Ten Minute Review: School of Seven Bells – SVIIB

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It’s hard to follow up with these reviews after two huge albums in Blackstar and The Astonishing, both incredibly complicated, diverse, and brilliant.  Instead of trying to go after another album equal in technical stature, the best idea is to switch gears entirely.  I cannot go any further without mentioning former member Benjamin Curtis, who sadly passed away from lymphoma in 2013.  School of Seven Bells started as a trio, composed of twins Alejandra and Claudia Deheza and joined by Secret Machines’ Ben Curtis.  They made two albums, then dropped down to two members when Claudia went her own way in 2010.  The two remainders released their next album, Ghostory, in 2012, which I had considered for my “best albums of 2012” list, but it didn’t quite make the cut.

Now, School of Seven Bells consists solely of Alejandra, who released the final album, titled SVIIB.  SVIIB, in case you were wondering, is the shortened name the band uses to simplify things (because who wants to say the words School of Seven Bells a dozen times when talking about a band?)  Ben worked on this album prior to his passing, and those familiar with his deep, emotional lyrics and simple yet elegant melodies, would be happy to know that his efforts are in full force on this album.  Put simply, this album tells the tale of School of Seven Bells.

Honestly, I was a little surprised SVIIB decided to keep going considering this was basically a solo effort by Alejandra after losing Ben, but this album was made clearly and fully in his memory.  The album glides through memories of love and friendship and the journey they went on together, so it’s quite likely that Ben wrote knowing his time was limited.  What better way to express your appreciation for someone than by writing songs for them?  With all that said, here are the first three songs on the album, starting with Ablaze, and then moving into On My Heart and finally Open Your Eyes.

This album is a memorial to Ben, and it is a lovely one.  The melodies are simple and yet they can swallow you up and take you along for the ride.  To this day I still struggle with how to actually classify this band, as to whether they’re indie pop, shoegaze, light electronica, post-punk, and so on, but maybe that’s not the point.  Maybe we shouldn’t spend so much time trying to put labels on everything, and I only feel the need to so I can attempt to describe this band to others.  I admire that SVIIB transcends those traditional genre notions and simply make music, even if this is the end.  As a note, I discuss SVIIB in the plural form because this album had been in the works since 2012, so Ben had plenty of input on this album.  It wasn’t just a solo effort by Alejandra, and fans of SVIIB can tell.

This album handles loss much differently than the previous two albums I have written about this year, with the “goodbye” type of feeling we got from Bowie’s Blackstar, or the cataclysmic civil war ending in the tragic losses of both sides.  SVIIB, instead, focuses on the times they had, instead of the time they had lost after he was gone.  Ben and Alejandra’s relationship was very complicated, and they went through a lot together.  If you’re curious, they were friends, became romantically involved, ended that romance, and then became friends once more.  I’m sure some of you reading this have had similar situations happen in your life, so it’s appropriate if you see parallels in your life and this album.  If this album makes you feel, I am glad.

This track, slightly more than the others above, discusses the romantic relationship between Ben and Alejandra.  One of the things that has always appealed to me about SVIIB is that their lyrics have been vague and open to interpretation.  I’m able to fill in the gaps on what I think they mean.  In this final album, the tracks seem to be a lot more direct and on topic compared to old albums.  This suits this album fine, because Alejandra and Ben had a lot to say to each other and this was how they could express those things.

Something that really stuck out to me through this album is that despite it being generally sad to sing about lost loved ones, it seems to be joyful.  I don’t mean in the sense of her celebrating his loss or anything, but it’s fairly upbeat and positive and celebrates life.  We often hear people say that they don’t want people to mourn them but rather celebrate their life when they’re gone, and this album is a perfect example of that.  In an effort to finish this album and let the world know these feelings, Alejandra reached out to her sister to help out and get it done with.  Much of the album was complete prior to Ben’s passing, but some gaps needed to be filled.  It was most appropriate for the surviving two members to reunite to make their final album under this name together, in memory of Ben.

I am most impressed by how each track on the album matters.  This is a relatively short album, coming in at just under 42 minutes spanning nine tracks.  There is no filler on this album, nor are there any tracks I would advise against.  It’s not all one tone throughout the album either, so if you want slow and somber, you can listen to something like Confusion or Elias.  If you want more electronic and upbeat, check out A Thousand Times More or Signals.  If you want uplifting synth pop, any of the tracks I linked above can fill that void for you.  I can even hear some M83 bleeding over into this album in the final track, This Is Our Time, if that’s your cup of tea.  This is a beautiful album from start to finish and is very well balanced.

As far as farewells go, this one is special.  I never knew Ben Curtis or any of the band, and yet thanks to this album I felt like I shared a part of their life with them.  It’s strange to say, but I’m glad Alejandra decided to take this off the shelf and end with this.  It’s not the end of her musical career, I hope, and just the end of the musical chapter of the School of Seven Bells.  I respect a musician that puts it all out on the line like this, and I can’t imagine how difficult it must have been to make this album.  It was thematically very heavy and the lyrics were poignant and yet still positive.  It’s a fine line to tread when covering something like this in music, and Alejandra and Ben nailed it for this final SVIIB album.

I enjoyed this album thoroughly and immediately listened to it three times in a row so I could focus my listening on each different area of the music.  The lyrics are powerful, the instruments simple and effective, and the production values are excellent.  I’m happy to give this album 13 Ratings Units out of 15.  The only criticism I want to mention is that it feels short, but that may be because the album goes by very quickly.  The balance is well thought out, and while each song doesn’t always lead perfectly into the next one, it doesn’t overload the listener with one sound for too long.  In one song it may adapt an earlier more shoegaze-y sound, and in the next, it can go to something more akin to synth pop.

Thank you Alejandra for completing and releasing this album.  It was a great one, and a fitting farewell to Ben.  I look forward to what you do next.  Rest in peace, Ben Curtis.

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Thanks for reading, everyone.  I won’t be back with another review in two weeks, as I’m going to be a little busy with a prior commitment, but I should get the next review out before the end of the month.

 

 

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