Plenty of genres are easy to ruin. Hip-hop, country, electronic and rock ‘n’ roll have all suffered the ignominy of having a production misstep or simple act of poor judgment render an otherwise fine composition damn near unlistenable. Shoegaze, however, has spent two decades seemingly immune from being tainted beyond redemption. Even in an oversaturated market, there aren’t that many cases of a band somehow finding a way to fuck up a massive wall of guitars or a psychedelic onslaught of effects. Yet, the irony about this is that, despite its resilience, shoegazers worldwide have set such lengthy precedent that no matter how well it’s done, in 2012, it’s that much harder to stand out, and increasingly difficult to build something new upon what previously existed and was perfected long ago.
In 2008, however, School of Seven Bells gave it the old college try on Alpinisms, and largely succeeded thanks to a playful sensibility spearheaded by sisters and singers Claudia and Alejandra Deheza. The Deheza sisters, backed by former Secret Machine Ben Curtis, pushed even further into dreamy electronic territory on its follow-up, Disconnect from Desire, but just as the band seemed primed to push their sound to the next level, Claudia exited the band, slimming the group down to a duo and removing one of the most crucial elements that set them apart from so many shoegaze also-rans. But just as often as a lineup shift can mark the beginning of the end, it likewise can present a crucial turning point upon which new paths can be forged.
Unfazed by this “crisitunity,” Curtis and Deheza regrouped, doubled up on Alejandra’s vocal tracks and emerged with Ghostory, a nine-track collection on which the duo further refines their ethereal graces while amplifying the impact on their increasingly heavy dance grooves. A supposed concept album about a girl named Lafaye, and the ghosts that visit her (hence the title), Ghostory, like School of Seven Bells’ previous albums, finds that sublime rendezvous between the spectral and the corporeal. And true to the duo’s attempts to channel apparitions, it’s frequently at its most breathtaking when concerned with lighter, less sonically confrontational material. You can practically see Deheza’s breath rising during the icily sensual dirge “Show Me Love.” And when Curtis drops the percussion altogether on “Reappear,” the duo achieves an awe-inspiring beauty through a deceptively simple approach.
For as expert as School of Seven Bells have become at sustaining a mesmerizing weightlessness, Ghostory more often finds its muse in My Bloody Valentine’s “Soon” than “Sometimes.” While they’ve never necessarily shied away from their clubbier instincts, here Curtis and Deheza make good on delivering their share of certified bangers, polished up and spackled with fuzz. “Lafaye,” the first single and immediate highlight, behaves not so much like a diversion into dream pop hallucinations so much as a pure pop indulgence, one that’s extremely hard not to love. They drive an industrial-fuzz beat even harder on the lengthy “Low Times,” a stylistic choice that emerges again with the Downward Spiral-style synth patterns on “White Wind.” But with Kevin Shields as their witness, they’d be hard pressed to top a platter of shoegazer disco as epic and as endorphin-loaded as “When You Sing.”
There’s a life and a spark to Ghostory that sets it apart from the more passive voices in shoegaze today, even if its haunted backstory is somewhat ancillary. Whatever spirits haunt Ghostory, they’re nowhere near as unsettling as those that the Cocteau Twins exorcised on 1984’s Treasure, nor as jarring as those that followed the car-crash terror of M83’s Before the Dawn Heals Us. To borrow a phrase from the Wolfgang Press, these are funky little demons, compelling their hosts to look up from their Pumas and embrace the sensorial world around them.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.