CHVRCHES Saviours of Synthpop?

They’ve become the most talked about electropop act since LITTLE BOOTS, LA ROUX, LADYHAWKE and LADY GAGA were highlighted in Caroline Sullivan’s Slaves To Synth article of Autumn 2008 in The Guardian. And they have also just made the long list for ‘The Blog Sound of 2013’ and The Electricity Club is proud to say they were one of its nominations for this prestigious poll. They are CHVRCHES, a trio from Glasgow formed in 2011 who comprise of Lauren Mayberry, Iain Cook and Martin Doherty.

Photo by John Speirs from CHVRCHES Facebook page

So far, they have toured supporting alternative electronica combo PASSION PIT and played live sessions on BBC Radio1. Very much the darlings of bloggers since their first song ‘Lies’ hit blogsphere, Neon Gold (who hosted the free download of ‘Lies’) said they were “a godless hurricane of kinetic pop energy” while Breaking More Waves described ‘Lies’ as “the audio equivalent of up-on-the-benches sex with a horny lab technician”.  Meanwhile, The Scotsman simply said they were “instantly likeable”.

So are CHVRCHES worthy of the buzz that has centred around them? As far as The Electricity Club is concerned, the answer is yes. After several decades of listening to, enjoying and understanding good electronic pop music, The Electricity Club believes it can spot potential, which is why this site ran a feature on CHVRCHES based on the strength of ‘Lies’ alone. On behalf on TEC, Jer White gave an account of their Scottish National Gallery gig which reported the trio were no flash in the pan.  But are they the saviours of synthpop, or a very good pop group who stand out because they have very good songs, a very good sound and a very good looking lead singer?

When The Electricity Club witnessed their live showcase at London’s Electrowerkz, CHVRCHES displayed the composure and quiet confidence of a band who have seven quality songs under their belt and aren’t afraid to reinterpret the works of a legend such as PRINCE. Indeed with their cover of ‘I Would Die 4 V’, they made it their own. As Bas Productions’ Deb Danahay put it: “the PRINCE cover was brilliant…my gut reaction? It was appealing that they didn’t pick an obvious ‘electro’ anthem to cover”.

In his book ‘Retromania’, Simon Reynolds commented that the minimal synth sub-genre consisted “of groups who would have been DEPECHE MODE or SOFT CELL if they could have come up with a tune!” Thankfully, CHVRCHES most certainly do not fall into that denomination. Their sound consists of many building blocks such as ROBYN, ALPHABEAT, GIORGIO MORODER, LAURIE ANDERSON, THE KNIFE, PURITY RING and LADYTRON…but it’s synthpop with a capital P, the focus being on catchy melodies, inventive synth arrangements and a vital pop sensibility. Songs such as set opener ‘If We Sink’, ‘Lungs’ and ‘Night Sky’ are all accessible but most definitely have a leftfield slant. The building percussive energy of ‘Science & Vision’ with its appealingly emotive vocals is a great example of their avant pop style. There is a fragile tension but crucially, they’ve remembered to add a tune.

Out front, Mayberry is beautifully poised but doesn’t act the total ice queen. She even takes time for some amusing chatters with the audience on subjects such as West End Theatre shows: “You’re lucky we’re here because on the way up the escalator at the tube, I saw a massive poster for ‘The Bodyguard’ – the f***ing musical!” The banter provides a charming connection while her onstage chemistry with Cook and Doherty is filled of grins and laughter.

The boys themselves show serious intent but are not obsessive vintage gear fetishists; CHVRCHES use modern synths such as the Dave Smith Prophet 08 and Moog Voyager alongside the controllers, samples and laptops although the ever trusty Roland Juno 106 lurks in the armoury. Lauren Mayberry’s alluring vulnerability and magnetic stage presence only adds to the appeal but the squelches and filtered waves indicate their output has come from a slightly more obscure planetary system

Ending their Electrowerkz set with the stupendous glory of ‘The Mother We Share’, the appeal of CHVRCHES can be summed up within the immediacy of that song. It is poptastic to the core as if TAYLOR SWIFT had been based in Berlin instead of Nashville, and had the artistic nous of being nurtured on a diet of ‘Black Celebration’. Despite the catchy chorus, it’s not all bubblegum though as weightier vocal influences are very much in evidence.

