Album Review: School of Seven Bells – Alpinisms


It is clear from the very first notes of Alpinisms, the debut from New Yorker’s School of Seven Bells, that Benjamin Curtis needed a break from his day job. Having spent the bulk of his career with his brother Brandon in the post-psychedelic outfit, The Secret Machines, Benjamin decided as of last summer to pack up his guitar and effects, and move on to ease his creative mind. And while he was the brainchild behind the aforementioned (fancy) guitar work, his style has remained just as strong even though the new band is nothing like the previous. Live drums and bass have been traded in for a beat machine, synthesizers, another guitar, and the two angelic voices from On! Air! Library! to round out the trio.

Alejandra Deheza and her twin sister Claudia Deheza are the faces behind the majestic vocals that harmonize and layer perfectly on their own thanks to matching genetics in that field. From the get go on the opening track “Iamundernodisguise” the base pounds through as the vocals dance around each other. One sings in high falsetto, while the other reaches the lower. Their style is similar to that of the southern Asian tradition at times, and the instruments can seem to have moments that match. The bass is toned down and traded for dreamscapes on the second and third tracks. “Face to Face On High Places”, and the very strong “Half Asleep” fill you with a sense of floating comfortably. The impressive lyrical and vocal exchange is kept up with “ohhhs” and “ahhhs” that melt into the music behind it. With everything blending together, it is hard not to feel how the title of the song suggests.

“Wired for Light” takes the ambient influences one step further with a subtle North African influence in the early guitar work when it is not fighting the sonic tones that make up the bulk of the track. By this point, it is made obvious that the focus this time around is not on Curtis, but on the sister’s. “For Kalaja Mari” picks up a saddened theme as the main character pleads to her companion to remember the good times, and not to focus on the tragic as she empathizes with them. “Do you feel the pain, or do you feel the memory?” she asks before she consoles, “There’s no need to get depressed, there’s no need for anxiousness.”

It’s impossible for Curtis to write a short song, no matter what band he is in. Each track on the record keeps it above four minutes with “Sempiternal/Amaranth” kicking it up to eleven…minutes that is. To reach that length, the vocals are kept simple with the long build-ups that Curtis does so well. After about six minutes however, the song begins to drag as ambient tones layer on top of each other with out much variation. Everything is kept subtle and simple putting the listener into a trans like daze, which should not be played while driving, especially in any kind of traffic.

After the previous opus, it is the ninth track “Chain” that catches the ear again and wakes up the listener. The heavy beats have been scaled back a bit to a more live sound with the guitars taking over for a familiar Curtis style rhythm. Interesting enough, the hot musical item of the pop world has found itself in to this track as the vocals are tweaked thanks to an Auto-Tuner. Given the already flawless abilities of the Deheza sisters, the Auto-Tuner is thankfully kept subtle as to not over take them. The mood is kept up with “Prince of Peace” as a blunt throw back to the Indian vocal tradition. The entire track gives off a Bali nightclub vibe that is rarely (if ever) heard in today’s independent music scene. To close things off, the ambient dream sate is returned to with “My Cabal” solidifying what had been swirling around Curtis’s brain since he met the Deheza sisters, if not before that time.

Usually when a member splits from an already established band, what results is more of the same. Here, Curtis presents a complete departure from that former group. After several listens you can pick out Curtis’s unique style that transcends his previous musical projects, but that is not the focal point of the music. Alpinisms puts forward vocals that are rarely heard these days, making them the center of attention. The debut is not about Curtis though, it is about the ambient dreams of the sisters that define it, and make it such a success.