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Show Review: Silversun Pickups + School of Seven Bells + Atlas Genius [Aragon Ballroom; Chicago; 9/21/12]

Friday, September 21st was officially the last day of summer 2012. You wouldn’t know it had you gone outside in Chicago though, as temperatures were in the 50s for most of the day and the skies were gray and rainy. Sometimes you just want one more warm and sunny day though, before it’s too late. In spite of the weather, life goes on and good things continue to happen in other aspects of our lives. A show where the bill is Atlas Genius, School of Seven Bells and Silversun Pickups sounds pretty dynamite, right? Well, that tour made its way to Chicago on Friday night, stopping at the Aragon Ballroom for some end of summer fun. Here’s a quick look at how things went.

Have you heard of Atlas Genius yet? If not, now’s probably the time to start paying attention to them. Their debut EP Through the Glass has already yielded a budding hit with the song “Trojans,” and a debut album is in the works for early 2013. As a band on the rise, of course they have to pay their dues, though fortunately for them that means playing at the Aragon to a couple thousand people rather than at a small club with only a couple hundred. The peril of being on a big tour though is always that you go on first, and with this being an all ages show, that meant hitting the stage at about 7pm. The average start time for a concert in Chicago is probably about 9pm, and even then a venue typically isn’t full until an hour or two later. So the Aragon was close to half full when Atlas Genius started their set, which for all practical purposes was pretty decent. They started with “Back Seat” off their EP and powered through a few new songs before very naturally ending with “Trojans.” They were arguably the most energetic and entertaining band of the entire night, playing with the sort of carefree joy that young and hungry artists have if they’re doing it right. Sometimes you will show up early and encounter a band that’s not quite ready for primetime but still has a little spark that suggests great potential for the future. In the relatively short time they’ve been around, Atlas Genius have exceeded reasonable expectations. They worked the crowd at the Aragon with charm and enthusiasm, and they responded in kind. It’s just a shame there weren’t more people around to witness it.

Atlas Genius – Trojans

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One of the more fascinating dichotomies of this particular show was that while Atlas Genius has only one EP and a budding radio hit, School of Seven Bells have three full length albums and zero radio hits. In this increasingly digital and mp3 world, you’d think such stats wouldn’t mean much, but it turns out more young people are listening to terrestrial radio than you might think. There were large portions of the crowd that had at least heard of Atlas Genius but didn’t know School of Seven Bells. It created that much more of a challenge for SVIIB to win people over. The enthusiasm didn’t quite carry over into their set, and it didn’t help that they started a little shaky. “Windstorm” is actually a single of theirs and certainly isn’t one of their weaker tracks, but it trod a midtempo ground that left the audience at attention but not exactly inspired. That frontwoman Alejandra Deheza and guitarist Benjamin Curtis stayed pretty glued to one spot for the entire set certainly didn’t give you much to look at on stage either. I’ve seen SVIIB a couple times in the last few years, always at venues about a third the size of the Aragon, and those shows were far more visceral and inspired than what they were dishing out this particular Friday night. Perhaps it was the set list or the absence of Alejandra’s sister Claudia, or even the sheer size and poor sound of the venue that caused things to be off. Maybe they just needed some time to warm up, too. After the first few songs, things started to click in place by the time “Lafaye” hit. Their final few songs were more beat-heavy and pulsated with an intense energy that started to get a lot of heads bobbing in the crowd. They finished with the song “Half Asleep,” their only nod to their excellent debut album Alpinisms, and there was a certain irony to the title. After spending much of the set with a positively lethargic audience, they were finally able to bring many out of that comatose state and into semi-consciousness. So they had that going for them, which was nice.

