’s sound. No one sounds like the Dehezas, in cadence or in timbre. The closest reference might be Elizabeth Fraser, or possibly the buried cooing of Seefeel’s Sarah Peacock, but neither completely fit the bill. Alejandra and Claudia Deheza have developed an extraordinarily singular approach to melody and harmony, sounding like some ancient folk tradition from another planet on songs like “Prince of Peace” and “White Elephant Coat.”
SVIIB has indeed created something very new through the synthesis of various influences. While Alpinisms might be the band’s most realized work to date, all of its past recordings are well worth seeking out. Alpinisms might indeed go down as a landmark record, a post-electronic psychedelic world-pop masterwork that spawns quite a few imitators. Returning to the melodic and groove-heavy vibe of its debut 7”, the band’s debut LP is just as auspicious a first as that single. A genuinely original and inventive band, keeping track of SVIIB’s further development should prove nothing less than exciting.