Review Summary: Faced with burgeoning expectation in the perpetually fickle indie music world, Chvrches appear primed to sit behind the steamroller of cool's wheel.
A surely little known economic fact about Scotland to those here in the United States is that, given its relatively small geographic stature in the European Union, Scotland produces a highly disproportionate volume of high tech devices used across the EU. Fitting, then, that one of 2013’s biggest indie music hypes comes barreling out of Scotland on the crest of a synth-pop wave, armed with a cadre of keyboards, samplers, and effect processors, and featuring a vocalist of laser-precise vocal acuity. The near-year since Chvrches’ dispatch of their first single, “The Mother We Share,” in late 2012, followed by a teaser EP and live appearances galore throughout 2013, has allowed for enormous momentum leading up to the full-album drop of The Bones of What You Believe this fall. Naturally, the primary concern from all sides in such a situation is will the final product live up to its turgid expectations?
Electronic music’s corner of the indie music room appears to grow exponentially with each passing year and throwing back to the 1980s is certainly en vogue currently across the pop/rock music spectrum (aside from hair bands). Historically, the pigeon hole of synth-pop has primarily underlined the likes of Depeche Mode (particularly early material) and Human League. However, whereas many of these acts have traded in such elements as Krautrock, camp, goth, and robotics, Chvrches are none of these. Doe-eyed and seemingly guileless, vocalist Lauren Mayberry couldn’t lie further from Dave Gahan’s and Martin Gore’s leather-clad S&M dreams/nightmares. Accompanists Martin Doherty and Iain Cook construct complex, dizzying soundscapes that are a good measure farther than a stone’s throw from the minimalism and repetition of Kraftwerk and their ilk.
As a first volley, “The Mother We Share” delivers Chvrches’ M.O. in spades. Unparalleled in clarity and precision of tone, Mayberry’s vocal strength is certainly not one of brute force or the explosive impact of a pistol shot, but the focused and penetrating heat of a laser beam – full of color, deceptively innocuous, eventually lethal. Anchoring this gamma ray intensity with an ever-evolving palette of sounds and hooks the size Everest is Chvrches’ tried and true calling card; what is impressive is how the trio rehashes this formula track after track with fresh and stunning results. “We Sink” and “Gun” complete the club-ready opening triptych, while the proceedings slow to a near halt on “Tether,” allowing Mayberry to wade in the ether with minimal instrumental backing. Just as she threatens to float into the never, Doherty and Cook swoop to the rescue with a deliriously exuberant arms aloft coda – one point among countless where they press just the right button at just the right moment.
As much a joyride as the opening half of the album is, things get really interesting on the comparatively moodier second half. Mayberry takes flight amid the gale of “Night Sky”s chorus and soars just above “Science & Visions”s vortex; Doherty and Cook build increasingly dark, thick, and thunderous backdrops that would otherwise swallow and crush a less keen vocalist. The trump card, however, is “By The Throat,” where Mayberry intones over a simple synth flicker that swells, backed by ever-quickening beat claps, as she approaches the chorus, then bursts forth in a cascade of electronic rain as she declares, “All that’s golden…is never real.” As remarkable as the trio’s shape-shifting in tone, dynamics, and tempo have been track by track to this point, “By The Throat” arguably proves to be the pinnacle of their craft.
Lyrically, there are no revelations or innovations to be found on The Bones of What You Believe, but what is deliciously unexpected is just how vindictive Mayberry can be. Belying her fresh-faced and fresh-voiced innocence, she conveys herself as quite the femme fatale, threatening, “I will be a gun and it’s you I’ll come for,” on “Gun,” or slyly offering, “I can sell you lies…I can feed your dirty mind,” on “Lies.” Doherty and Cook abet as full accomplices, and herein lies the crucial interplay between the three as they act as a perfect foil to Mayberry, supplying heft and edge to her words. The ten tracks with Mayberry front and center are peerless, though the same cannot be said of the two where she rides the bench. Conceivably to provide a respite at the end of each half of the album, “Under The Tide” and “You Caught The Light” are more ambient mood pieces with Doherty taking the vocal reins. While these tracks do achieve their intended shift in mood, the vocals do not hold up when held in stark contrast to Mayberry.
Potential pitfalls abound for a band such as Chvrches – faced with burgeoning expectation in the perpetually fickle indie music world, an electronic trio fronted by the girl next door would seem primed for flattening by the steamroller of cool. But Mayberry, she’s a tough cookie – as she insists on the album’s penultimate track, “With teeth we’ve come this far, I’ll take this thing by the throat and walk away” – and Chvrches appear primed to sit behind that steamroller’s wheel.