School of Seven Bells – The Night
School of Seven Bells – Lafaye

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When it comes to headliner status, the conditions are almost always just right. That is, the place is fully packed and there’s one act you know everybody is there to see. In this case it was Silversun Pickups, who like School of Seven Bells have three records to their name, but unlike School of Seven Bells have a handful of radio hits to back them up. If you haven’t heard songs like “Lazy Eye” or “Panic Switch” on your local radio station, then perhaps you heard them in a TV commercial or on a movie soundtrack, because they’ve kind of been everywhere. Back when they were first starting out, people compared them to the ’90s version of The Smashing Pumpkins, reasoning that if Billy Corgan hadn’t strayed from that path he was on to go more psychedelic it’s what the Pumpkins would sound like today. Considering how successful Silversun Pickups have been thus far, such a reference feels pretty apt. The size of the crowd on Friday night seemed to be a testament to that success too, because if the show wasn’t sold out it sure looked like a sell out. Frontman Brian Aubert marveled at how many people came out, particularly because the last time they played the Aragon it was only about 75% filled. That sort of humility and overall kindness towards the crowd actually went a long way as a counterbalance to the ferocity of their songs. With bassist Nikki Monninger sidelined for the moment while she’s pregnant with twins, Sarah Negahdari from The Happy Hollows filled in for what was her very first time in Chicago. That seemed strange to me because I thought The Happy Hollows have toured nationally at least a couple times in recent years, but whatever, she seemed genuinely excited to be there and the crowd made her feel more than welcome. After starting with the opening track “Skin Graph” off their new record Neck of the Woods, the band peppered much of their set with the hits people clearly wanted to hear. “The Royal We,” “Little Lover’s So Polite” and their latest single “Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)” all showed up early on, quickly driving the crowd into a frenzy. Aubert moved around the stage with his guitar whenever he wasn’t locked behind a microphone, which also lent the show some extra energy that a rather pretty array of rainbow colored lighting couldn’t otherwise do. Overall it was about what you’d expect from a Silversun Pickups live show, and that’s not a bad thing. Better to meet expectations rather than fall short of them. The band has definitely improved with time, and Aubert has grown as a performer and ringleader too. Of course there’s always room for improvement, but for where they are in their careers right now they’re doing just fine on stage. Nobody walked out of the Aragon at the end of the night disappointed. Even the rain had the good sense to go away.

Silversun Pickups – Bloody Mary (Nerve Endings)

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Album Review: School of Seven Bells – Ghostory [Vagrant/Ghostly]

One of the first things you’ll hear mentioned in any press about School of Seven Bells surrounding their new album Ghostory is that they’re down a member. After two albums as a trio of Benjamin Curtis (ex-Secret Machines), Alejandra Deheza and Claudia Deheza (ex-On!Air!Library!), Claudia abruptly left the band in the middle of a 2010 tour suporting their last full length Disconnect From Desire. There was no official explanation given for her exit, but it’s very possible that the romantic relationship between Benjamin and Alejandra left Claudia feeling like a third wheel both personally and professionally. Soldiering on without her certainly leaves a twin-sized hole in the band’s sound, as the intertwining vocal harmonies of the two sisters were one of SVIIB’s defining characteristics. As a means of offsetting such changes, the duo uses vocal overdubs and multitracking to keep things stable, even as the overall style of their music continues to evolve as well.

Ghostory is at its core a concept album, though you might be wise to simply take it at face value rather than closely analyze plot and characters. As the album’s title suggests, there are plenty of ghosts floating around in these songs, and they haunt the main character of Lafaye in both a positive and negative way. They aren’t literal ghosts but figurative ones, as our memories of people and places and strong emotional events can stay with us and haunt us for much of our lives. It shouldn’t come as much of a surprise that many of the songs are thematically dark, about predators and toxic people that we’ve all mistakenly become friends or lovers with at times. Our judgments are not always perfect. “Low Times” feels fitting as the album’s 6.5 minute centerpiece, an insistent and rather bitter track that pushes back against a particularly bad break-up. Similar themes permeate much of the record, though none perhaps moreso than “Scavenger”, where Deheza angrily criticizes her ex with lines like, “I made you feel something because you could feel nothing.” And though it is never officially spelled out for you, a couple tracks are informed or at least partly influenced by Claudia’s departure from the band. Listening to opening track and first single “The Night”, lyrics such as “The light of day gives me no relief/because I see you in everything” and “You have my arms, you have my legs” seem to reference the physical and mental connections that twins share. Press materials for the album mention that Ghostory is as much about Lafaye’s journey as it is the band’s, so of course making such connections are about as obvious as they can get without somebody spelling it out for you.

