School Of Seven Bells

In “Lafaye,” School of Seven Bells’ latest video for their ardent, Anne Rice-ian single about a wayward spirit, singer Alejandra Deheza looks the part: wrapped in a gauzy frock and alternately illuminated by pearlescent light or swathed in darkness, her eyes penetrate the frame. Her face is concerned, almost pained, then terrified, until she herself becomes the haunter, a specter in a room where two fanciful lovers obscure their faces with bird masks, gazing her way until she flickers out like a candle spark.

The now-duo’s third album, Ghostory, takes their gauzy sound to its logical conclusion, constructing it around a series of impressionistic constructs and aims upward into hinterlands, using icy effects to create pools of distance between the listener and the emotionalism of it—or, alternately, letting the listener feel completely cloistered within its emotion. School of Seven Bells, which also includes Benjamin Curtis, has always been stylized and stylish, not pretentious but very deliberate, but Ghostory’s got a subtly distilled beauty that elevates their sound and carves out a new space for them. It’s oppressive beauty as choice, rich lushness as proscenium for pain, exploration and denouement, but it’s also an even balance between sonic elements—the vocals don’t drown in static.

In an interview with Consequence of Sound, Deheza talked about her ideas of ghosts, which she likened to memories: “They’re these entities that are whispering to you constantly and reminding you of things.” The lightness in Deheza’s voice and lyrics (or at least her song-naming prowess) descend directly from Elizabeth Fraser of the Cocteau Twins, whether intentional or not, though Fraser’s intentional use of non-words (Bon Iver-style! ha) to convey pure emotion without context added another layer of distance that Deheza doesn’t necessarily need. But the concept of distortion and plush effects as an emotional stand-in remains, and acts as a wall of protection, so that Deheza can step out even braver and starker with her lyrics. On “White Wind,” a propulsive jammer that is meatier and less opaque than anything else on Ghostory, Deheza harmonizes with herself (a strange epilogue to her harmonies with former bandmate and twin sister Claudia) and stands tall with a need to express herself: My heart is betrayed by silence/ Like a thief that lies in white/ this restlessness has always been. The sentiment is buried within an autobahn of effects, but in that sense, maybe it becomes a kind of feminist secret, a verbal code or a pound.

In an April 1992 issue of Spin, Simon Reynolds wrote saliently, “Being ethereal is a good compromise between the desire to be glamorous and an aversion to being ogled. Being othTrworldly implies being out of reach, shaking off mundane definitions and demands… the ethereal persona is not so easy to incorporate into their squalid fantasies.” He was writing about Curve, the Sundays, and one of my favorite rock bands ever, Lush, but it can easily apply to School Of Seven Bells, and the way Deheza positions herself, though certainly it’s less a reaction to the “squalid fantasies” of dudes and more of an aesthetic choice to submerge herself in the band’s own beauty, to explore how extreme and featherlight a song can be before it starts to take on weight again.

There’s also that interminable Latina element: Deheza, who’s Costa Rican and Bolivian and grew up in Florida, is well versed in the powerful imagery within Latino religious leanings, which she likens to goth — and as Christianity goes, Latino Catholicism is arguably the most goth. (I’m not just saying that as a goth-leaning Mexican Catholic — what’s gother than La Virgen though, and a bunch of under-21s “developing the stigmata”? Well, maybe Santeria, the Catholic/Yoruba hybrid that’s ever-misunderstood but, like Mexican Catholicism, helped preserve indigenous beliefs by merging them with those of the colonists.) The religious symbolism — which can be interpreted on Ghostory’s cover, with Deheza’s cascading headpiece set atop a backdrop of a halo-trinity which reads as both mythic Greek — dovetails neatly with the concept of self-obscurance as a tactic of self-preservation and of power. As Deheza sings on the albums most compelling, warm single, “Unnature,” atop a heartbeat pulse: Words and chants, lust and nature, collide in the dark. She also sings that you betray your heart, but it’s more cautionary tale than autobiography. Cloaked in Curtis’s tectonic beats, Deheza sounds like she’s gonna be just fine.

