Tuesday, November 18, 2008

School of Seven Bells - Alpinisms (***)

"Half Asleep" is all too appropriate a title for the music of School of Seven Bells. Whether they meant for that song to tip their hand in any way is certainly debatable, but there is an inherent calmness to their pulsating sonic drift, equally hypnotic and monotonous. Comprised of ex-Secret Machines guitarist Benjamin Curtis and former On!Air!Library! sirens Claudia and Alejandra Deheza, School of Sevens Bells sound little like either band, although the prog tendencies of the former and the ambient calm of the latter both have small roles to play on their debut LP, Alpinisms. The best comparison I can come up with is a more electronic-tinged, new age-inspired My Bloody Valentine, draped with a bit of the Cocteau Twins and their ethereal haze. In fact, it's the former band that may very well have been their jumping off point, as it almost sounds like School of Seven Bells took to heart My Bloody Valentine's drug-induced dance classic "Soon" and built their entire band around the concept. You'll find nothing quite that inspired on Alpinisms mind you, but there are a number of effectively swooning tracks present here.

The most memorable moments on Alpinisms come when Curtis finds an appropriate mix of beat construction and synth washes, as on opener "Iamundernodisguise", which is School of Seven Bells at their most minimal but also most trance inducing. When they lay on the new age sheen too thick, as on a few of the songs falling towards the album's center (particularly "For Kalaja Mari"and "White Elephant Coat"), Alpinisms can become rather tedious. As a result, a lot of the first half of the record could easily fade into the background, as the Deheza sisters don't do much to differentiate their voices from the sonic soup that bubbles up around them. This all culminates in the interminable, 11 minute centerpiece "Sempiternal/Amaranth", which halts any momentum the band as built up in favor of a prog-ish, bleeping, occasionally throbbing, yet barely graspable monstrosity.

Thankfully, "Sempiternal/Amaranth" represents the tipping point for Alpinisms, as the record's last quarter is it's strongest, and hopefully a sign of where Curtis plans on taking this project in the future. The closing trifecta of "Chain", "Prince of Peace" and "My Cabal" immediately stand out for their distinctive use of the two singers voices, as each features what is by far the most memorable vocal hooks of the album. The former's vocodor-enhanced hook is playfully human despite it's origin, while "Prince of Peace" is tribal and even uproarious, almost like a female revision of a Yeasayer song. And closer "My Cabal" is appropriately mantra-like for an album that is, if nothing else, pretty single minded. School of Seven Bells stumble most noticably when their reach exceeds their grasp, and the length of this whole ordeal (11 songs in just under an hour) is it's biggest obstacle. Still, taken in managable chunks, there is a lot to like here, and enough promise present in their sound to warrant attention from those who go in for this sort of trance-inducing bliss.

Highlights: "Iamundernodisguise", "Chain", "Prince of Peace"

"Face to Face in High Places"


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