As much as SVIIB’s journey the last couple years has been about loss, listening to Ghostory you understand it has also been about growth and strengthening perceived weaknesses. Somehow they seem to have gotten better in spite of everything, as the new album is their most cohesive and exploratory to date. Their first two records Alpinisms and Disconnect From Desire took on gothic synth-pop with the sort of vigor reserved for a band like Depeche Mode in their heyday while also drawing accurate references to shoegaze and My Bloody Valentine. There’s still a lot of that on the new album, but they’re also bringing in a heavier electronica influence to make their songs more beat-heavy and dancefloor ready. The choruses and hooks are better than ever too. If you thought SVIIB’s music was ripe for clubs before, don’t be surprised if they recruit some friends and unleash a remix record several months or a year down the road. Tracks like “White Wind” and “Lafaye” are just two standout moments of a handful best experienced in a dark room with a pulsating light show and bodies writhing up against one another. But in case all of that wasn’t enough, Ghostory wraps up with “When You Sing”, an 8.5 minute thrill ride that stands right next to the even longer “Sempiternal-Amaranth” from Alpinisms as a band-defining moment. Whether their songs are 3 minutes or 10, School of Seven Bells are always careful to not let a melody go beyond its expiration date.

2008 was the year School of Seven Bells toured with M83. The two bands shared something of a sonic bond then, and now a few years later they have even more in common. There are moments on Ghostory that would be right at home on M83’s highly acclaimed 2011 double album Hurry Up, We’re Dreaming, and vice versa. That says something about the evolution of both bands. Heavy reliance on shoegaze textures and hazy vocal performances/lyrics have given way to extremely clean production, up-front and clear vocals, along with a greater openness and warmth to the lyrics than ever before. The fog is gone and we’re now left with the realization there was an even greater band being obscured by it. In spite of all they’ve been through the last couple years, SVIIB are blossoming rather than retreating. They’ve always been meticulous in crafting their songs, but Ghostory is the first time that Benjamin and Alejandra have truly collaborated in the writing and composition of a record – something they used to do separately. The results are right there across 9 beautiful and darkly fun tracks that function best as a defining statement of what this band is all about. Hopefully working their magic and putting out this excellent third record won’t come back to haunt them when they try to settle in and make a fourth.

School of Seven Bells – The Night
School of Seven Bells – Lafaye

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Show Review: School of Seven Bells + Active Child [Lincoln Hall; Chicago; 9/17/10]

There was a slight chill in the air last Friday night as School of Seven Bells and Active Child rolled into town to play a show at Lincoln Hall. Interestingly enough, the last time I saw School of Seven Bells was in the also-chilly late fall of 2008 when they had only released their debut record “Alpinisms” and were opening for M83. Since then, they’ve toured the world over a couple times and released a sophmore effort “Disconnect From Desire” that was a little different but still just about as great as their debut. With the small adjustment in sound and the couple years worth of live shows under their belts, it left a big question mark as to how their live show has changed. As for Active Child, they’re a (one man) band I’d been meaning to check out, but given the massive stockpile of music I deal with on a daily basis I never got around to it. That curiosity is exactly why I showed up early enough to catch their opening set Friday night.

Upon walking into Lincoln Hall, Active Child had just gotten started and the very first thing I encountered when looking to the stage was the man behind the name Pat Grossi singing and playing the harp. It would have had a very Joanna Newsom-ish vibe were there not some dark computer backing beats being provided by a pair of laptops and some guitar work courtesy of unofficial bandmate Stratton Easter. Having just two people on stage always makes for some interesting challenges, mostly in the recreation of the many layered sounds that appear on record. The laptops helped, but Grossi and Easter did all the real leg work, often moving between instruments such as keyboards and guitars to pull it off in what seemed to be effortless fashion. Of course just because it looked effortless doesn’t mean that it was, and mid-way through their set Grossi had to pull off a layer of clothing to keep cool. The crowd was very gracious to the band, though they clearly had a few female friends that were not shy about screaming loudly and even telling people to buy merch before Grossi had a chance to. It was all very amusing and interesting, but also pretty impressive from a musical standpoint. The songs sounded great and had a very moody, almost psychedelic vibe that worked well with the lighting and smoke machines. It also made perfect sense as to why Active Child was touring with School of Seven Bells given their somewhat similar sounds. Having not heard any music by the band prior to walking into their set that night, I can now say that Active Child is excellent both on stage and on record. I picked up the “Curtis Lane” EP after the show.

