Album Review: SVIIB by School of Seven Bells

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We now have a coda for a band we knew for not quite a decade. Alejandra Deheza is alone at its helm, her friend, muse and collaborator of nine years, Benjamin Curtis, having died at the age of 35. The band’s final chapter, SVIIB, is both a diary and eulogy of love.

Born in Lawton, Oklahoma, and schooled in Dallas, Texas, Benjamin Curtis was a local treasure. Suffering with lymphatic cancer, he passed away in December of 2013 at the age of 35 while a member of School of Seven Bells. A talented composer and multi-instrumentalist, Curtis has been best eulogized by those who knew his work and person better. Though young, He left behind a sterling musical legacy and an unreleased album with his bandmate Alejandra Deheza. That album, SVIIB, Curtis’ last musical gift to us, was finally sewn up by Deheza and released last week.

From the jump, SVIIB surges with hopefulness. “Ablaze” sets the tempo and mood with its barbed, synthesized bass and insistent melody, “You set it all ablaze again.” Here we have the first fruits of the album’s malleable theme. It is a plain love story. Deheza has admitted as much. But now that simple narrative wrestles with the weight of Curtis’ loss and the lift of persevering in his memory. It is romance burnished under the acceptance of mortality.

School of Seven Bells is exemplary of how electronic music can be faithful to the medium without being totally flaccid. At its heart, pop music relies on well-written hooks and that never changes. Whether it’s the call and response in the looping hook of “On my heart” or the kaleidoscopic wall of sound on “A Thousand Times More,” SVIIB lands all its compositional punches. Singer Alejandra Deheza deftly balances pop diva bravado with demure restraint. Her voice is polished and captivating.

The album, at its most elemental, is an electronic dance album. But SVIIB finds myriad ways to outwit its listeners. “Signals” is a jerky dance number until it opens up into a flood of gravelly synth bass. “Elias” strains under a somber theme before evolving into richer, dulcet tones, like tiny melodic explosions. School of Seven Bells knows how to evolve songs and surprise listeners. These are the skills that divide composers from parrots.

Throughout the album, you can feel the weather of the past three years in Deheza’s voice. I can only imagine the strain of Deheza playing professional nit-picker to finish up the album even as she was mourning Curtis’ death. The recording, presumably, took place as Curtis’ health declined. The end of “A Thousand Times More” is biographical in this regard as it devolves into muffled riff before dispersing like windblown chaff. “Confusion weighs heavy and I understand nothing of these changes,” Deheza sings on “Confusion,” all the while lying on a bed of droning, white noise. The final word on SVIIB is one of chilling authority. “This is our time and our time is indestructible.” The track closes with a drawn-out knell that inches into silence.

Anyone who, like me does not make music, but finds him or herself simply in the audience should constantly entertain some level of awe and appreciation. We are unmerited recipients of a special favor, even when the music is merely “good.” That is because someone put hours upon hours of physical and mental strain into a congregation of sound that did not theretofore exist except in the halls of his or her imagination. Consider this, then. Benjamin Curtis, for you, spent time in and out of the hospital composing these ten songs, even as his body betrayed him. Alejandra Deheza, for you, carried Curtis’ visions into the studio, completing an album that served as a constant reminder of the absence of perhaps her closest companion. SVIIB, as a memorial, as an album, is a truly painstaking work, for our sake, and it was not in vain.

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