School of Seven Bells at the Riot Room – by Ian McFarland

When School of Seven Bells released their first album four years ago, it sounded like an earthy, ancient take on shoegaze. But at their show in Kansas City on Sunday night, they made their new direction clear by turning the Riot Room into something more akin to a Disco.

The duo from Brooklyn consist of guitarist Benjamin Curtis and Alejandra Deheza. Curtis, despite having had a mic set up, exclusively vibes off his guitar while clearly feeling the vibes of some sort of substance (at one point, he pointed to the back corner and mumbled to the crowd “I just remembered, I played in that park when I was . . . eighteen”) – but that’s totally appropriate for the shimmery walls in the middle of their songs. It’s not psychedelic or stoned, but it’s expansiveness suggests a different state.

His other half, Deheza, showed up with silver painted under her brow and over her eyes. Deheza, tiny and adorable enough to look at home in a dollhouse, plays a little guitar on some tracks but is primarily the vocalist. SVIIB’s first two albums also listed Deheza’s sister Claudia as a member, whom with she formed dazzling harmonies that initially defined the band. Now that there’s only one vocalist, there’s a lot less to latch onto, especially given Alejandra’s small voice.

Claudia’s departure has appeared to affect more than the vox. The first two albums, Alpinisms (2008) and Disconnect from Desire (2010), were set aside for their taste of the mystical and mesopotamian. That’s almost completely disappeared from this year’s Ghostory, an album that is less about atmosphere and more about beats. The result is much less unique and a little duller in the act’s quest for Dance Hall rhythm, albeit tempered with waxy guitar that takes prominance.

The good news, though, is this direction is much better suited for a live setting. After a rocky start with technical issues, the band turned on and got the crowd moving. For most of the forty or so crowd members, that meant calm headbanging, which is much more animated than one can expect for a band highlighted on Pitchfork. One third of the crowd, however, brought their A-Game and cheered loudly while dancing like a goofy troupe of High Schoolers at prom self-consciously trying to be silly. “Stop making crazy good dance songs” one screamed at the stage. “Never,” grinned Curtis.

Annoying though these participants may have been, they couldn’t kill SVIIB when they latched onto a groove. Highlights included older jams like “Half Asleep” and “Bye Bye Bye”, as well as newer tracks like “Low Times” that sound a little unexciting on record, but took on a very-welcome intensity on stage. School of Seven Bells may be going down a less exciting path with their new music, but at least they know how to play it.

By Ian T. McFarland

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