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All words: William Alberque

All photos: Farrah Skeiky

I was sad when reading the BYT review of the stellar line-up of Exitmusic, A Place to Bury Strangers, and the Joy Formidable a week or so back because Andy missed Exitmusic. I’m sympathetic, though; it can be hard to make it for the first of three on a school night. Still, watching that gig, I was struck by how each of those three bands complemented each other and made for an immensely satisfying evening’s experience.

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I was greatly pleased to hear that Exitmusic were coming straight back as the opener for the School of Seven Bells. I like SVIIB, as they dorkily like to be called. I’d seen them as an opener previously, so this show could serve as a nice chance to sample the new album (Ghostory) and see them in a headlining spot.

Exitmusic were just stellar. The band name, with its Radiohead reference, gives you a good idea of what you’re in for – this is not happy music – it’s dark, and emotional. I first saw them open up for Phantogram – Paula Mejia nailed it in her review – and was so blown away by Exitmusic that I very nearly walked out before Phantogram ever came on. I stayed, but immediately bought their astounding “From Silence” EP and marked them on Songkick as a band to watch.

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From the opening, dark bass notes of “The Sea,” with Aleksa Palladino’s hypnotizing voice cooing through the gentle intro, followed soon by thundering tom drums and dark guitar lines – you know you’re in for something special. Palladino’s voice, in its delicate moments, reminds me a bit of Bat for Lashes, but when she howls, she taps into a PJ Harvey-esque maelstrom that is quite something to watch. Oh, yeah, and she’s gorgeous, and plays Angela Darmody in Broadway Empire. The opening song gives that dynamic in spades, and much of the audience is struck dumb by what they’ve just heard.

The touring band is expanded beyond the recording duo of Palladino and Devon Church (they’re married, and he’s model-handsome, natch) to include a drummer (Dru Prentiss) and an additional keyboardist (Nicholas Shelestak). Exitmusic waste no time, though, following with “The Modern Age,” which carries a bit more of a winsome, playful air, Palladino picking up a guitar and channeling Anna Calvi with gorgeous riffs and an increasingly desperate cry. The song does the quiet/loud/quiet thing we all know and love, with another romantic interlude in the center of the storm before exploding back into desperate light.

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“The Hours” follows – they’re playing the EP in order (you really should buy this) – and after a slow build, Palladino’s achingly romantic vocals implores time to “give me back the hours; they’re mine to waste.” The drums are all rolling and roiling like a storm at sea, and Palladino’s achingly gorgeous delivery has me wanting to wade out into a night sea. Something’s wrong with the lights – that, or they’re just being literal, as the next song is called “The Night” (a preview of their anticipated second album, The Coming Insurrection). Live, it’s a dead-ringer for Sally Norvell covering the Cocteau Twins (“Pearly Dew Drops Drops”). Still with me? It’s so good, I want to charge the stage and hug them all.

Another couple more new ones close out the set, with “Passage,” starting gently and then becoming drenched in static, menacing noise, before exploding into release – and then the explosion explodes – as though Mogwai’s “Helicon 1” had a further step up from that amazing point 2:54 in – yeah, can you tell I liked it? “The City” is next; all shoegaze-y guitars and feedback over a solid tune, and they close with “Sparks of Light,” which frankly has me a bit frustrated. They could have – should have tucked these two before “Passage” and gone out on that. Or played for another hour.

After the set, I asked Palladino and Church (who sat happily at the merch table during SVIIB’s set) why they didn’t play their amazing cover of Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” and they both furrowed their brows and looked at each other with that, “should we?” look on their faces. Yes, you should. Looking forward to the new album, kids.

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And then School of Seven Bells took the stage. Big mistake, guys: an opening act like that doesn’t tee us up for SVIIB mark 2. Frankly, I think SVIIB has lost something important when one third of the band left in 2010. Benjamin Curtis (of Simple Machines) and the Deheza twins, Alejandra and Claudia, made two brilliant albums and a clutch of great singles together. I feel like the loss of Claudia (October 2010, the infamous curse of “personal reasons”) has taken something essential away from them.

Then again, my favorite moments of the band have been the possibilities – as in evidence by my three favorite SVIIB’s songs – the jaw-dropping A Place to Bury Strangers’ remix/reimagining of “Windstorm,” Active Child’s fantastic re-orchestration of “Heart Is Strange,” and, of course, Robin Guthrie’s effort to turn them into the Cocteau Twins, “My Cabal.” That’s not to say their albums aren’t good – they are. But, it really was the interplay of voices and layering of noise that dragged me in. This is not a band that benefits by stripping things back or simplifying or becoming – god help us – a normal band.

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SVIIB starts off with an intro built of sampled voices, and then the music attacks, with “Iamundernodisguise” off their first album, Alpinism. Then comes “The Night” off their new one, Ghostory, which sounds okay, if somewhat straight-forward, and they’re almost through with “Windstorm” before I realize what it is. What’s going on? “Bye Bye Bye,” which accompanies Disconnect from Desire, is next, followed by another new one, “Love Play.” And I am really, really not feeling it. They’ve recruited a drummer and a bassist for the live act, but it all feels (relatively for them) rather conventional.

“White Elephant Coat” from Alpinism follows, and it’s actually very good in this, more conventional context. “Lafaye” and “Scavenger” from the new one follow, with “ILU” next. This could be anyone – this could be Interpol – for all the creativity on show. Good songs, but I would think you come to a SVIIB show for something a bit extra – a bit strange and wondrous. “White Wind” and “Low Times” from the new album, but my attention to the show is nearly gone, only to be rescued by a heartfelt and welcome run through of “My Cabal.”

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They leave the drum machine running during the interlude before the encore, and come back quickly, if sheepishly, to perform a phenomenal one-two punch of “Half Asleep” and “Sempiternal,” filling in the voids where Claudia swam with guitar and drum noise. It’s a solid ending to an otherwise forgettable set – but they really have to consider their future now. Either they embrace the fact that they’re far more Simple Machines than On!Air!Library!, or they hire a real second singer to reach back to their great early work and see if they can bring it forward. We’ll see – I’m not holding my breath…

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