Comments (30)
  1. Hope this doesn’t sound too whatever (obviously you are the one writing for Stereogum and I am the one commenting on Stereogum), but I liked this column much more this week than I did in the last two weeks. It seemed like there was a common thread throughout the piece (the influence of ghosts and religious imagery on School of Seven Bells), and the writing was less ‘let’s make every sentence sound like part of a press release’ and was much more readable as a result. Most of all, it got me interested in listening to the new School of Seven Bells record. Thanks for writing it.

  2. I think commenters went beyond stating an opinion and were a little disrespectful last week to this writer. And so I’m going to avoid that. I will say, I’m a big fan of this band. And when I say the headline, I went to myself, “Oh, hell no.”

    I don’t know if it’s fair to “deconstruct” a band without incorporating their discography into the conversation. Alpinisms is ethereal. But it incorporated tribal, earthy sounds that were very human. As if the meaning of the music wasn’t to be found in just the clouds or the mind, but in the world and sounds that we know. Its music welcomed listeners to dance (iamundernodisguise) or meditate (Face to Face on High Places) or reflect (Half-Asleep) And those are just the first three songs. Disconnect from Desire got even more personal personal. Its lyrics more direct than before. Its ending, the Wait, is six minutes of earnest writing sang over a gradually building loop. I’m pretty sure Grey’s Anatomy put one of their most dramatic scenes to the song. And it worked.

    I think this band’s strength is their blend of imagination and humanity. Understanding School of Seven Bells simply from Ghostory doesn’t give the whole story.

  3. PS. Did anyone notice Katy Perry’s Twitter shoutout to “Ghostory” for their album “School of Seven Bells?” She was promptly shamed and apologized. Although the band responded very gracious and seemed to appreciate the compliment.

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  5. So, to recap:

    Don’t listen to Grimes.
    Don’t listen to Sleigh Bells.
    Listen to School of Seven Bells (moar bells)

    got it

    ;)

  6. Glad to see the pretentious Freshmen Lit style is kept alive and well here — though the gibberish is less than last week.

    Seriously, Julianne, you’re way overwriting. When you write stuff like “concept of self-obscurance as a tactic of self-preservation and of power”, what I think you’re trying to say — and say in a way that beats me with a hammer marked “I’m Really Smart” — is something about “hiding” and “mystery”. See? Two words. Two short words.

    All this blah-blah-blah-concept crap you’re shoveling doesn’t really impress.

    Here’s the deal: SVIIB were way more Cocteau-Twins-esquely mystical and ethereal with their first album, when there were two sisters in the band, and the songs (I strongly feel) were more interesting because of the harmonies. They grown increasingly less CT-ish and more like bands from the 1990s that essentially built upon/stole from CT.

    The better analogy (certainly for this new album) that you touch is Curve — not Cocteau Twins (who, like Bjork, were sui generis [look it up] and totally unlike anyone else), not Lush, not the Sundays. Toni Halliday and Dean Garcia were doing in 1991-1992 essentially what SVIIB is doing today, only both slicker and noisier. For Exhibit A, I submit Curve’s “Horror Head” as essentially Liz Frazier with a dance sensibility. Curve was a band that was neither fish nor fowl — too slick to be a guitar band, too guitarsy to be truly electronic.

    I realize your column doesn’t have to be necessarily “about” anything or make a point. It can be just a series of high-flown, academese-sounding statements which toss around nonsensical phrases like ” the concept of distortion and plush effects as an emotional stand-in remains”. It can be essentially an embarrassing PR release-sounding thing, fine.

    But your column could be — and can be — about something interesting. It could have more of a point. And it could do all this without needing to try to impress with me with your AP English/SAT score.

    This is a long post because you seem to want to be taken seriously with all your serious-y College Essay language and high-falutin terms. So you want the seriously? Learn to edit your work better, have a point, quit with the “concept” silliness. Or be a PR writer for Matador, fine.

