The trio behind School of Seven Bells’s lush indie-pop takes their creative process incredibly seriously. The band often discusses their eclectic influences—from David Lynch films to their singer’s lucid dreaming episodes—and emphasizes the deliberate and taxing character of their songwriting. They’re artists’ artists, to be sure, but that doesn’t mean they’ve transcended the sounds of the post-millennial indie-rock scene and its forbears.
If Disconnect from Desire is any indicator, then the sonic equivalent of a David Lynch film or a lucid dream sounds, well, more or less like Stereolab. Characteristic of the band’s approach is the noisy pop number “Heart Is Strange,” which comes with lots of repetitive digital clicks and beeps, quirky vocal melodies, and a ubiquitous veneer of guitar fuzz. And it’s not that the band sounds exactly like Stereolab, or like anyone else, but listening to Disconnect from Desire feels like shuffling through a ‘90s alt-rock playlist. Benjamin Curtis, formerly of the Secret Machines, opts for a reverb-laden guitar style which is most clearly indebted to the great shoegaze albums of that decade, most notably My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless and the Cocteau Twins’s Heaven or Las Vegas. With regard to the latter, the singing Deheza sisters, Alejandra and Claudia, even sound a bit like Elisabeth Fraser (also, they are actual twins).
It’s not all throwback dream pop, though, since the band maintains some of the interest in choral singing and tribal percussion that characterized their debut. But whereas those elements gave Alpinisms a coolly cosmopolitan appeal, they feel more like embellishments than genuine sources of inspiration here. Standout cuts like “Babelonia” and “Dial” resemble M83’s fusions of synth pop and shoegaze more than their ostensibly exotic touchstones, and even the more successful experiments in polyglot pastiche could fit comfortably on a Bat for Lashes album—which is to say, artful but still easily decipherable in terms of recent indie-rock trends.
The point here isn’t to kneecap the band for a lack of originality, simply to observe the disconnect between the self-conscious auteurism with which they approach their sound and the ultimately familiar results. Clearly, a lot of thought went into making this album the trippy and meticulously orchestrated listen that it is, but the payoff in terms of a distinctive sonic identity is pretty minimal. Part of the blame for that should go to the vocalists: The Deheza sisters sing impressive and complex harmonies, but they don’t inject them with an abundance of personality. On tracks like “I L U,” where over-production is already a danger, their heavily processed vocals are a little too easy to lose in the hypnotic swirl of sounds.
Which, again, is odd given the way that School of Seven Bells’s talks about their work. Around the time that their first album was released, the band told NPR that their vocals typically precede their musical arrangements, with the latter serving to enhance and convey the song’s lyrical content. That’s a sentiment that’s hard to take seriously as one works through the album though. Competition from bells, synths, guitars, drum machines, and all manner of chiming, clattering things both artificial and synthetic often renders the lyrics indecipherable, and in the places where they can be plainly understood, they’re not overwhelmingly insightful. On “Dust Devil,” the sisters declare: “I’m not afraid/I know it’s what you do/I know more then you think I do”; on the dissonant, disco-inspired “Camarailla,” they run through nonsensical rhymes: “This faint imposition’s a loaded decision/Hiding in its vision/A treacherous seas.”
But even if one looks past the awkward poetry, Disconnect from Desire still feels like a missed opportunity, insofar as it’s nearly impossible to grant the material here the type of close attention for which the band has clearly intended it. The songs are so overstuffed with sounds and digressions that one simply can’t take it all in: The best option is to let the group’s appealing wall of sound wash over you, appreciating it for its mesmeric vibe rather than for it’s orchestral intricacy. It’s not an unpleasant experience by any means—just quite a lot duller and less intimate than what the band probably had in mind.