School Of Seven Bells cast their ethereal celestial spell again, and as another contender for best album of the year in my book with their new concept album called Ghostory, and they came to play hard in Denver at the fun-filled tiny club called Larimer Lounge in the art gallery badland of the north. This gloomy shoegazey Brooklyn duo has been spreading their sonically heavy sound since around 2007, then being a trio, when guitarist and synth-man Ben Curtis (of Secret Machines) met identical twin sister harmonists Alejandra and Claudia Deheza (of On!Air!Library!) while opening for Interpol on their debut breakthrough tour. Together, their sound all but defined the brand new genre of shoegaze, although it turns out that sound was more familiar than you think, like spending the night listening to the harmonic soundscapes of melancholy that was Cocteau Twins catalogue and chasing it with strong shot of the darker realms of the 80’s alt-new wave with My Bloody Valentine and Siouxsie and the Banshees. Still, when I first heard their debut album Alpinisms in 2008, I was blown away by the intricate combination of the warble of Indian-tinged harmonies, lush soundscapes, angelic synchronizations, and otherworldly beats. I managed to see them back in those early days in NYC, but upon the release of their second album, the far more alt-pop heavy Disconnect from Desire in 2010, they announced that keyboardist and harmony vocalist Claudia Deheza was leaving due to personal reasons (although, it was rumored it had something to do with either a hard-partying lifestyle or her wanting to be closer to her child, depending on who you believe). Since then, I’ve seen the now-duo play in many different formations, just Alejandra and Ben with a drummer (and Ben playing and singing almost everything simultaneously), then with a soundman/keyboardist on stage, then a bassist and keyboardist most recently, but none of which sounded quite right harmonically without the twin sis dynamic, no matter how amusing it was to hear how many sounds Ben could play at once. Now that they are back to a proper quartet, Alejandra centering on lead vocals and the occasional bass, Ben now able to spend more quality time with his axe (although still clearing time to make sweet love to his vast array of complex pedals), AND a female keyboardist/vocalist, AND drummer. This was a sound that was far more familiar in its ethereal serenity. THIS was the kind of SoSBs I wanted to hear.
Opening the show to the music of aptly dark Radiohead catalogue, all flooded in darkness with eerily dim red lighting floating in from the rear of the stage crammed full of instruments, the opener, fellow Brooklyn-ites Exitmusic were here to impress (even named after a song by said ultra-successful gloom rockers). Even their sound check before doors was entrancing and attractively tight. The freakishly talented married duo of vocalist, keyboardist, and occasional guitarist Aleksa Palladino and lead axe man Devon Church make me think of two optimistic children strolling hand-in-hand into a post-apocalyptic world. As reverb roared and Palladino’s voice warbled in a howling tone, “We are sparks of light, but we hide it,” you find yourself totally bewitched. Still, both of them were bashfully shy on stage, not really interacting with the audience that much. What really set the tone off for me throughout was the standing percussionist’s wonderfully off-and-counter-time beats combined with the sharp synth rhythms of the Mac-driven DJ stuck in the corner. The result is a sound somewhere around Radiohead’s Kid A, and Portishead’s first Dummy, and some Sigur Ros ambient jam. With songs like “The Sea” from last year’s From Silence EP and presumably most of the songs off their new full-length Passage (both of which we picked up from the table afterwards), you got the full feel of the expansive long-song format they liked to swim in, with many songs being at least 10 minutes long, but somehow they never seemed to get boring or predictable.
I was very excited to see School Of Seven Bells again, and especially to hear some of Ghostory live and rejoice in the dark concept album’s songs of getting over and contrastingly reveling in the ghosts of relationships past. They too played to an extremely dark, dimly-lit stage, with the exception of two brightly glowing and undulating symbols (from the album cover) behind them swelling the mood as they played and completing the atmosphere of being spellbound. After a brief intro instrumental, they broke into one of my favs from their first disc “Iamundernodisguise,” which sounded like a ritual chant of the most tribal fashion, followed by the opener to their new album in the rapturous “The Night,” followed by many more from it like the driving “Lafaye,” the dark “Scavenger,” the seraphic “White Wind,” and the spell-bound “Low Times,” and then some tastes from their last album with empyreal “Windstorm,” the great 80’s new wave off-beat synth of “Bye Bye Bye” that makes your feet just move on their own disembodied from the mind, and extremely catchy heartbreak of “ILU“ (although sadly no “Dust Devil,” which is still my fav from that album), as well as more from the first, with the low roar and crying piano of “White Elephant Coat” and the swirling cyclone of “My Cabal” as the slamming closer. The new keyboardist seemed positively terrified throughout, as she did miss a few cues, but she really did add that all to important complementary vocal character, as Alejandra did her wonderfully ravished twitchy dance groove center stage, even smiling into the packed house many times between deeply emotional glowers, and in his own specific way Ben’s two-step dance while deeply engrossed in the beats was enticing the crowd to dance with his sharp moves. Not quite done yet, they quickly popped back out for an encore with two more early classics, personified by their first big sleeper hit “Half Asleep” and the deeply hypnotic and lengthy “release” of the spiritual ender “Sempiternal/Amaranth,” that had a much more electronic beat-heavy feel than other interpretations I’ve heard them play in the past. It was a greatly stunning show that solidified my belief in their continuing genius and I highly suggest praying at their altar in a venue near you.