School of Seven Bells @ the Gaelic, Sydney (31/7/10)
Though shoegaze was a short-lived phenomenon at its peak, it’s proven remarkably hard to kill. Even grunge, riding high in 1991, couldn’t bury My Bloody Valentine’s Loveless, released just a few months after Nirvana’s Nevermind. Shoegaze did get sidelined for a while, as elements of the sound were kept alive through the alt-rock mess of the 90s by bands like Mogwai, Spiritualized and the Smashing Pumpkins.
Come the mid-noughties, shoegaze started to have a bit of a renaissance. From M83’s towering synths to the Pains of Being Pure at Heart’s twee-inflected fuzz, Kevin Shields might have wondered if the intervening years had all been some kind of strange dream.
In the midst of all this, Benjamin Curtis from space-rockers Secret Machines met twin sisters Alejandra and Claudia Deheza (from the awesomely-named On! Air! Library!) combined to create the sweeping shoegaze of School of Seven Bells.
More than trend-riding, SVIIB’s debut Alpinisms and recent follow-up Disconnect from Desire balance a love for Ride-ish shoegaze with a sophisticated experimental edge, mixing tense beats or Stone Roses-style percussion into a genre at risk of self-suffocation. It’s this experimentalism that translates so well live, making them more than just another noise onslaught who’ve listen to Psychocandy a few thousand times.
Of course, SVIIB are certainly loud – it just wouldn’t be shoegaze if you couldn’t feel every drum beat kick through your chest. With touring drummer Guy Licata amping up the visceral power, the band was so forceful it seemed that cups and handbags should be skittering cartoonishly across bench tops.
Sheer volume is one thing, but SVIIB work with incredible subtlety within the sonic onslaught. Curtis arranges dense layers of guitar with grace and economy, replicating the expansive sound of the band on record while maintaining a stronger stage presence than the shoe-gazers who gave the genre its name.
Alejandra and Claudia round out the sound, adding layered synths and additional guitar that swirl around their glassy harmonies. Alejandra’s wispy synth summoned the eerie hurricane melody backing Claudia’s vocals on standout track Windstorm, a song that kicks into its chorus with the kind of force most post-rock bands take nine minutes to muster.
Experimentalism kept the show’s energy lively and diverse, without demanding that the audience know every in and out of their back catalogue. A powerful combination of strength and beauty, School of Seven Bells are compelling, captivating musicians.