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School of Seven Bells

Ghostory

(Vagrant; US: 28 Feb 2012; UK: 27 Feb 2012)

On their first two releases, 2008’s Alpinisms and 2010’s Disconnect From Desire, School of Seven Bells demonstrated an aptitude for crafting irresistible pop nuggets, constructed around Benjamin Curtis’s electonic soundscapes and the ethereally lovely voices of Alejandra and Claudia Deheza. Since the release of Disconnect From Desire, Claudia has left the band, taking her vocals with her and leaving the others to carry on as a duo. Sad to say, it was those twinned vocals that elevated the band above the pack, and with 50 percent of the vocalists gone, the result is underwhelming.


Not to overstate the case, but Claudia’s departure has left School of Seven Bells sounding like just another synth-pop dance band. That’s a damn shame, because there is enough talent on display here to amount to so much more.


The problems start early on. Opening track “The Night” kicks off promisingly, but quickly settles into a dull thud-thud-thud rhythm that no amount of pretty singing—and it is pretty—can salvage. Sadly, rote as this tune is, it remains one of the stronger ones on the record. Even after repeated listens, few tracks stand out here, utilizing as they do the same sonic elements: swathes of synth, minimalist percussion, and Alejandra’s lovely voice.


“Love Play” and “Lafaye” slide by without making a noticeable impression, sounding way too much like the synth-pop you were hearing in the 1980s. “Low Times” is memorable mainly for its annoying, intrusive drum machine bleating, although it also gains some heft six-and-a-half-minute running time, the second longest on the record. The song fails to do much with that impressive length, however. It is interchangeable with any number of other songs here, only longer.


And so it goes. The back half of the album is not significantly different from the front, although “Reappear” shuts off the drum machines—hooray!—in favor of lugubrious synths, which create a foamy bed for Alejandra’s reverbed vocals to settle into. It’s a good song, and upon first listen suggests a possible direction for the second half of the album. That possibility is kept alive with the opening bars of “Show Me Love,” which marries a classic-rock chord progression with a nervous, understated guitar line to provide an appealing hook. Sadly, the opening promise of “Show Me Love” is soon squandered under piles of synthesized beats and percussion, and it’s back to business as usual.


After the false hope of “Show Me Love,” the album settles in to a long, slow spiral to its conclusion. “White Wind” offers some eleventh-hour verve, but it’s album closer “When You Sing” that aims for something epic. It succeeds to an extent, but the elements are far too familiar from the preceding less-than-epic songs to feel like anything new is going on. It’s just more of the same, and then some more.


It’s too bad when personnel changes rip the heart out of a band, but that seems to be what’s happened here. Without the harmonies and counterpoint of sister Claudia to lend interest and texture, Alajandra is left to rely on the instrumental background for support, and frankly there just isn’t much going on to help her out. The last album was a keeper, but fans would be wise to approach this release with caution.

Rating:

DAVID MAINE is a novelist and essayist. His books include The Preservationist (2004), Fallen (2005), The Book of Samson (2006), Monster, 1959 (2008) and An Age of Madness (2012). He has contributed to The Washington Post, Publishers Weekly, Esquire.com and NPR.com, among other outlets. He is a lifelong music obsessive whose interests range from rock to folk to hip-hop to international to blues. He currently lives in western Massachusetts, where he works in human services. Catch up with his blog, The Party Never Stops, at davidmaine.blogspot.com, or become his buddy on Facebook (or Twitter or Google+ or whatever you prefer) to keep up with reviews and other developments.


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