    • Why are you taking this woman’s writing style personally? You sound insulted. I think the biggest problem with this Deconstructing section is that because the writer tries to come off as the smartest kid in the class, people have to respond indignantly to prove their own musical depth. It isn’t necessary. Have I enjoyed reading her writing? Not really. But I’m unsure of where the backlash to a few internet essays is coming from? Let’s just get back to the music.

    • Here’s the deal: this would be a good comment if you cropped out about 5 paragraphs worth of outrageous condescension. Also you might want to ease up on the em dashes in a comment that’s supposed to be criticizing someone else’s writing style for reading too scholarly– know what i mean?

    • How on Earth do you accuse someone of using “high falutin terms” and then turn around and use terms like sui generis in your six paragraph response? Not only that, but you tell people to “look it up”. If that doesn’t scream “I am a pretentious condescending asshole” I don’t know what does.

  7. “hinterlands,” “autobahn,” “Latina,” and “gothic.” “oppressive beauty as choice” “self-obscurance as a tactic of self-preservation and of power.” anyone else hear the dog whistle politics of this article?

  8. I decided to deconstruct the deconstructions:
    Grimes – A-sexual Poke’mon music for Tumblr
    Sleigh Bells – Metal prom queen music for Degrassi junior high
    School of Seven Bells – Latina goth for a brand of gauze that ghosts use.

  9. I know it’s totally unfair of me, but I can’t get into this band because i still associate them with the mediocre Prefuse 73 LP on which i first heard them.

  10. as illuminated as lady gaga. i guess this is how you can get your hobby projects financed.

  11. as illuminated as lady gaga. i guess this is how you can get your hobby projects financed.
    I can see myself getting into their music, but they like to hide one eye a bit much.

  12. “(insert reference)-ian”

    Really starting to bother me

  13. I’m I the only one who finds this column really irritating? It all reads as explicitly self-aggrandizing bullshit. I don’t need artists’ aesthetics explained to me much less picked apart for an experience that amounts to a cynic articulating elaborately as he can why you shouldn’t like something. NEGNEG

    • You’re not the only one.

      I’m not one to cramp someone’s style but I feel like these columns are more about the writer than the bands she’s deconstructing. I really do appreciate the effort (I mean, referencing a 1992 Spin article is either dogged research or an incredible long-term memory), but I find too many of the opinions grasp at straws for the sole purpose of writing a “see-what-I-did-there” sentence.

      Sometimes less is more.

    • At first I was on board with these because at least the Grimes article referred mostly strictly to her vocal style while it explained why blogs might like her. And I wanted to give it a chance. And also between comments by people who seemed genuinely offended by the article (because they’re entitled to better free content dammit!) it sparked some lively discussion. Mostly disagreeing with the writing in the first place, but whatever.

      But it’s pretty clear now that the “deconstructions” are EXTREMELY surface level. I’d much prefer someone deconstruct THE MUSIC actually. You know, like, do actual work instead of just writing about things other people write about. That’s no “deconstruction” That’s “Reading wikipedia and googling.”

      I hope this doesn’t come off as boasting, it’s just an example – in University I did an in depth analysis on Charlie Parker licks, and his use of the blue note to track the progression of music from 19th Century Folk music to Parker – it wasn’t the best thing I’ve done, but my point is I spent a week in the library doing statistical analysis of Bird’s solos, listening and following charts, and circling slightly flattened notes, and tabulating them, and then doing the same with early folk music. It was a ton of work and in the end I barely validated the point I was trying to make.

      Anyways, that’s the kind of shit I want to read in a deconstruction. I can go to wikipedia and look at band photos and make my own VERY subjective call of what a band “sort of seems to sound like based on popular culture bullshit.” What I don’t have time for anymore is sitting down and analyzing song structures and chord progressions, and what effects the band uses, and look at lyrical content, and decide that this band sings a lot about this, or that…I can’t do that. But any supposed music “journalist” should have time for that.

