The fourth and closing chapter in School of Seven Bells’ canon, unfortunately, signals more than the end of the band’s career. When one half of the duo, Benjamin Curtis, announced in February 2013 he had been diagnosed with T-cell Lymphoblastic Lymphoma there was no expectation that sole remaining member, Alejandra Deheza, would release anything further under the moniker. Maybe it was the surprise appearance of a cover of Joey Ramone’s ‘I Got Knocked Down (But I’ll Get Up)’, recorded from Curtis’ hospital room, that showed the band’s concrete resolve to make music together until not humanly possible; for Curtis it was proving his resilience, that he would overcome; for Deheza, a way of letting go. When this album was finished it would be within this music that they would finally, permanently seperate.
When Curtis passed away in December 2013 – not even 12 months after his diagnosis – much of the material included in SVIIB had been conceived but not birthed by the duo. The task of revisiting the songs fell to Deheza who enlisted M83 producer Justin Meldal-Johnsen to guide her musically, as well as emotionally, through the process of finalising the tracks. A feat that became a memorial for her friend and band mate.
For anyone who has followed the band through their career, it feels right – for lack of a better word – that the album opens with the thumping percussion of ‘Ablaze’ and Curtis’ trademark reverb-soaked guitar. Instead of beginning with the memory of Curtis passing, the song is an ode to his importance to her during their life together. When she talks of how “the day we met/ there was a new fire/ whose heart had been drowning for so long” it becomes clear that this album intends to celebrate his influence on her, not lament what she has lost.
Musically, it not only sounds typically School of the Seven Bells but also of the band at their best and, despite the events surrounding its production, it’s a relatively upbeat affair. They have always been adept at creating emotionally rich and inventive songs but this final collection ties every strand of their previous output together. Deheza’s rapid-fire delivery on ‘Open Your Eyes’ brings the band full circle to ‘Half Asleep’ from their 2008 debut album Alpinisms – its languid hand claps and lightly brushed keys evoking a similar dream-like melancholy.
When the album enters its final breaths – because it does feel that not only Curtis was facing his end – there is a sense of the weight they both bore pressing down, almost unbearably. Recorded in one improvised take while Curtis was on leave from the hospital, ‘Confusion’ feels like the closing credits of tragic romance; the slow, all permeating synth mirrors the bleak lyrics. Deheza’s voice has lost the hypnotic lilt that she has become known for and instead threatens to buckle under the emotional stress; Curtis’ musical imprint is everywhere in the music, but you also can’t help but imagine each word Deheza achingly sings is directed at him. It is a heart-wrenching five minutes of the type rarely felt in modern music, sadly made all that more pertinent due to its context.
Speaking of the album upon its release, Deheza said “This is a love letter from start to finish. It’s the story of us starting from that first day we met in 2004, and that’s the story of School of Seven Bells”. Closing track ‘This is Our Time’ proves a fitting tribute to this sentiment, the duo’s bond and the album itself – the sense that she is saying goodbye is palpable. As she sings “Our time is indestructible” every syllable is felt, every New Romantic synth stab recognisable as Curtis’. They have always been emotionally invested outside of the band’s confines so it is tragic that it was the spectre of his death hanging over their heads that enabled them to create the emotional depth they had seemingly always strived for. While Deheza has already stated she has begun to consider returning to the studio, it is sadly clear that we will never hear the unique sound of these bells toll again.