When Chvrches first came onto the scene at the beginning of the 2010s, they were at the forefront of a new wave of band’s who kicked back and the guitar rock revolution that proliferated throughout the decade prior. With no drums, no guitars, and completely mechanical backing tracks, the Glasgow three-piece sought to bring the passion and soul back into synthetic synth-pop.
Their latest album, Screen Violence, is a return to the key element that differentiated Chvrches from the scores of electronic acts that followed in their wake: the balance between bright and shiny pop and a palpable sense of darkness.
To accomplish this, the band brought in the king of doom and gloom, Robert Smith, to feature on the second single, ‘How Not to Drown’. What might have initially seemed like a gimmick wound up being a fascinating example of how far Smith’s influence with The Cure has stretched over four decades and how modern acts are reinterpreting his signature goth-tinged melancholy.
But ‘How Not to Drown’ is only one song. The real trick was being able to stretch it out for an entire album. To do this, the band honed in on a concept: the violence that modern technology has made so everpresent in society. It’s not quite a sci-fi rock opera, but the album does have a distinctly dystopian feel to it.
Singer Lauren Mayberry always had a keen sense of sneaking in darker themes to even the band’s brightest tunes, and her lyrical focus on Screen Violence plays into frequent themes of death, destruction, escapism, and madness. Songs like ‘Final Girl’ and ‘California’ consider the changes that have to be made to appease others and the detrimental effect it can have. Her lyrics rarely get hyperliteral, but the directness of the material on Screen Violence makes it seem as though Mayberry is becoming more and more comfortable with her own voice as the band’s career continues. Mayberry’s voice is in top form as well, reaching the soaring heights that seem so effortless.
To create a slightly more eerie atmosphere, Martin Doherty and Iain Cook paired back much of the frantic energy that they’ve been building up in their backing tracks over three albums. A “stripped away” ambient Chvrches album is probably never going to happen, but the arrangements here feel like the band were intent on creating coherent compositions rather than including as many ideas as they could possibly fit into a song.
The record isn’t perfect: ‘Lullabies’ and ‘Nightmares’ don’t quite keep up the momentum and tension that the band builds throughout the record, and the insights on the proliferation of technology and the subsequent adverse effects on humanity is well-trod territory that the band don’t really provide any new insights on. The lack of vocal presence from Martin Doherty is another disappointment, considering his previous leads on tracks like ‘You Caught the Light’ and ‘High Enough to Carry You Over’ weren’t just album highlights but welcomed variety that shakes up Chvrches sound. On Screen Violence, Doherty is relegated to a backing vocal at the tail end of ‘Violent Delights’.
These criticisms notwithstanding, Screen Violence is a welcome return to form for Chvrches. Whereas Love Is Dead leaned too far into the frenetic synth-pop style, Screen Violence rights the balance by using the band’s expertise in drum programming and synth sounds to create soundscapes that are once again alternatingly moody and highly danceable. Mayberry is at top form both lyrically and vocally, with Doherty and Cook backing her up with some of their most inspired arrangements to date. Screen Violence isn’t a significant sonic step forward for Chvrches, but rather a righting of the ship to put them back on course as the world’s best synth-pop band once again.