Ben Curtis' desertion of Secret Machines and the breakup of On!Air!Library! was justified by this group's first single, a sky-gliding confection that modernized the sighing, swirling, private dancefloor sides of Medicine, Seefeel, and My Bloody Valentine. Included as the finale on Alpinisms, the debut album from Curtis and O!A!L!'s singing Deheza twins, "My Cabal" has the feel of a bonus track; the later recordings that precede it, despite remaining squarely within the domain of late-'80s/early-'90s dream pop in terms of inspiration, are relatively individualist, going well beyond the lucid psychedelia and discreet flickers of Afro-beat and contemporary pop. What pushes these songs past mere worship involves cunning collisions of robust rhythm, caressing noise, and heavenly melody, with each element equally crucial.
Alpinism alludes to the art of mountaineering, and School of Seven Bells have scaled new heights of loveliness with this debut. Ex-Secret Machines guitarist Benjamin Curtis has swapped space rock for dream pop that bubbles with ambient electronica, soaring guitars and tribal rhythms, while twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza glide over every cool, refreshing melody. Like an Appalachian folk-influenced Wendy and Lisa, they offer up the mannered incantation of I Am Under No Disguise, the dense, colourful intrigue of My Cabal and the soothing For Kalaja Mari.
Checking out the cover-art with its photo of alpine scenery (apparently a holiday destination for geometric shapes visiting from the Pythagorean World of Eternal Forms), I’m curiously optimistic about this type of collage being the allusive call sign of a new genre – like the animal-headed people on the covers of alt. country records that tell you the artists in question are taking you into similarly mythic territory, rather than just purveyors of tunes. True, it’s not ideal to compare SVIIB to Fuck Buttons (geometric shapes hover above the cover-photos used by the latter), but they feel like a feminine counterpart, and the electronic drones and swooshes of Alpinisms fill me with a similar elation – manifesting something higher, purer, colder, and yet strangely credible within this world, unlike the escapism of so much dance-music, which creates a sonic utopia only to imply that the real-world sucks when you’re not out of your skull.
Alpinisms is School of Seven Bells’ first CD, but the band members are hardly strangers to music. The guitarist is one Benjamin Curtis, the same guitarist who famously left Secret Machines in 2007 before they produced the stiffest album in their catalogue. Twin sisters Claudia and Alejandra Deheza, the band’s vocalists, were singers for the New York City post-punk outfit On!Air!Library!—which sounded as though they’d accidentally stumbled into Fugazi’s studio on the way to see the Postal Service.
Perhaps the wisest way to make yourself heard amongst the dearth of cultural lemmings that have descended upon New York City since the breakout of the Strokes is to sound absolutely nothing like anything going on in either Manhattan or Brooklyn at this very moment. Upon his departure from his brother’s group The Secret Machines—who left Austin, Texas for NYC and found themselves in the center of a hype-riddled tsunami of press coverage and major label dalliances as the token psych band of the city scene—it would’ve been easy for Ben Curtis to just pick up and create a carbon copy of the Machines and their hazy Zepedelic swirl. Or perhaps even fall in line with the legions of new, young bands like Crystal Stilts and Vivian Girls, who are breathing new life into the Brooklyn landscape with a new sound hybrid stemming from a dualistic love affair with the Jesus and Mary Chain-style revisionism of Phil Spector’s Wall of Sound and old EMI acid rock.
It is difficult to discern one song from another on Alpinisms, the full-length debut from School of Seven Bells. Led by the vocals of twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza (from On!Air!Library!) and the programming and guitar of Benjamin Curtis (formerly of Secret Machines), each song floats by on a haze of glitchy electronic beats and ethereal harmonies. The words carry less weight than the mood established by their laconic but delicate delivery.In theory, School of Seven Bells is an exciting project.
SVIIB, as the shorthand dictates, is the reverse Blonde Redhead, identical twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza matching wits with former Secret Machines guitarist Benjamin Curtis. Alpinisms, the Brooklyn trio's late-2008 debut, summits opener "Iamundernodisguise," the sisters' voices providing solace for Curtis' fretwork and electronic squalls. Voices act as rhythm, melody, and lyrics, syllables often stretching far beyond their original intent.