Phoenix FM DJ Rob Harvey observes: “the sparks in Lauren’s vocal attitude are akin to GARBAGE’s Shirley Manson, with the haunting timbre of Elizabeth Frazer of COCTEAU TWINS…” He concludes: “They didn’t disappoint live. I was blown away by the sheer energy and dynamics of their sound. The lead singer Lauren had a cute vulnerability, and yet showed a dominant savvy on the stage”. TEC’s Steve Gray thinks: “CHVRCHES are edgy, inventive and exciting. Whilst cult status seems certain, mainstream success is clearly within their grasp. With the prospect of their debut album in 2013, they could make a true believer of anyone”.

And yet despite the obvious talents and potential of CHVRCHES, they have attracted vitriol from several observers who have been dismayed about the interest the band has generated. However, it would appear perhaps that CHVRCHES profile has just been exaggerated by flakey hipster buzz bloggers who are all desperate to find The Next Big Thing before fingering their beards and pondering their next move. Meanwhile, those who have missed out now want to get their revenge by heading the queue to predict CHVRCHES’ downfall with a hateful “told you so” attitude. Either that or they are peeved that an act who they don’t consider to be real music has garnered so much the attention!

But CHVRCHES have done many things to enable themselves to be worthy of consideration. First of all, their calling card ‘Lies’ was recorded as professionally as possible. It is punchy and full of zest, unlike the flat home recorded demos that some new acts pass off as single releases. To help smooth their path, they also made a promo video for ‘Lies’ based around their live performance and synced in the studio recording…every aspect of a band has been seen as important including presentation and visuals as well as the music. Some bands do not seem understand this… to just be able to drift in late for soundcheck in scruffy attire and let the music speak for itself is lazily naïve.

Secondly, CHVRCHES didn’t spam the internet with too many songs after ‘Lies’. In fact, they didn’t reveal any; they left the audience wanting more. To write a song as good as ‘Lies’ and to produce it so well takes talent…you either have it or you don’t! Whether the talent can be sustained is another question that only time can answer. But at least the song exists for listeners to enjoy.

Thirdly, CHVRCHES spent two days rehearsing and co-ordinating their debut concert appearance. That may seem to be overdoing it but not all bands make such an effort. TEC could name a few much hyped acts from the past who have failed to make the grade in a live setting and have since spent most of the time dithering!

Photo copyright of Vikki McCraw

Photo copyright of Vikki McCraw

‘The Mother We Share’ and the quality live set prove that ‘Lies’ has not been a fluke. CHVRCHES are an act who really could appeal to a wide audience of all ages in the same way LA ROUX did back in 2009. Always a keen observer of modern electro, The Blitz Club’s legendary DJ Rusty Egan says: “CHVRCHES, like LA ROUX, have a strong original singer, and a very strong electro sound that screams club mixes. And with the right people, I can hear their songs pumping out of Ibiza main room dancefloor sound systems in the future, along with many new electronic bands. ‘Lies’ is bringing the spotlight on them and many more fresh new talents… let’s see what the future holds but I await with baited breath for a ‘Sweet Dreams’ from these guys….they are that good!”

Speaking of remixes, CHVRCHES’ first commission ‘Gold Dayzz’ for producer Nigel Godrich’s band ULTRAÍSTA is a sparklingly cosmic reinterpretation of a quite dour trip-hop track and highlights their technical ability.

So are CHVRCHES the Saviours of Synthpop? “Saviours” is probably too strong a superlative. As writer Bill Bruce commented on Twitter when discussing this very matter with TEC: “Synthpop’s doing just fine. It don’t need saving… least not yet”.

Still, it’s good to have some new hands on deck to help keep the synthpop ship afloat and steer it to some fresh waters.


Special thanks to Rusty Egan, Deb Danahay, Rob Harvey, Bill Bruce and Vikki McGraw

‘The Mother We Share’ is available as a download single via National Anthem/Create Control from iTunes and Amazon

http://chvrches.tumblr.com/

http://www.facebook.com/CHVRCHES


Text by Chi Ming Lai
3rd December 2012