In late 2012 fate dealt the American Indie rock band School of Seven Bells a terrible blow. The pair had just finished one of the most creative and inspired summers of their lives as they wrote and worked on their fourth album. That fall in a soul shaking cataclysm, Benjamin Curtis the guiding force of the band was diagnosed with a rare form of T-cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma. In December of 2013 he would pass away leaving his fellow band mate Alejandra Deheza as the sole remaining member of the band. Fast forward to 2014 when Deheza moves to LA determined to finish the recording with Justin Meldal-Johnsen ( Beck, NIN, and M83). The goal of both was to feature and memorialize Curtis. In the end it only took two and half months to finish a record that had taken four years to materialize. On February 26 SVIIB the fourth and unfortunately final School of Seven Bells album will be released.
School of Seven Bells was formed in 2007. Curtis and Deheza met when their bands were touring in support of Interpol. They decided to bring their commitments to their current bands to a close. Curtis would leave Secret Machines and Deheza and her twin sister Claudia would leave On! Air! Library! to form School of Seven Bells. The trio moved to a shared space and created a home recording studio. They took their band name from a mythological South American pickpocket training academy. The trio had an unorthodox approach to their music as they would write the lyrics first and then adding the music. The composition of the band initially was Curtis supplying production, guitars, synths and vocals, Alejandra supplied vocals and guitars and Claudia provided guitars, synths and vocals. In 2010 Claudia left the band after the release of Disconnect from Desire.
The band has been a critic’s favorite from the start as they released records filled with epic riffs, mystic rhythmic percussion, urgent passion and Alex’s ethereal vocals. The members drew from their inspirations; Kraftwerk, Wire, New Order, Blonde to Redhead, Joni Mitchell and Robert Whyatt and condensed them into their own creations. Their overall goal to was to convey and stay true to their particular vision of music. Curtis stated in December of 2012, “…every time somebody hears that (our passion) and makes the connection with us I feel like we’ve done our jobs well. Celebrity still doesn’t motivate me in the slightest. I see some people I know chasing after a piece of that pie, which is just fine for them, but for me I’d just like to sit back when I can’t do this anymore and know I’ve done everything I’ve done with creativity and integrity, and that I’ve given back to music even a fraction of what it has given to me.” Following Curtis’s death in 2014 Dehaza would release a cover the two did of Joey Ramone’s I Got Knocked Down (but I’ll get back up) which was produced by Curtis in his hospital room just before his passing.
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In the context of what occurred shortly after the initial writing of the songs on SVIIB it is hard not to be viscerally moved. The inherent tragedy lies in the lightning like striking down of Curtis when the band had not yet reached their full potential. Dehaza has stated about this album that “this is a love letter from start to finish, it’s the story of us starting from the first day we met in 2004, and that’s the story of the School of Seven Bells, …when I see those roman numerals on the new album I just think of an era.” SVIIB is a biographical memorial of the relationship between Dehaza and Curtis. It is a relationship that went through romantic and platonic situations; the tempests of breakup and hardships. It is the final statement that Dehaza delivers for Curtis. The album displays all of Dehaza’s confusion as she was completely overwhelmed by the sadness of what occurred. For Dehaza, Curtis’ passing was like a blow upon a bruise delivering utter desolation. However “SVIIB” is not all morose elegies, there is a resilience and even joyfulness in the songs. The duo’s true love and appreciation for each other shines through song after song. Where the band in the past dwelt on arms length poetic discourse, SVIIB delivers emotional clarity and a mighty impact in its wake.
SVIIB begins with Ablaze an otherworldly song that has a light ethereal touch and then explodes upon the listener allowing no escape as it entangles you with its sonic beauty. It is an ode to someone seeing the greatness in someone else and helping them find that greatness. “You saw the stars in me…you set it all ablaze again.” The hindsight of knowing where this all ends for the duo makes a lyric like “when you died I fell apart” gutting. It is an apt tribute to Curtis with unexpected uplift delivered in the accompaniment. The track is enthralling and moving.