      If I want to find out if a lead singer is Latina, I can look that up in one second. And If I want to judge how that may have affected the album cover, I can look at the album cover in one second. And if I want to think about what one single phrase means from one song’s lyrics, well guess what I can do myself?

      It reminds me of when sports “analysts” think they’re deconstructing an event like the Red Sox’ failed season. And they write articles that go into all this ‘heavy analysis’ they read about, or googled, or heard about from a source, and they ate hot dogs and drank beer in the clubhouse, and some guys weren’t good friends so “bad chemistry happened” and all this nonsense that has nothing actually to do with baseball performance. probably wrote the article in a day. Meanwhile real analysts spend months tabulating stats and determining that they actually lost due to weak middle relief, and late-rotation struggles, and a few low OBPs here and there, which coincided with playing streaky teams at the wrong times in tough stadiums. But who cares about real analysis, right? #sportsgumneedstohappen.

      • I agree with you so much on this. Since I started reading music related blogs and “criticism” of popular music i’ve been baffled at the level of indifference critics show:
        a) towards music theory and the possibility of -kind of- objective elements to ground their judgments (which are -to the dismay of many- utterly subjective, hence the logical impossibility of “grading” records).
        b) towards a real questioning of what criticism mean (or may mean) in the context of popular music. Certainly you wouldn’t want to judge it based on its complexity because, let’s be honest, what passes for avant-garde in popular music would make composers from 100 years ago laugh. What makes good popular music is a great question that a lot of people seems to take for granted.

        , not everyone is as imaginative and cultured as to make a beautiful interpretation of the elements contained -and surrounding- a cultural document, so even if you can look at the album cover, read the lyrics and find the ethnicity of an artist in Wikipedia, that doesn’t mean that you will automatically come up with a strong interpretation (maybe you, commentateur extraordinaire djfreshié, can, but a lot of other people can’t or won’t). So, I don’t agree with you on that.

        Please note that I absolutely dislike this “deconstruction” and, like the other ones, I think it forces the inclusion of typical cultural criticism concepts in contexts that didn’t require it. The Grimes article and the reference to gender theory (which, in my opinion, is by itself kind of bland and naive, but that’s another story) was based on the factor that Grimes is a woman and tried to justify its inclusion by mentioning some *very* contingent factors to build its case. It’s like if I watched a Skrillex interview and then, since Skrillex speaks, I were to use Wittgenstein and Lacan (#whythefucknot) to interpret the jouissance in his discourse and the language games he is playing [?].

        In the 90s, there was such a trend of ultra-theoretical, banal essays coming out of american universities that a “post-modern essay generator” was created in 1996 by a linguist at Monash University. Post-modern essays fresh from the oven. It is a true beauty! Check it out at: http://www.elsewhere.org/pomo/

        Obviously there are still great cultural criticism essays being written but -as it happens with actually worthwhile contemporary art- its reputation gets diluted with all the happily hyped shit that’s floating around.

        • The problem I have these days, is that the current environment has forced musicians to be entertainers.

          There was a time once where you could be either an entertainer or a real musician. I’m not even speaking of the music aspect of it, because I don’t want to diminish the sometimes brilliant lyrics and even compositions of some entertainers. But there was a separation between being Neil Diamond, and being Miles Davis.

          One’s job was to interact with the audience…be a neat guy and also play nice music. The other would be high off his knocker, play with his back to the audience, be a general complete asshole…but make absolutely incredible gorgeous music that most other human beings (at the time) weren’t really capable of.

          Doesn’t exist anymore…being a musician OR being an entertainer. I don’t know if you’ve ever been to a music festival fair, where they have the booths and the demonstrations and such…I attended a lecture once about stage presence where a guy seriously (wearing a bluetooth microphone) was up on stage telling a band how to stand, how to move around the stage, how to make eye contact and sing on the microphone…basically just a really big lesson on how to appear in a manner unnatural to how one would normally play music. And people were taking NOTES. It was despicable, but also made perfect sense.

