Onstage, the New York group School of Seven Bells works hard to create a sense of mystique.
Guitarist Benjamin Curtis and singer Alejandra Deheza both seemingly only own flowy black clothes, and both have the runic symbol from the cover of 2010’s Disconnect from Desire as tattoos.
Tuesday night they flooded Mercury Lounge with as much purple and blue lava-lamp lighting as possible, and Deheza splashed on her best Blade Runner-face paint and glitter for the occasion.
But as soon as Curtis opened his mouth to thank the crowd, which was often enough, it was clear that for all the band members' attempts to live up to the dreamlike and otherworldly aesthetic of their music, they still have to deal with mortal realm worries like opening night jitters.
Tuesday was the release party for the band’s third album Ghostory. It’s an ambitious work that pits a narrative about a character confronting the metaphorical ghosts of her past (lots of lyrics about cowardly exes and moving past old fears) atop propulsive beats and thick layers of guitar, harmonies and keyboards that have been fed through enough effects pedals to sound like pop songs projected from the Astral Plane.
Adding to the pressure was that this was the first show with the band’s new lineup. Deheza's sister, Claudia, was a founding member of the group, and her keyboard parts and intertwined harmonies were a characteristic feature of albums like Desire. The sisters' removed and distant stage presence contrasted with Curtis’ wild thrashing in a way that underlined the hot and cold, mind and body divide of the music.
Tuesday night was breaking-in time for a new keyboard player and singer named Allie Alvarado, whom Curtis said opened for the first Seven Bells show in her previous group. Alvarado clearly can do lovely and haunting very well, but there were plenty of understandable tics throughout her performance, moments when she came in too quickly or didn’t quite synch up and songs where she wasn’t finding the right balance between projecting loud enough to be heard but maintaining the emotional reserve required for these songs to work.
Despite the obstacles and whole "acting like spectral visitors from a mystical realm" thing, the band worked hard to deliver their exacting vision, nailing the unexpected turns and nuanced hooks in mountain-sized new songs “Low Times” and “Scavenger,” and suggesting that this new class of the School will be fine after a few weeks of work.
Extra credit is due to drummer Christopher Colley, who is in that weird position where he’s not officially in the band but holds things together anyway, ably splitting the different between replicating programmed beats when necessary and providing a more natural bounce when it helped ground the songs better.
Opening the show was the Brooklyn couple Aleksa Palladino and Devon Church, who perform with support players under the name Exitmusic. They often recalled mid-period Radiohead with more gothy ambiance and more theatrical vocals courtesy of Palladino. The band is relatively young, but sounded strikingly assured, never letting all their moody sonics get in the way of the striking melodies.