SHOW REVIEW: School of Seven Bells

Tuesday night School of Seven Bells played the first of two sold-out shows at the Mercury Lounge, and thanks to the miracle of Craigslist, the AudioFemme editors were in attendance. The date was of particular significance to the band, as it coincided with the release of their phenomenal third album, Ghostory.  

The year between Ghostory’s release and that of 2010’s Disconnect From Desire was fraught with change for SVIIB, seeing the somewhat mysterious departure of Claudia Deheza.  For a band whose sound and image hinged on the dual vocals and dramatic image of twins Alejandra and Claudia, the parting of ways carried with it many unanswered questions, and is still a sensitive topic that the band does not like to broach.  As longtime fans of SVIIB, we at AudioFemme were interested to see how the band would evolve and adapt. With little idea what to expect from the new album or subsequent live performances in support of it, we’re happy to report that on both fronts, all is well.

L: It had been a while since I’d seen SVIIB, the last time being at a CMJ showcase in 2008 at Le Poisson Rouge.  At that time, Alpinisms was coming out or had just been released and I was obsessed with it.  I begged my way into the showcase for discounted admission and was treated to one of the loudest, most psychedelic live experiences I’d had to that point.  It was my first CMJ and I remember feeling so alive and thankful to be in NYC, and nothing embodied that feeling more than SVIIB’s intoxicating set.  It is crazy to think of how many years have passed since then, and even more baffling that I’ve somehow missed every other date they’ve played in the city.

Seeing them at Mercury Lounge was a real reminder of what I’d been missing.  They’re such a solid live band.  It was about halfway through the set, after a particularly rousing tune from the new album, that Ben said “Let’s get this party started” and even though the audience was a bit reluctant to do so (it was an early show, after all) all of the set list was dance-worthy.  Their performances are imbued with this sort of mystical element.  Alley has this shamanistic sort of presence, which her style definitely lends itself to – for last night’s show she was decked in silver chains and shimmery white eye-makeup.  But it’s not just a costume. Her face and voice are so expressive, pleading, and powerful.  The songs become incantations, invitations to let everything go.  They played a nice mix of old and new jams, but it all blended together seamlessly, which speaks volumes not just about strength of the music but also the ability of the band to grow and change and transcend any challenges or hardships or confusion that may have occurred in dealing with Claudia’s absence.  Adeptly filling her shoes was keyboardist Allie Alvarado, a D.C. – based performer who has released solo material under the moniker Painted Face and has played guitar with Brooklyn-based electronica outfit Telepathe. Even on their iconic dual-vocaled hit, “Half Asleep” she stepped up to the challenge beautifully and enthusiastically. Video for the track is below, followed by Annie’s ruminations on the set.

A:Holy shit. I was truly floored by this performance. I don’t know exactly what’s changed so significantly about them in the interim months since last I saw them live (I’ve probably been to the bulk of their New York shows since Disconnect came out two years ago), but I have my suspicions. And though I’ve always loved going to see them play, there was something particularly arresting about the way they sounded last night. Perhaps it was their post album-release ebullience–especially considering Ghostory’s ubiquitously positive (fanatically positive, even?) reception in the blogosphere and beyond; perhaps it was the terrific sound mix at what is an otherwise hit-or-miss venue. Perhaps it was the addition of a keyboardist/co-vocalist, or the amazing drummer who played along like a human metronome to such rhythmically complex tunes. Perhaps performing new songs invariably re-energizes any group dynamic. I imagine it’s an amalgam of all those things.

But there was something else too. Something more difficult to pin down; but something also more indelible. What immediately comes to mind is Beethoven’s Eroica – his momentous 3rd Symphony -the two opening chords of which signify, to many, the end of the Classical era in music. You’re probably so damn confused right now, thinking “What the hell is this woman talking about? Why must she bring Beethoven into this? Why???”

Let me explain: The Eroica symphony is one of revolt and upheaval, evident in the first ten seconds of score. Beethoven defies, even flouts symphonic convention by refusing to offer up any thematic indicators in that famous first phrase, and instead opts for two sharp, abrasive, a-tonal chords in an E-flat major that hits you over the head. They sound like someone wiping their hands clean (of the Classical era?), and I imagine these few measures had the very first audience members as equally confused as they were captivated. Anyway, a ton could be said about the historical context for this gambit (Ludwig was rumored to be a big fan of Napoleon), but in terms of its musical significance, I feel it was more of a move on Beethoven’s part to begin paving his own way in the larger scheme of his creative life, not to mention the musical zeitgeist in which he lived; it seems he wished to leave the past in its proverbial dustbin, and instead look onto the unfathomable horizons that lay outstretched before him. Indeed, he dove in, and subsequently shaped for the world a whole new era that would turn out to be (in my own opinion) the antecedent to nearly every genre that you love, that you can name. Classical gave way to Romantic, which gave way to everything.

So anyway, back to SVIIB and how my Beethoven tangent is in any way relevant to this show: The opening interlude to their set was so different from what one might normally hear from them. It lasted about 30 seconds. It was loud and cohesive and joyous, rather than dreamy and introverted and (intentionally) disjointed sounding in that shoegaze-ish kind of way. And everything that followed, followed suit. It almost seemed like they were trying to send us the message that we should just put to rest our expectations and conceits about who they are and what they mean as a group. And it seemed they wanted to surprise us, too. To frame it in terms of a shameless cliche, they actually seemed, right in that moment, to have ‘arrived’, in a way.  

In any case, they played plenty of old songs, but they were all infused with a totally different kind of energy and a noticeable lack of self-consciousness. Their new songs were wonderful and made me look forward to listening more closely to Ghostory. This is a band whose longevity in this industry (whatever the “industry” really is, at this point–beats me) is as assured as their talent is obvious. But they are trailblazing as well. Toward what? I don’t know. But I can’t wait to find out.

SVIIB play their second show tonight at Mercury Lounge, followed by a brief stint in Europe and tour throughout the US in April and May.  Ghostory is available now via Vagrant Records/Ghostly International.