On My Heart does what School of Seven Bells does best taking the chant like opening and then building through the ambience into something special. Here is a relationship that has withstood the tempest. There have been crises and betrayals, a lack of trust and faith but the relationship survives it all as stated in the lyrics, “with me your love is safe…your written on my heart.” It also discusses the fact that romantic love changed to platonic love somewhere along the line, “there was a me before you, there was a you before me.” It is again another song of note with a minimalistic vibe balanced by a great drum loop and Alex’s wondrous vocal stylings.
Open Your Eyes was the first single off the album and would seem to be inspired by Curtis’s illness, but was written prior to his know about his diagnosis. The song in hindsight seems eerily apt to that situation but was initially about unrequited love, someone waiting for the love of their life to walk away from a bad relationship. Unwittingly the song also fits the situation that followed with the moving lyric,”Open your eyes love, its time to wake up…Its getting hard to watch you suffer.” The song is atmospheric and glichy with a totally accessible construct. It is brilliant.
A Thousand Times More has a Cure bass treatment as an underlying driver to the rhythm to the song. It is heartbreak in retrospect with a full appreciation of the bittersweet. It is an examination of coming through pain and heartbreak that is backlit by Curtis’s soon passing. Dehaza’s voice is so pleasing and lovely on this track as she conveys how she is wild to find a way to make it better. “ I wish there was a way to reassure you, now I can promise anything except to say that this pain will pass… you’ve got to fight to breath, as long as I’m alive I’ll be the air you breath.” The music is upbeat shot through with sorrow, effortlessly beautiful with a glorious cacophonous end.
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Elias is a slower less dance orientated song. It has a heart monitor beat along with a breathlessly psychedelic vocal treatment. The song is elegiac and evocative as Dehaza recalls, ”do you remember when in the morning hours how we watched the stars play their songs?” Dehaza expresses her eternal gratitude with the lyric, “You’ll always be more than a friend.” The song reminds me of Beach House’s “Days of Candy” off of Depression Cherry. Both songs share this almost unbearable bittersweet agony in the passing of someone beloved.
Signals takes the tempo back up with a dance synth track. There is solid digital gritty goodness found here. The song is laden with pop approachability and had a great beat that draws you in, also the discordant middle keeps you guessing and on your toes. Definitely of note is Dehaza’s enervated computer like delivery. It is at this point of the album I caught myself pondering what could have been had things turned out differently for the duo.
Music Takes Me is a definite stand out track on the album. The punchy tune is a groove fest that is channeling some serious Four Tet. It is an interstellar journey with Dehaza mesmerizing the listener with her silky vocal. There is a thankfulness conveyed by the lyric, “I just want to say thank you, thank you for what you gave me.” A cool shapeshift takes place in the song with a change over to a digital vocal and then back again.
The only song on the album that was written with the pair knowing of Curtis’s diagnosis is Confusion. The song sonically is loaded with planetary synth goodness. The lyrics makes for a heart rendering evocative poem; “I understand nothing of these changes.”. The song is trying to come to grips with life turning on a dime and the consequences of that occurrence. I will not lie the track is hard at times to listen to, it is dark and there is an infinite visceral sorrow that pervades. “We spent so long facing the days together… confusion weighs so heavy.”
The final track This is Our Time has a brighter sound and a lighter vibe. The song is expansive and anathematic claiming “These are our days… our time is indestructible”, in context it seems to be putting on a brave face when time was in fact very short and rapidly running out. The song displays two musicians who were determined to go out with a bang and not a whimper, shouting out at the darkness that was gathering. The song is a brilliant ending and a fitting send off to a band that deserved more time.
SVIIB is a moving and unavoidably elegiac album. It is the perfect swan song that refuses to give into the sudden over emotional situation the duo encountered. It is School of Seven Bells most masterful technical and emotional work. Undoubtedly it is a labor of love throughout and Dehaza and Meldal-Johnsen deserve a lot of credit for bring this final chapter of the School of Seven Bells story to the world. Sadly it is hard to not ponder where this extraordinary pair could have gone when listening to the excellence songs on the album. SVIIB is a great lasting memorial to Benjamin Curtis and the entity he and Alex created. Alejandra has given School of Seven Bells a proper Viking funeral alas it came too soon.