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School of Seven Bells + Exitmusic

(19 Apr 2012: The Echoplex — Los Angeles)

It’s a Thursday night in LA’s Echo Park district, a semi-underground sort of hipster hood just north of downtown in the city of angels. There’s a good looking Thai restaurant up the street from the Echoplex and then there’s also a divey looking taco shop that actually turns out to have some pretty good carnitas street tacos. Just the thing to power up on before a show in Southern California.

The Echoplex has that dark ambience of LA cool, but with just the right amount of psychedelic lighting. This is a good area of town to see a show – you can just tell that most of the people on hand are serious music fans, as opposed to the jaded scenester vibe that sometimes permeates shows over in Hollywood and the Sunset Strip.

Exitmusic are opening the show and the husband and wife duo of Devon Church and Aleksa Palladino are a good match with the headliner. Their overall sound veers a bit to the somber and sparse side of the sonic spectrum, but Palladino has a compelling voice. She seems a bit too haunted at times, but the flip side is that she projects a deep cathartic vibe on certain songs like “Passage” (the title track off the band’s debut LP that drops on May 22) that make the ear take notice. It’s not party time rock ‘n’ roll, but Palladino definitely has something powerful inside her and there’s a song craft at work that seems promising.

The mood in the room definitely picks up a notch when the headliners hit the stage. The first tune is kind of an ambient warmup piece to gather the energy it seems. But then an electric vibe shoots through the air with “The Night”, the first track from the band’s new Ghostory album.

Singer/guitarist Alejandra Deheza has the voice of a psychedelic angel, yet also exudes an old school charismatic charm that recalls a young Pat Benatar (or maybe it’s just the similar haircut). The band delivers a great wall of sound in the studio, but the tunes really elevate on stage with the live drums. Guitarist/producer Benjamin Curtis is a sonic wizard and Deheza is one of the more dynamic female vocalists to appear on the pop music scene in some time.

“The Night” segues nicely into “Windstorm”, the lead track from the band’s 2010 album Disconnect From Desire, demonstrating some thought behind putting together a set list with a great flow. Both songs capture the band’s trademark blend of melodic vocals with shimmering layers of guitar and synths, plus harder hitting drums with more inventive beats than most “dreampop” dares to offer. Shoegaze this is not. It’s this combo of sonic energies that gives the band such a unique sound. It’s frankly hard to compare them to anyone else because it feels like they are creating a new sound before your eyes and ears.

“Bye Bye Bye” keeps the vibe rocking. If you took away the hard-hitting percussion it might sound like something from the ‘80s new wave era. But with it’s tight beat and Deheza’s heavenly vocals, the song has a 21st century vibe. Desire was a stellar and ambitious album that set a very high bar for the band to try and match with Ghostory, but the new album has plenty of tunes that stand up very well in the set. “Scavenger” is one of those tunes, with a synth bass line and sonic space that highlights Deheza’s voice over another crisp beat and artful layers of psychedelia. The song sounds like it could be related to Pat Benatar’s “Love is a Battlefield”, both sonically and lyrically, but it definitely has its own unique aura.

The band keeps mixing it up, going back to Desire for “I L U”, a romantic tune with some more of that ‘80s influence. Then it’s back to the new album for “White Wind”, one of the set’s top highlights. It’s an infectious up-tempo gem with a swirling mix of synths, counterpoint guitar riffs and heavy beats that carry the listener away on a magic carpet ride over a dazzling soundscape, with Deheza’s soaring voice riding shotgun. The new “Low Times” is another winner, with the psychedelic yet danceable ode to tough times serving as a zeitgeist soundtrack for the struggles that many are experiencing in this foul economic era.

The band hits on some older tunes from their first album Alpinisms at the end of the show, demonstrating a strong consistency across all three albums. Alejandra Deheza is quite simply a modern rock goddess, and you can tell that Ben Curtis knows just how blessed he is to be partnered with her. Every major city has a plethora of guitarists looking for a dynamic female vocalist on Craiglist to begin a new project, yet such talent is so hard to find. Deheza and Curtis make a fantastic team and if there’s any justice in this music world, School of Seven Bells will soon be playing major festival headlining slots.

Greg M. Schwartz has covered music and pop culture for PopMatters since 2006. He focuses on events coverage with a preference for guitar-driven rock 'n' roll, but has eclectic tastes for the golden age of sound that is the 21st century music scene. He has a soft spot for music with a socially conscious flavor and is also an award-winning investigative reporter. Follow him on Twitter at @gms111, where he's always looking for tips on new bands or under the radar news items.

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