Back when School Of Seven Bells first started, they seemed like some perfect lab-created hybrid combination of early-’00s dream-rock warriors. Benjamin Curtis, one third of the trio, was also one third of Secret Machines, those skyward-reaching travelers of mystic consciousness who played like a stadium band even when they were opening up for, like, Blonde Redhead in a half-empty club. And the other two thirds were twin sisters Claudia and Alejandra Dehaza, the previous leaders of the electro-shoegaze group On!Air!Library!, who released one excellent and sadly slept-on self-titled album in 2004 before spinning out into component parts before the world got a chance to catch onto how awesome they were. Over their first two albums together, School Of Seven Bells went onto sort of actualize that potential, making two very satisfying albums of spacey-synthy alt-rock that never quite got past good and into great. Then, late in 2010, Claudia Dehaza left the band, and that looked like that. Bands don’t often lose half of an identical-twin pair and then go onto do anything great. And yet here’s Ghostory, the first album recorded without Claudia and the best thing School Of Seven Bells have ever release. I have no idea how that works, but I’ll take it.
The strongest thing about the first two School Of Seven Bells albums, as well as On!Air!Library!, was the ghostly harmonic interplay between Claudia and Alejandra’s vocals. But going into Ghostory blind, it’s nearly impossible to tell that Claudia is now gone from the band. Thanks to the miracle of multitracking, Alejandra gets to harmonize with herself, so it sounds like at least three or four Dehaza sisters are singing at just about any point, their otherworldly voices wrapping themselves all around these tracks. And Curtis, responsible for the group’s production, seems like he’s gotten more confident with the toys he uses to build sound.
Despite the current fashion for ethereal, gothic electro-churn, Ghostory doesn’t sound like it belongs to 2012. It sounds like it belongs to, let’s say, 1997 — to that moment when vaguely coffeehouse-ish singer-songwriters like Beth Orton were playing around with techno pulses and figuring out that these elements could add to their wispy-but-direct songs. These sounds aren’t blurry or decayed; they’re big and bold and sometimes shameless. “Show Me Love” is the sort of big glacial ballad that could work as the prom theme in a ’90s teen movie that somehow involved vampires or self-reflexive slashers. “White Wind” has an insistent late-rave thump that could’ve come from the Crystal Method, and I promise that I mean that as a compliment. “Low Times” is hooky, fleshed-out boutique electro like prime-era Ladytron. And the stretched-out eight-minute closer “When You Sing,” with its big drum sounds and its ringing guitars, is probably the closest thing this group has to a straight-up rock song.
Ghostory isn’t some mercenary pop-music hookfest. It has atmosphere. But its atmosphere, unlike so much of what we’ve been getting lately, doesn’t come from murk or reverb or simulated tape-hiss. It comes from the way the group uses these dream-pop sounds and uses them to build something that sounds bigger than dream-pop. The best points of comparison aren’t rough contemporaries like Austra or Twin Shadow. They’re albums like Depeche Mode’s Violator or Garbage’s Version 2.0 — LPs that took dark sounds and built something huge and friendly out of them.
Other notable albums out this week:
• Mr. Dream’s fiery scuzz-rock Fatherland EP.
• Trust’s dark-synthpop debut TRST.
• Memoryhouse’s dizzy, refracted dreampop album The Slideshow Effect.
• Dirty Three’s expansive instrumental post-rock return Toward The Low Sun.
• Mouse On Mars’s bloopy IDM comeback effort Parastrophics.
• PO PO’s long awaited synthetic psych-rock debut Dope Boy Magick.
• Fanfarlo’s bring alt-pop LP Rooms Filled With Light.
• Vaura’s seething metal brood-session Drachma.
• Helado Negro’s conceptual electronic EP Island Universe Story.