Wednesday, September 25, 2013

album review: 'the bones of what you believe' by chvrches

It's always interesting delving into new synthpop acts, at least for me. Even though I was not born in the 80s, I've always had a certain affection for the synth-driven pop and rock of any age in its various permutations. Whether it's the experimental synthesizers of the late 70s and early 80s, adding currents of unearthly unease to post-punk and early synthpop, or the surging, moody darkness of darkwave, or even the mutated hybrid of everything that's popular now, which draws upon pop traditions, the mainstream rise of EDM, and every genre in between, synthpop has always remained an attractive genre for me. Yes, even with the evolution of vocoders to Autotune. 

Now for me, I tend to gravitate to synthpop that attempts towards organic instrumentation, like electronic rock (I have my limits here, though, and you can define that boundary at electronicore) or where the synths support and augment the singers rather than swallow them. And while I have a passion for weirdness, I'm also very much aware that additional dynamic is a little harder to capture, especially when you have some performers who choose to have their unearthly electronics operate as the basis of their weirdness. Incidentally, that's been one of my consistent issues with The Postal Service - I understand their appeal, juxtaposing the very emotionally-driven lyrics with the highly synthetic delivery and instrumentation, but I don't quite connect to it in the same way I did with Deathcab For Cutie's other work. That lack of connection, incidentally, is why I like Kanye West's 808s & Heartbreak as much as I do - it's an album about isolation and retreating inwards, and the autotune Kanye uses perfectly encapsulates his attempted separation from his own humanity. 

So with those thoughts in mind, what did I find on the debut album from Chvrches, a new synthpop act who released their first EP last year to some critical acclaim and have presented a full-length debut with The Bones Of What You Believe?

Well, it's definitely interesting, that's for damn sure. In terms of indie synthpop, Chvrches have delivered one hell of a compelling work with The Bones Of What You Believe - and unlike most synthpop, it stretches beyond just the solid instrumentation and production into some truly fascinating lyrics and themes. And while I'm not quite convinced this album is a masterpiece, it's definitely something I can recommend as a very good, often great album.

Let's start with the instrumentation and production, which many could justifiably deem as having deep roots in the synthpop of the early 1980s, with defiantly inorganic synths with a lot of booming impact and presence. There are definitely exposed edges here, with some of the keyboard segments coming off with a distinctly crisp edge, but it's modulated by heavier and thicker beats and effects that can make the mix feel busy, but not precisely cluttered (there are a few moments on the mix where it could have been trimmed back a bit, particularly with the sampled fragments of vocals interjected throughout the songs). Furthermore, for as stridently electronic as this band is, the production is surprisingly rich and organic, giving the sound a lot of breathing room and swell. And while I could make the case that this production might be better suited to the sparse guitar that occasionally pops up throughout the mix, the fact it works as well as it does for the electronic elements here is a big plus in the band's favour. And on top of that, the band has a gift for crafting memorable melodies and hooks that stick in the brain impressively well, with a lot of upbeat energy and character on their own, which shows a degree of populism you didn't always get from those early 80s synthpop acts. In fact, I'm less apt to draw a comparison with them but with Heartthrob, Tegan & Sara's synthpop album from earlier this year (I'm not touching which one is better with a forty foot pole, and you can't make me).

It definitely helps matters that the clarion and distinctive voice of Lauren Mayberry is a great contrast for this sort of synthpop. To me, it slides comfortably between that of Savages' frontwoman Jehnny Beth and Emily Haines of Metric, and she picks up the best elements from both: the dignity and poise of the former, and the innocent approachability and wry wit of the latter. It's a credit to the vocal production that she's able to stand out against instrumentation that could have easily swallowed her whole, and it's a big credit to her as a singer that she manages to come out with a ton of emotion and personality in her delivery. Former lead singer Martin Doherty is solid enough on his features, but really, Mayberry is what makes this album work as well as it does.

And with that, we have to get to the lyrics and subject matter of this album, because it goes in a bold and really quite dangerous direction for a synthpop album - hell, for any sort of album, really. You see, the theme of this album is encapsulated in its title: The Bones of What You Believe is an album about showing you that everything you believe in your heart to be hollow and worthless and dead. Emphasis on you, let me stress that - Chvrches primarily uses that second-person pronoun in the majority of their songs, and in the wrong hands, this sort of direct assault could be considered abrasive or obnoxious if it wasn't delivered with nuance or detail or substance. 

Fortunately for all of us, Chvrches is a smart enough act to include that nuance and detail, and Mayberry is a good enough singer to not come across as gloating, and she gives a measured and emotional performance. As an example, she plays the neglected sister of the favoured son very well in 'The Mother We Share', and her delivery carefully balances suppressed anger, regret, and the fact that she still loves the brother in question. That morally ambiguous framing does a great job in framing the subsequent songs exploring collapsing relationships of all varieties, through the tired weariness of 'We Sink' to the explosive anger of 'Gun'. If anything, I feel this is one of the places this album could have stretched itself a little further, as while there are subtle emotional distinctions between the various collapsing relationships, I think a greater variety of subjects could have given this album a bit more flavour. Of course, the big exception to that is the ambitious 'Science/Vision', where a person under pressure is forced to confront questions he can't understand, but still attempts with futility anyway (which can apply to relationships or the division between supernatural/religion and science), and really, it's a minor nitpick, considering how well Chvrches does explore the relationship cases it does address. 'Lies' in particular stands out as an album highlight, as it shows how a guy desperate to recapture a old relationship ends up reshaping his new one into it - and the girl, who only wants to make him happy yet knows in her gut it's a fallacy, sinks into the miserable lie all the same. 

However, midway through the album is 'Under The Tide', a stridently optimistic song that seems to fly in the face of the tracks that came ahead of it, and Doherty sings it with enough quiet hope that it's almost enough to convince that his beliefs aren't dead after all. Hell, it makes 'Recover', a song where that returns to the second-person sound like that of a girl returning to the relationship, wary and cautious but willing to go along with it just the same with the faintest of hopes things might work out. And of course things go wrong again ('By The Throat' is the biggest example of this, and you can almost hear Mayberry's tone convey the message 'I told you so' but she's classy enough not to say it), but this time the album ends with 'You Caught The Light', the second song by Doherty that really anchors the album. It's the point where the 'you' in question (represented musically by Doherty) comes to the realization that his beliefs and dreams and grand schemes might not be the ones that ultimately matter in comparison with greater truths or what his partner (or ex-partner) might actually want. It's a moment of humility and quasi-redemption that bookends the album quite well. It's an album that seems explicitly designed to puncture ignorance or the belief that we're all the center of the universe and everything we believe and want are all we should care about, and in that respect, it works incredibly well by framing all of the events in terms of human relationships, something to which we can all relate.

So yeah, I think this album is great, and takes a lot of risks for a debut album that most bands wouldn't take. Chvrches have made a pretty potent album here that definitely lives up to its roots and its hype, and while I think it could have been a little better with a broader scope and a bit more instrumental diversity (that guitar popped up a few times and it sounded really quite good, I would have liked to hear more of it), it's still plenty awesome. I'm inclined to give this album a strong 8/10 with definite potential to go up, so don't be surprised if this album is a serious contender for my Top Ten List at the end of this year. 

Folks, give The Bones Of What You Believe by Chvrches a serious listen. And hell, if you think the title is a little too strident and you're not a fan of all of these songs calling you out... well, I think this album might be perfect for you after all.

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