One of the more interesting things that happened before School of Seven Bells started their set was a lack of a tuning session. Most bands will set up their instruments and then tune up with the sound guy for 10 minutes, picking at a guitar or hitting the snare 50 times to get a level right. All SVIIB did was plug in, sing a few notes into the microphone, and then walk off stage as some pre-recorded atmospheric noise played over the speakers. Why they made everyone wait another 15 minutes before re-emerging and officially starting their set is a mystery, but it did allow sufficient time for the smoke machines to turn the entire stage into something rivalling London’s foggiest days. With psychedelic visuals projecting on the black curtain above the band as well, there’s certainly been some showmanship added to the band’s otherwise strong live show. When I saw them in 2008, School of Seven Bells were already a pretty strong live act. Given that Alejandra and Claudia Deheza both came from On! Air! Library! and Benjamin Curtis had spent plenty of time with Secret Machines, they were all seasoned pros before they even got together on this project. Perhaps the real point in playing those dreary instrumentals and building up smoke was to get the crowd into the appropriate mood. Everyone was pulled into the band’s world, a dark and dreamy place where the lines between reality and fiction, life and death, band and audience, were significantly blurred.

It was only fitting then that School of Seven Bells started their set with the fuzzy “Alpinisms” cut “Half Asleep”. The smoke, lighting and enchanting harmonies of the Deheza sisters turned the whole ordeal into a hypnotically beautiful way to begin. Lincoln Hall has the most technologically advanced and arguably strongest sound system in Chicago, but even that couldn’t stop a few minor microphone sqeaks during a couple songs during the set. Other than that, everything else was technically flawless and worked well with the shoegaze-inspired sound. The stage setup was purposefully functional too, with the Dehezas up front on guitar, keyboards and vocals while Benjamin Curtis and the touring drummer hung out in back. Having a live drummer is something a bit new for the band, who were getting by using drum machines when touring to support their first album. Whether he adds or subtracts from the good music that’s already there is up for debate. I chose to regard the drummer as unnecessary but never to the point where he hurt any of the great melodies the band has going for them. Much of the time he was competing with a drum machine anyways, and a lot of what he was supplementing with wasn’t overly complicated. If it makes SVIIB feel more like a full band, then he clearly serves that purpose at least, but otherwise it makes little difference whether or not he’s on stage.

As one might expect, the band ran through a set that mostly consisted of songs from “Disconnect From Desire”, given that’s the new record they’re supporting. “Windstorm” sounded pretty great in a live setting, though the album version is probably just a little bit better. “Heart Is Strange” fared better on stage, as did “Bye Bye Bye”. One of my personal favorite SVIIB songs “My Cabal” turned into a birthday dedication, which was nice and a better rendition than I heard when seeing the band a couple years back. My only real disappointment was the lack of certain highlights from “Alpinisms”. Without a “Iamundernodisguise” or “Connjur” to be found, that was a slight let down in an otherwise excellent set. There were many times the music and atmosphere blended just right to transcend the experience you’d get by simply giving one of the band’s records a close listen via headphones.

At the start of their encore, Alejandra Deheza prefaced things by saying, “Um, we’re gonna try something”. That “something” turned out to be a cover of “Kiss Them For Me”, originally by Siouxie and the Banshees. It was quite brilliantly done and mixed with the band’s sound nearly perfectly. I’m pretty sure Alejandra forgot the words to the last verse of the song, but it didn’t really matter, because everybody on stage looked like they were having a blast. That was really the only moment in the entire show when they were all grinning ear to ear and truly letting loose on stage. They came off as a bit stiff at the beginning of their set but gradually grew warmer and happier as things progressed. The crowd was receptive as one might expect throughout the set, though I was left wondering how many of them actually recognized the Siouxie cover during the encore. No matter, there were lots of satisfied faces leaving Lincoln Hall last Friday night. The smiles might not have been there, given that SVIIB aren’t exactly the happiest or most upbeat band in the world, but looking at the eyes, you could tell it was a great night. Should you have the opportunity, going to see School of Seven Bells and/or Active Child touring through your town is definitely something worth doing. Not nearly enough bands these days attempt to make their live shows experiences rather than simple jam sessions, but thankfully these two bands know that there’s more to a performance than simply playing back the songs from your records verbatim.