          Anyways that was a tangent – what I’m saying is is that being a critic – you need to pick what you’re talking about. I think we should talk about the music when we criticize pop music. I think it’s essential to the world we’re in now. Doesn’t have to be critical of how it rates in evolution or with regard to complexity. But I think critics ABSOLUTELY should be saying “Hey. This lady Gaga song is in fact a rip off and is so derivative of an earlier work that it should be dismissed entirely in lieu of the Madonna song.”

          Or don’t criticize it at all, actually. Nobody writes long deconstructions about the aesthetics of the Big Mac or the McRib. Because everybody knows what a Big Mac or McRib is and how they look is irrelevant. BUT, if someone were to go into the gory details about the ingredients in fast food, and how it’s prepared…that is something I would love to read. I think a lot of people would. I think Fast Food Nation sold a lot of copies. So these deconstructions should really consider going into detail about music.

          Just for funzo, last year I went through the highest selling singles of all time, and I tracked their chord changes, melodic movements, and lyric content – I wanted to run a bunch of statistics over what combination of chords and melody most frequently made the charts. I never finished, but that’s what peeps should be doing, for reals. I want music statz.

          • i love this discussion here. You guys bring up some great points. My cousin went to Berklee for film scoring and they make you pick a principal instrument (he picked voice). And he literally had a class where they showed you how to “perform” as a “front man” or some bullshit. From what he described, it sounded nauseating and offensive. Maybe it’s because of internet oversaturation, but it’s too bad how just an image can make you or break you. There’s so much more going on musically going on that is getting overshadowed by style/message/clothing lines/perfume lines etc. how about the prevalence of the major IV7 chord? or the decline of V7? i don’t expect everyone to geek out into music theory or anything (i’m not very well educated in it myself), but we need a bit of geekery on a site that’s catered to MUSIC fans.

  14. No trolololol from me today.

    After listening to a few School Of Seven bells songs. I hear simple chord progressions based in pop music and melodies that are typical over the top of these progressions. For example the newest single “Lafaye” (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=dUrQnDVWXvo) starts with just 3 chords: Cm, E♭ maj, and G# maj repeating throughout the verse. The chorus is Fmaj, G#maj, E♭ maj, and back to Cm. The melodies over the top these chords are extremely simple and hackneyed. If one were to translate them to distorted guitar and have a young suburban girl sing them, they would sound like Paramore. Try it.

    Grimes on the other hand isn’t pop friendly music. Grimes songs by comparison have more intricate and original melodies with chord and key changes that aren’t easily predictable. Far more original and challenging to listen to but more rewarding on repeated listens.

    Sleigh Bells is too loud and their albums will literally give you listening fatigue.

  15. I think setting out thinking these columns are going to be about the artist named in the subtitle will only leave people disappointed. They’re not “about” the artists; they’re about broader, more abstract ideas used to make sense of music.

    In the case of Grimes, it’s not about whether she’s any good, but about certain ideas of emotional purity (Grimes’ “naive and elf-like qualities”) and the appearance of aesthetic autonomy that frame the reception of her music. With Sleigh Bells, it’s about the pervasive, and imo highly dubious, idea of “authenticity”, which is held up as a touchstone that grounds aesthetic evaluation, but is more like an after-effect, part of the morality (and moralising) of music appreciationism. In this column, it’s about the idea of the “ethereal”, but particularly the construction of the ethereal persona, which helps to show that even what we usually think of as the purely formal or textual or sonic properties or features of the music are imbued with “extra-textual” qualities: i.e. “ethereality” is a product not simply of the voice but of a whole range of critical ideas, artistic dispositions and industrial practices that produce ethereality as a set of generic traits.

    In the context of a music website and its underlying idea of the music fan as one who knows music, this kind of stuff may well come across as so much pseudo-intellectual posturing, but it’s very much the kind of thing that I like.

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