School of Seven Bells
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SVIIB, the fourth album from the New York City based School of Seven Bells, opens with a clever inversion. “Ablaze,” the album’s first track, begins by fading in. While the more common fade-out gives the impression that the music could continue on ad infinitum, a fade-in has an inverse effect, suggesting that the music started playing long ago. As it happens, “Ablaze” also features a fade-out, and the song’s indefinite borders lend it a quality of timelessness. “Ablaze” isn’t so much a song as music that has always been playing and will always be playing.
“Timeless” might be the best way to describe SVIIB, in both its strongest and weakest moments. On the one hand, the soaring, open-ended quality of many of the album’s songs, exemplified by “Ablaze,” is alluring. There is a grandeur to much of the album, a not-of-this-world-ness; in its best moments, SVIIB is timeless not because it lacks a sense of time but because it has transcended time. On the other hand, some songs fall short of transcendence precisely as a result of their untethered timelessness. Many tracks clock in at four or five minutes and some, including “Open Your Eyes” and the disappointingly pro forma finale “This Is Our Time,” feel like they would have been more effective if they were a minute or two shorter.
Many of the songs on SVIIB that feel a little longwinded feature loose, repetitive ending sections (often with a fade-out!). As a result, the concise ending of “Signals” is one of the album’s more satisfying moments. Here, the words “there’s no game in what I’m feeling,” delivered a cappella, serve as an emphatic summation of the song’s message. But its pointed conclusion isn’t the only thing that makes “Signals” a highlight of the album. The song has a funkier, more upbeat feel than most of the other tracks. This is music to which you can actually dance, not just sway along. What’s more, the verses on “Signals” feature a texture noticeably sparser than much of the album. While the rich, maximalist orchestration of tracks like “Ablaze” is clearly part of the band’s sound, it occasionally borders on textural overload, inducing a sort of aural exhaustion. Moments of thinner texture like those found on “Signals” thus serve as a welcome contrast.
The two songs immediately following “Signals,” “Music Takes Me” and “Confusion,” are likewise high points. “Music Takes Me” takes the funk of “Signals” and turns it into a swirling, hypnotic groove. “Confusion,” meanwhile, is like nothing else on SVIIB. Perhaps the album’s most directly affecting song, its static texture and glacial pace betray the band’s interest in what The New York Times calls (perhaps disparagingly) “academic Minimalism,” by which they mean composers like Steve Reich and Phillip Glass. The eerie whirring with which “Confusion” concludes is a sound that will stick with you long after the music stops.
“On My Heart,” an anti-jealousy anthem that contains one of the album’s best lines (“there was a you before me, there was a me before you”), is another appealing track. So is “Elias,” which feels like SVIIB’s version of a power ballad. But this is the rare album for which talking about which songs are best feels like missing the point. The larger story, of course, is that this is not only the latest album from School of Seven Bells but also their last. Benjamin Curtis, one half of the band along with vocalist Alejandra Deheza, was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma in February 2013 and died later that year. Curtis recorded his contributions to SVIIB before his death and Deheza completed the album in his absence.
In light of the circumstances of its creation, it almost doesn’t seem right to review SVIIB in the same way as any other album. To consider the music without also considering the tragic story that stands behind it would be a mistake. That the album exists at all is surely an achievement worth applauding. At the same time, though, to define the album exclusively as a touching memorial for a fallen bandmate would be to reduce it to something less than the fully realized, complex work of art that it is, and to disrespect the efforts of Curtis and Deheza in creating it. What is the right balance between the music and the story, between art and life? SVIIB’s most profound lesson may be that, however we choose to answer that question, art and life remain, as ever, inextricable.
Notable Tracks: “Ablaze” | “Confusion” | “Music Takes Me” | “Signals”