Deconstructing: 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.