School of Seven Bells: Alpinisms

On the basis of Alpinisms, School of Seven Bells appears to be the perfect vehicle for guitarist Ben Curtis's many talents, and the buttery harmonies of Alejandra and Claudia Deheza are a superb complement to Curtis's instrumental colourations. The three met in late 2004 when their respective groups (Secret Machines, On!Air!Library!) were touring as support acts for Interpol, and initiated a collaboration that would produce EPs for Sonic Cathedral, Table of Elements, and others prior to the full-length Ghostly debut. The trio's specialty is vibrant and impossibly catchy dream-pop that retains echoes of Slowdive, My Bloody Valentine, and Cocteau Twins without sounding overly indebted to any one in particular, and Alpinisms rolls out one star-kissed jewel after another, with the opening four songs a near-flawless quartet.

The outfit's diverse musical strands declare themselves in the first seconds when “Iamundernodisguise” (a remix of same under the title “Class of 73 Bells” appeared on Prefuse 73's Preparations) follows its slow-burn synthesizer intro with, firstly, the sister's hypnotic native chanting and, secondly, the roar of Curtis's guitars, resulting in four minutes of semi-controlled ecstasy. In “Face To Face On High Places,” urgent tribal rhythms abruptly morph into a jubilant fusion of pop and shoegaze with the singers' harmonies effortlessly riding a churning wave. Suffused with melancholy, the vocal melody in “Half Asleep” is not only reminiscent of Cocteau Twins but as gorgeous on sonic terms, and when the song escalates to a level of blinding noise halfway through the effect is magnificent. In “Wired For Light,” elephantine guitar squeals and hand drums deepen the song's exotic vibe during the song's otherwise euphoric blend of electro-pop and guitar howl.

The intensity drops slightly for the beatless ballad “For Kalaja Mari” without sacrificing the group's psychedelic character. “Connjur” offers a near-perfect example of buoyant shoegaze pop, and the singers' soaring vocalizing only makes the song all the more alluring. In the album's trippy, twelve-minute centerpiece, “Sempiternal/Amaranth,” Eastern-styled vocal melodies freely glide over an incrementally intensifying krautrock groove until the vocalists' entranced chanting and the cacophonous instrumental surround threaten to implode. Though less ambitious, “Chain” works its insidious magic in a marriage of seductive vocal hooks and catchy guitar-and-bass interplay. The sky-high “My Cabal” (though the album's last song, it was actually the group's first single) caps Alpinisms with a glorious hit of My Bloody Valentine-styled psychedelia.

The album isn't perfect—the plodding rhythms and downcast character of “White Elephant Coat,” for example, lessen its appeal—but, ultimately, calling Alpinisms triumphant isn't hyperbolic when the album's so consistently strong. On this remarkably assured collection, School of Seven Bells repeatedly blends the psychedelic, futuristic, and tribal into a delicious and effervescent whole.

January 2009