Ghostory is the eagerly anticipated third album of School of Seven Bells.
Before I start, I want to put a disclaimer out there; I’m a fan of SVIIB’s work as a whole, hell, I have their entire discography on wax. I wouldn’t have bought all those records if I didnt find them at least mildly interesting. Actually, I find them a lot more than just “mildly interesting”; I’ve grown to love both of their previous albums a great deal. But Ghostory is, well, a different story.
Both Ben and Alley admitted they changed their normal approach to creating music with this album, and how could they not? Losing Alley’s twin sister Claudia due to personal reasons was bound to upset the established equilibrium, change how they do things. Recorded between two tours, they actually sat together and built the album up as opposed to preforming ideas separately and bringing them together. The result is a concept album about “a young girl called Lafaye and the ghosts that surround her”. Their previous album Disconnect From Desire did gently nod its head in the conceptual direction with tracks like “Camarilla”, “Babelonia” and “Joviann”, but Ghostory is the real deal.
Each album of theirs has shown a marked progression from the last; the super gauzy dream pop of Alpinisms , a carry over from their work as On!Air!Library!, became (relatively speaking) more uptempo and electronic with DfD and the evolution has continued to become even more electronic. On Ghostory, elements of both sidle their way in to the overall sound, but are largely overtaken and overwhelmed by the new. “Reappear” is perhaps the last true bastion of their original sound; soft, shoegazey lyrics ride a minimal guitar melody to nowhere in particular, chased up by “Show Me Love”, which bears a lot of resemblance to the DfD sound, something pretty similar to “Joviann”.
I think what I don’t like about this album is a. the lack of Claudia’s harmonies and b. the somewhat stronger electronic influences on this. “White Wind” exists because there are no more harmonies to act as a tether and it feels flat and lifeless; the frantic synth and percussion are kind of overpowering and insanely repetitive too. I kind of feel the same way about “Low Times”; it starts with some really groovy synth and guitar which sets a really good pace for the track (and it breaks down towards the end in a wonderful flurry), but the vocals fall massively short. I’m so used to that duality that it feels off, not quite right, with Alley on her own.
But frustratingly there are other times when it gets a whole lot more shoegaze-y and really heartfelt; the impassioned “Reappear” is one of my favourites. It really is just minimal guitar, some light drone backing and Alley’s vocals and it’s beautiful, no question. “Scavenger” is sort of the anti-thesis of this, with a fantastic, really driven and compelling beat but still with quite airy vocals interwoven. “The Night”, however, is easily the best track of the album (and one of their best to date); flippant synth, skittering electronics and soaring vocals are overwhelmingly cathartic yet oddly euphoric.
Lit a fuse in my heart
But despite all this…there is a word used several times in the Pitchfork review which I think accurately summarises my feelings on this album, and that is “sterile”. There is a real clinical precision to the tracks here that I don’t enjoy, the synths and bassline feel quite contrived and unoriginal at times (in so many of the tracks they’re completely linear and repetitious), with a disappointing level of variety.
I haven’t even begun to talk about the lyrics and I wont now; ~700 words of aimless garbage later and I could do the same again just mulling over and interpreting and speculating. If you hadn’t already noticed, I’m having a hard time talking about this album as it is. I guess I feel a little underwhelmed, even a little disappointed. It really has split my opinion in two though; one half of me wants to really like this, but the other is nitpicking and fault-finding all over the place. Perhaps over time and many listens it’ll grow on me like the others did, but until then it’s getting one of these:
(Maybe a 7, god I’m so torn)