Quick – what do CHVRCHES sound like?
Part of the Scottish trio’s success with their 2013 debut was that their sound was at once familiar and new. Etching their own unique soundscape in the now flourishing indie/electro/synthpop genre was admirable in its own right, but it was their sheer talent that pushed debut The Bones of What You Believe into everyone’s year-end lists. They’re a group that developed their own strengths and play to them – as anyone who saw them at this year’s Electric Picnic will tell you.
This distinctive sound tells you where you stand with them, especially going into their second effort Every Open Eye. Once again, the energetic but plaintive Celtic synths from Iain Cook and Martin Doherty form the backdrop to Lauren Mayberry’s strong, soulful vocals. However, there is now a hidden dynamism to both that slowly emerges to the listener with repeated listens. It’s neither a slap in the face, nor an album to keep fans too much in their comfort zone.
The first single of the album, ‘Leave a Trace’, is almost a gentle stylistic segue between their first record and this one; Mayberry’s self-reflective lyrics are driven by the momentum of a percussive synth. In this first third of the album that the single finds itself it can feel as though the trio are just ticking boxes – which is forgivable this early on.
However the album soon begins to slightly change course before any diminishing returns set in. The songs go from not just entertaining, but exciting. CHVRCHES aren’t really a dance act, but they serve themselves well with ‘Clearest Blue’, building from a nondescript beginning to a staggered dance beat that keeps on the right side of raised eyebrows. The balancing act of the recognisable and the experimental is impressively balanced throughout, even within an individual song. ‘Empty Threat’ is easy-to-digest, earnest power pop that nonetheless sits comfortably amongst their other songs.
This balance is extended to the album’s lyrics. Songs primarily feel like differing arguments over how to be an individual in a relationship, whether they be in a good or bad condition, stoic or confessional. They range from the affirming ‘Make them Gold’ (which features the chorus line “We will take the best parts of ourselves/and make them gold”) to the ultimatum “If I give more than enough ground will you claim it/I will take it all in one breath and hold it down” delivered in ‘Playing Dead.’ Nobody is a hopeless romantic on the album but neither are they hopeless. Instead they lyrically try to make sense, not peace, of what has gone before.
The success of Every Open Eye is maintaining what we know and expect of the group with dashes of fresh directions. If there’s any fault here, it’s that the album is about 20 minutes too long. The slower paced ‘Afterglow’ later on in the album feels like a rest break than a song in its own right. It’s a minor niggle, however; CHVRCHES have shown that they can skilfully incorporate new textures into their own sound while remaining uniquely themselves.