CHVRCHES nails emotive, complex synth-pop on debut album

Alexander McCall

When early synth-pop bands Depeche Mode and the Human League first came on the scene, the genre was heavily criticized for its perceived lack of “true” musicianship.

Now we can hardly imagine popular music without the synthesizer, but some would say that the soulless, assembly-line pop foreseen in the 1980s has come to pass.

Glasgow indie-pop outfit Chvrches are but one in a recent lineage of young bands – including M83, Passion Pit and Purity Ring – trying to fight the synth-pop stereotype and recapture the same sense of joy as classic electronic pop.

Chvrches’ debut album, “The Bones of What You Believe,” is one of the best to come from this wave of 80s revivalism due to its high crossover potential and distinctly modern sensibilities.

At the core of Chvrches’ sound is singer Lauren Mayberry’s earnest, pixie-like soprano, anchored by pristinely produced walls of twinkling synthesizers and drum machines. This straightforward, kinetic approach works because of the music’s multi-functionality.

At once, “Bones” manages to be an exceptional pop album, a brilliant riff on the kind of glistening music that appeals to tweens, a tightly wound, forward-thinking electronic album, and a highly emotive series of confessions not unlike fellow Glasgow rockers Frightened Rabbit.

When Chvrches is at their best, Mayberry’s vivid, adolescent theatrics are perfectly in step with the colorful, hooky soundscapes her band mates cook up.

“Gun,” is an excellent refinement of this technique, as it unloads hook after hook in front of a buzzing, powerful stomp. The overt peppiness serves as an extra layer of ambiguity on top of Mayberry’s cheery, straightforward delivery of intense lyrics such as “I have burned your bridges./I will be a gun, and it’s you I’ll come for.”

This emotional complexity is clear evidence against the claim that Chvrches just “plays it safe.” Although “Bones” doesn’t always live up to the strength of songs like “Gun,” “The Mother We Share” or “Lies,” it’s remarkably cohesive and fully formed for a band so young.

That said, there are a few minor gripes. 

First, member Martin Doherty sings lead on two tracks, and while he’s competent enough, he doesn’t come close to the strange, bittersweet vibe Mayberry achieves.

Second, the back half of “Bones” is slightly weaker than the first, with songs like “Science, Visions” dragging the energy down a little.

Still, Chvrches have created an immensely satisfying electronic pop album that is immediately rewarding and multi-layered in a way that few releases this accessible have managed in recent years.

Rating: four out of five stars

REVIEW: COLIN MOORE, Senior A&E Reporter