Album Review: School of Seven Bells - SVIIB

Album Reviews
02/27/2016
Gerrit Feenstra

“I got knocked down, but I’ll get up.” That’s how School of Seven Bells’ Alejandra Deheza said goodbye to bandmate Benjamin Curtis a little more than two years ago. The Joey Ramone cover was recorded from Benjamin Curtis’s hospital room in late 2013. After a long battle with T-cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma, the band found itself a project of one. But through pain and determination and boundless love, Deheza now gives us the last album by School of Seven Bells. Written by Deheza and Curtis in the summer of 2012, simply titled SVIIB, it’s an album that deserves the eponymous namesake. In Deheza’s own words, “This is a love story from start to finish”. Deheza got knocked down, but she got up, and she made a record with enough love to start a fire, and it’s one that will burn for a long time after we’re all gone. SVIIB is what a love story should be.

Perhaps the most important thing to understand about SVIIB is to know what exactly it is not. To be precise, SVIIB is not a sad record - there isn’t an ounce of defeatism to be had here. Even in the face of the immense tribulation of the album’s circumstances, never once does Alejandra waver in her delivery. These songs are proud, joyful, and determined. Never before has School of Seven Bells burned so bright. If this is truly to be the last chapter we read of the band’s narrative, then it is a sparkling and triumphant conclusion rivaling any of the greatest epic sagas.

SVIIB begins with a goal: to set the heart ablaze. This goal, laid out rapturously on the album’s opener, isn’t unfamiliar in modern pop music by any means. But the way that Alejandra spins it, it is a state of mind to strive after that makes every moment one to be adored. Of course, there will be many roadblocks in reaching this state - both “On My Heart” and “Open Your Eyes” detail the miscommunications and discouragements that may hinder our belief in love and humanism. But so often in these love songs, it becomes evident that Alejandra sings, not only to a partner, but to herself, embracing self-love as a principle to abide by in order to succeed.

But even in thriving self-love, we can find ourselves lost. On “Confusion”, easily the most devastating of the songs herein, Alejandra sings, “We spent so long facing the days together that i forgot how to be different from us”. The pain of separation and the absence of togetherness ring throughout SVIIB. They ring, but they don’t reign. Alejandra portions her love on “A Thousand Times More”, knowing where and when to give and receive it. She turns to stalwart helpmates on “Elias”, knowing when to collapse into loving arms. And on “Signals” and “Music Takes Me”, she looks for new evidence of truth and the greater good in the confounding darkness around her.

All of these lessons lead to the concluding truth found in “This Is Our Time”. “Our time is indestructible”, Alejandra sings - a statement as much for herself in this life and for Benjamin in the next. Our time evades the trappings of physical space - it lives on through generations and inspires us to reach higher. It’s an inspiration to look not only to the horizon, but to look back across the tapestry of time and see how far we’ve come.

Musically, SVIIB couldn’t be more massive - every track is an unapologetic shout to the heavens, begging only for more headroom in the mix to further go the distance. Several years time have pushed School of Seven Bells into more progressively pop-minded territory. The album’s singles are radio-ready and immensely captivating without sacrificing any of Deheza’s message. When it’s time to be small, “Changes” does it like the best of them, embodying the band’s historical inspiration from Cocteau Twins in unforgettable ways. But when it’s time to throw all hesitation to the wind, “This Is Our Time” finds the band at their most visceral all the way to the end. Capturing some of the hip-hop interest the band has played with in past years, coupling it with an endless electronic landscape, Deheza soars above into shimmering light, all too bright for any spectators to fully comprehend.

The School of Seven Bells saga ends much the way it has always existed. Alejandra Deheza and Benjamin Curtis made records for each other. Disconnect From Desire was an immersive dance masterpiece, wrought with sensual discovery, but the true joy of the creation was always held by two, kept sheltered from casual passersby who may not give it the care it deserves. Similarly, Ghostory felt mysterious and hushed, like a movie where the plot is held secret from the actors. And even now, with the band’s most inviting piece of work, filled top to bottom with pop brilliance, the album’s greatest beneficiary is Alejandra. There is no doubt in the world that this is album she made for herself and for Benjamin and for no one else. Surely, there will be endless room to resonate and to reconcile these songs unto the ears of a listener, but the true purpose is not lost. SVIIB is a masterpiece without any real need for criticism or praise. But one listen, and you will feel love replicated in ways that few albums could ever accomplish. Four years from beginnings and countless hours and days and months of suffering and burden therein, School of Seven Bells’ parting gift is a blessing beyond words.

SVIIB is out this week on Vagrant. Grab it at your local record store on CD or purple vinyl!

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