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School of Seven Bells – Ghostory

on February 27, 2012, 8:00am

For the past few years, a whole new generation of artists have been tinkering within the shoegaze genre, giving it a facelift and dubbing it “nu gaze.” Oddly enough, it’s hardly fallen on deaf ears. Last year, M83, one of the finest progenitors of the movement, opened the door for countless listeners with its latest opus, Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, an album whose tracks have been surfacing just about everywhere by now. Now, some four months later, fellow former tour mates School of Seven Bells (often stylized as SVIIB) return to the fold, pushing the genre forward with its latest LP, Ghostory. Although they’re one member short (Claudia Deheza left in 2010), the New York duo continues its sonic evolution and penchant for lush studio gilding, cutting music for lonely hearts who prefer intimate moments nestled inside headphones over hopping onto the dance floor. Not that Ghostory isn’t suitable for the latter, either.

Take Ghostory‘s best track, “Lafaye”, with a lovely, epic sweep packed into just four minutes. It has a gorgeous, soaring vocal melody from singer/guitarist Alejandra Deheza (ex-On! Air! Library!), who sings of a “familiar unfamiliar,” an ode to her confused self, the titular Lafaye. It’s a critical track in understanding the whole of Ghostory, a ghost story in an internalized, non-traditional sense, which is to say it uses “ghost” broadly, in a Carl Jung-like way. Deheza centers the record’s lyrics around Lafaye, who is haunted by her memories, life experiences, and people she loves (and hates, but we’ll get to that later). Lafaye’s life is one we all lead or have led. We’re all somewhat a product of our experiences, our ghosts.

Sonically, Ghostory may sound shiny and cold on first listen, but don’t be fooled. Give it a few spins and it becomes warm and relatable; personal, gut-wrenching, and confessional; full of past selves, the dearly departed, the emotionally and physically distant and so much more. “Everyone has ghosts,” Deheza says in the band’s Vagrant Records bio for Ghostory. “They follow you, stay with you.” One of them might be a “predator,” which Deheza spells out breathily and tensely on “Low Times”, another one of the album’s best tracks. “Low Times” throws sharpened dagger punches, sonically and lyrically, in some poor sucker’s direction with its unrelenting beat. Deheza was wronged, so she and Benjamin Curtis (ex-Secret Machines) made this grave floor-filler with a hi-hat sound that won’t quit. Nor will the ghost spawned from that bad memory, it seems. “Low Times” throbs as “The Tell-Tale Heart” of gothy dance.

Beyond goth, the song is emblematic of Ghostory, digging into sonic veins that SVIIB hadn’t really gone into until now: house, trance, Front 242’s death disco, Seefeel’s ambient moods, ’80s new-wave/post-punk (Depeche Mode, Simple Minds, New Order) alongside its shoegaze-guitar buzz, and further still into freestyle dance, a key sound for SVIIB.

What may be most compelling about Ghostory in context of its past work (2007’s Alpinisms, 2009’s Disconnect from Desire) is that it feels like a new beginning for Curtis and Deheza, which makes sense given the aforementioned departure of Deheza’s twin sister Claudia, who left amidst the band’s 2010 tour. It’s fascinating that after something as impactful as that, Ghostory‘s lyrics and themes should fixate on the supernatural and spiritual. It explores what much of SVIIB’s work (its vaguely occult album art, the misty sounds) has only previously hinted at.

“Having someone freak out and split the day before our first-ever TV performance was an intense moment in our lives, and something that’s in our worldview at this point,” Curtis told Spin magazine. “I can’t say it didn’t affect things we wrote.”

If it affected any one song, it’s Ghostory’s lead single, “The Night”. “Since you went away,” Deheza sings, “does the space breathe?/Do you feel the change?/Is this the way/you thought it would be?/Do you feel the same/without me, darling?” She sings to a ghost (or vice versa) who left her “in the same place” she is now. The song’s chorus with “You have my arms, you have my legs” and the refrain of “Devour me/devouring” could suggest the bodily and spiritual oneness of twin siblings, or a longing for it.

It’s not entirely clear what “The Night” is about, and Curtis and Deheza aren’t going to paint a picture for you, possibly because they don’t know precisely what it looks like themselves. But it’s unlike a SVIIB song to seem so naked emotionally. Deheza’s lyrics and vocals are buried beneath sheets of echoing sound, but it’s easy to feel a deep, wounded humanity there. In that way, Ghostory is a story in the sense that a David Lynch work is a story. It’s kind of not. Or if it is, the layers of purposeful or guttural obfuscation make it nearly impossible to tell. Nonetheless, you can enjoy it on a purely aesthetic level, and sometimes that’s enough, depending on the listener.

In the case where it is, “The Night”‘s “Devour me” refrain is a wish, not a lament. If you dig it, you’ll want Ghostory to swallow you into a dimension where there’s no pain and nothing hurts. Otherwise, you might just think it sounds pretty. But maybe if we had more records that shot to the moon this high for beauty and romance, we’d have a more beautiful world – or just more subscriptions to “nu gaze.” Either/or…

Essential Tracks: “Lafaye”, “Low Times”, and “The Night”

Feature artwork by Drew Litowitz.