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School of Seven Bells
Ghostly International
October 21, 2008
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What I am about to say would likely get me punched in the nose by any indie rock fan who takes him/herself (and by extension, his/her musical tastes and collection) too seriously: School of Seven Bells' Alpinisms reminds me of Enya. This next thing would likely get me kicked out of the record store: I mean the comparison between SVIIB (the acronym is of their own making) and Enya to be no slight: I unabashedly love Enya, and many of the qualities I love in Enya are present in Alpinisms.

From the moment the album opens, your ears are wrapped in sound. The heavy, layered synthesizer use in a drone-heavy shoegazing sonic landscape (an interesting genre descriptor to use for music dominated by synthesizers, I know, as the term itself comes from the habit of those musicians who first played this sort of music in the eighties [The Jesus and Mary Chain, My Bloody Valentine, Catherine Wheel, etc.] to be more concerned with their guitar pedals than making eye contact with the audience [thus gazing at their shoes for much of a concert], although there are effects-heavy guitars [courtesy of ex-Secret Machines guitarist, Benjamin Curtis] in this music supplementing the synth work, so perhaps the descriptor of "shoegaze" is still literally apt) recalls the New Age chanteuse's own walls-of-sound. Fear not, hipsters: SVIIB supplements its synths with driving drumbeats and glitches and distorted guitars, so instrumentally it only sounds reminiscent of Enya, but ends up sounding more like The Sea and Cake or Blonde Redhead than anything in the New Age bins.

What really drives the comparison home is the vocals of twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza (formerly of On! Air! Library!): like Enya, they layer their vocal harmonies (though not, so far as I can tell, to the extent that Enya does [up to 80 tracks at one point]—listening to "White Coat Elephant" right now I'm counting at least six: three in each ear), and given that the Dehezas are identical twins, their voices sound, well, identical—even in unison, they sound like one singer, double-tracked. Multitracked, then, they produce a chorus of soothing female voices, producing Andrews Sisters-like harmonies atop a dense musical background with no empty space (even when the instrumentation is sparse, the sound is constantly washing over you).

This sound is hypnotic. It's easy to let the entirety of the sound roll past your ears and completely miss the lyrics, and it seems as though the Dehezas may have had this in mind. The way they phrase their lyrics often follows the melody more than it does any inclination to make coherent sentences or clauses: words are drawn out in slow melisma or phrases heavily enjambed and broken between subsequent lines of melody. And even when the words can be made out, they're often heavily abstract or encrypted in metaphors for which we do not have the key, as in this example from "Wired for Light":

Wishes turn out orphans, skip on the surface of the
sky and sink, sky and sink
They break into the air with little faith and heap
a desert full of dunes, a desert full of dunes

This is not to say that the lyrics are devoid of meaning. In "Half Asleep," they tackle the existential dilemma of daydreaming:

What begins as an unguarded
train of thoughts slowly can become
an addiction to the slumber
of disconnection and the resonance
of memory that no longer has a shape
but keeps you numb through
the hours till gone is another day

Whether you hear the words or allow them to become one more instrument in the shoegaze symphony seems inconsequential, however, to enjoying the music. As Tom Lehrer once joked of hearing a Wagner opera in German, "the sheer overwhelming beauty of the music precludes the necessity for understanding exactly what's going on." So it is with Alpinisms.

Favorite Track: "Roads"

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Andrew McNair lives in Seattle, having recently freed himself from nearly a decade in academia. Aside from producing the bi-weekly OnlineRock Podcast, he also writes and performs sketch comedy.

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