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In February 2013, Benjamin Curtis was diagnosed with T-cell lymphoblastic lymphoma, a very rare form of leukemia. Curtis was a staple part of School of Seven Bells since its inception, honing their sound from the shoegaze beginnings of 2008's Alpinism to the more synth-focused 2012 EP Put Your Sad Down.
He was a renowned workhorse, staying in the studio long after Alejandra Deheza and her sister Claudia, who made up the rest of the band until Claudia's departure shortly after the release of Disconnect from Desire, had left to continue tinkering and getting the sounds just right. So much so that, even from the confines of his hospital bed, he still recorded a cover of Joey Ramone's 'I Got Knocked Down (But I'll Get Up)', a song focused around Ramone's own battle with leukemia and the final track Curtis worked on. Less than a year after Curtis' diagnosis, in December 2013, he passed away at the age of 35.
It's impossible to talk about SVIIB, School of Seven Bells' fourth and final album, without talking about Curtis. What had begun as a trio, that then became a duo, was now just Alejandra but Curtis' indelible marks are all still over this album. It has, after all, been sitting in near-completion since before his diagnosis. The songs that make up this short but bittersweet record were written way back in 2012 in what Alejandra called, "one of the most creative and inspired summers of our lives," but the lyrics, charting the friendship, relationship, break up, then friendship again of Alejandra and Curtis, hold much more weight and poignancy now.
This relationship, in whatever form it took, was always at the heart of School of Seven Bells. It wasn't enough to just end their story on that Joey Ramone cover; there was still so much to tell. Even in the face of this tragedy, Alejandra was still determined to make true on what they had started back in that summer of 2012.
SVIIB is the story of School of Seven Bells, of Alejandra and Benjamin, inviting the listener in to share in these experiences and, surprisingly often for an album so personal to its creators, holding a mirror up to your own life. Finished with the help of producer Justin Meldal-Johnson and Claudia, SVIIB is the sort of record that gets you right in the heart, even if you weren't to know its backstory.
And yet, despite the tragic backstory behind it, SVIIB is, for the most part, an album of unbridled joy. One of mourning through celebration of a life lived and of a life loved. Album opener 'Ablaze' is an ebullient wave of synth pop that describes that first moment you meet someone you know is going to change your life for the better. The apprehension in making those nervous first steps fighting with the enthusiasm to get stuck into this new experience. It's probably the most perfect summation of the connection Alejandra and Benjamin had, the thrill of someone just understanding you from the get-go distilled into a song. It's a beautifully optimistic track that shines like a diamond under those crystal clean synths and infectious beats.
Whereas previous School of Seven Bells records have always been defined by their ambiguity, the emotions taken from each song usually dependent on what you were bringing to it, SVIIB is as clear as day about itself. Even 'Open Your Eyes', a track detailing the aftermath of their split, is still brimming with positive energy. Here Alejandra sings directly to Benjamin, asking him to realise that, even though they're not together, that connection is far from gone and they still have so much to look forward to when they're by each other's side. Much of the leg work here is done by Alejandra's vocals, layered on top of one another to create a dreamy feel, and that's how it should be. Backed by pounding percussion and glittering synths, it floors me every single time I hear it, with a sentiment told so powerfully that I usually end up welling up.
'Confusion' has a similar effect, being mostly led by a beautiful organ sound that seems to drift slowly through the blackness of space that sounds like one of Angelo Badalamenti's more optimistic pieces for Twin Peaks. It's simple, but no less powerful as a result.
To find the bridge between the old shoegaze-y School of Seven Bells and this new shining synth pop version, you need only listen to 'A Thousand Times More'. Again dealing with their split, we see glimpses of the walls of distortion building up around Alejandra's ethereal vocals that were so prevalent on Alpinisms but, this time, with '90s rave synths bringing the party alongside a thundering disco bassline given that School of Seven Bells edge.
Meldal-Johnson's work with M83 clearly shows on 'Elias' and 'Signals', the latter of which explodes with distorted guitars like a maelstrom of emotions hitting you square in the face as Alejandra sings, "Until I felt your hands on my skin/I felt nothing." However, the songs are always still Alejandra and Benjamin's at their core. SVIIB is only built of songs they worked on together, but 'Music Takes Me' was unfinished during that summer. Because Curtis had loved it so much, Alejandra drafted in Claudia to help her finish it. The end result continues this purity of emotion and optimism that runs through the whole album with hypnotic effect; synths throbbing like stars glistening against a black night.
By the time the album closes, almost as it began with a joyous ode to feeling like you can change the world as long as you have the right person by your side on 'This Is Our Time', you realise just how important a record this actually is. We may never understand exactly who Curtis was as a friend or as a partner but, for Alejandra, she knew that final piece of work needed to finished and that era, SVIIB, needed to be given a proper send-off. SVIIB is an utterly beautiful piece of work that is all about finding joy and hope in even the darkest of times. Supported by bold synth pop tunes in their own right, it's a record that you're unlikely to forget.
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