School of Seven Bells – Windstorm

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Album Review: School of Seven Bells – Disconnect From Desire [Ghostly International/Vagrant]

The band School of Seven Bells is comprised of twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza (formerly of On! Air! Library!) and Benjamin Curtis (formerly of Secret Machines). Their 2008 debut album “Alpinisms” was an immensely compelling piece of shoegazey dream pop that smartly used each members’ specific talents to their collective advantage. Thanks to songs like “Half Asleep”, “Connjur” and “My Cabal”, there were also plenty of hooks to go around amidst the haze and fuzz the guitars and synths often brought to the table. Throw in some stellar vocal harmonies and it’s a winning combination that earned the group the right sort of buzz and year-end praise from the right kinds of people. After spending the last couple years touring relentlessly, School of Seven Bells took what little time off they had and used it to craft their sophmore effort “Disconnect From Desire”, which will be available everywhere next week.

From the very first notes of opening track “Windstorm”, there’s a noticeable difference in the band’s sound compared to their debut. The vocals are no longer shoved into the background, wrapped in effects or overdubbed to give them more heft. Instead, the Deheza sisters come in more clearly than ever and interweave with one another with all the beauty and grace you might expect. The synths are also much heavier on this new album, maintaining the darker dream-like state of affairs but lightening up on the shoegaze guitar work. And as for drums, the trio continues to use a drum machine, though they’ve recently recruited a drummer to play with them at shows. These adjustments serve the band well when it comes to maintaining a cohesive sound across the entire album. Many of the songs blend into one another and there are large segments that feel like continuations from the same sonic palette and lyrical themes. All these changes are big enough to get your attention, but small enough that it doesn’t affect the overall sound/mood the band has previously established. In other words, if you liked the sound of “Alpinisms”, there’s still a high likelihood that you’ll also enjoy what the band is doing on “Disconnect From Desire”.

That doesn’t mean the album is without problems though. Where “Alpinisms” had its greatest successes, “Disconnect From Desire” doesn’t quite deliver. The presumably smart move of creating a more cohesive sounding record also works against the band in this case, as there are large sections that fail to stand out or stick with you for an extended period of time. Earworms like “Iamundernodisguise” or “Prince of Peace” that followed the standard verse-chorus-verse structure could effectively stick in your head for days at a time. They were also well within the boundaries of your average pop song, averaging 3-4 minutes in length across the album, save for a couple tracks. On “Disconnect from Desire”, the average track length is 5+ minutes, and the choruses come around less frequently in favor of atmospherics and general beauty. In other words, it sounds really nice, but there’s a chance you might wind up bored by it after awhile. The album may only span 10 tracks and about 60 minutes, but don’t be surprised if you start checking your watch after 30 minutes wondering exactly when things are going to wrap up. Of course the shortest stuff is also the easiest to swallow, from first single “Windstorm” to “Bye Bye Bye” (which is NOT an N’Sync cover). It’s in these moments that School of Seven Bells sound their richest and most engaging – in other words, like they did on “Alpinisms”.

So “Disconnect From Desire” isn’t quite the home run that the band and many others had hoped for. It is still a largely fascinating album that does well by itself in crafting a solid and cohesive soundscape to get lost inside of. In other words, it’s a good record to put on when you’ve got enough free time to commit to listening start to finish with little to distract you. It’s when you don’t have that time and are looking for only the highlights that you might have a little trouble. Ultimately the lack of highly memorable songs is what hurts this sophmore effort, but not as much as you might reasonably expect. With all the talent this band packs vocally via the gorgeously unique harmonies of the Deheza sisters and instrumentally via the smooth and hazy soundscapes that Benjamin Curtis plays a large part in crafting, there’s too much they’re doing right to call this album anywhere near bad. Instead it plays out as only slightly weaker than their amazing debut. If you’re new to School of Seven Bells, “Alpinisms” is still probably your best bet for an introduction, but “Disconnect From Desire” continues to pay lip service to those looking to journey a little further down the rabbit hole.

School of Seven Bells – Windstorm

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