Chvrches: bittersweet synth-onies

Posted: November 5, 2014 in music

Chvrches: Glasgow Barrowlands, November 4th 2014

I went to see Chvrches last night, for the fourth time since March last year. Allow me to tell you all about how wonderful they are.

I first became aware of Chvrches when Rab Florence from Burnistoun linked to their second single, The Mother We Share, on Twitter. I’m sure I wasn’t alone in being transfixed from the first listen.

They’d previously released Lies as a single, unbeknownst to me, so it was The Mother We Share that brought them to the attention of us less well-informed people.

It’s a truly beautiful piece of music, and a perfect distillation of the Chvrches aesthetic: at once synthetic and authentic, Lauren’s bell-clear voice ringing through the band’s bruised electro, brimful of melody.

They followed up their breakthrough single with Recover. That song begins with a tumble of novelty, 80s computer game-esque bleeps, which seem to signal “game over”. Happily the game is just beginning, as Lauren brings the song lurching into a gloriously longing bridge. That bridge is better than the chorus on any other single released in 2013, easy. Then Lauren unfurls the real chorus, in which she disguises a long dark night of the soul behind clear eyes.

Recover was a private epic that confirmed beyond all doubt that Chvrches were the real deal.

It was about the time Recover was shared online that I went to see them for the first time. My dear friend Robert and I went to the Arches at the beginning of March 2013 expecting to hear the two singles we liked, and hoping they might have some other good tunes to go with them. What followed was a revelation.

The Arches isn’t really a gig venue of choice for me – I usually find the sound is terrible when bands play there. The worst example was a Roots Manuva gig where poor Roots was reduced to begging the crowd to “give the sound man more love” in a bid to get any sort of coherent noise out of the speakers.

It was a different story for Chvrches though. I don’t know if it’s maybe something to do with their trebly sound, but they’re always really clear and crisp whenever I see them.

Anyway, they came on at the Arches and looked pretty nervous and shy, but the crowd were warm and encouraging from the start. The reaction grew more positive with every song – and by the end of the third or fourth previously-unknown song it had become clear to everyone that Chvrches don’t have any duds.

And then, about halfway through the gig, we had lift off. People were gradually loosening up and bobbing their heads throughout the set, but when Science/ Visions grew to its thrilling crescendo, hands were thrust spontaneously into the air across the room. They were brilliant and we loved them.

There followed our first experience of The Guy On The Right’s Song, later revealed as Under The Tide. I’ll return to this phenomenon when i talk about last night’s gig, but that feature of the Chvrches experience was already fully-formed at this point in their development.

In fact, they were fully-formed in near enough every respect when they played the Arches. I’m pretty sure all of the songs they played turned up on the album, and the stage layout and lighting was broadly in position. The only thing missing was Lauren’s spoken word interludes, which would come later.

Our first brush with Chvrches Live ended with The Mother We Share. This was already cause for euphoria in the crowd, and led to an outpouring of genuine emotion at the end. The house lights revealed people hugging each all over the room, not least Robert and I. People had tears in their eyes.

Considering no one knew any of the songs at this stage, and wouldn’t have had a clue what they were about, the emotional punch was already remarkable.

Not long after the Arches gig, I had the pleasure of meeting Lauren briefly at the first TYCI club night in Bar Bloc. She had seemed quite shy onstage but she was transformed in the context of a riot grrrl event. I bought a raffle ticket from her and complimented her band, and she described herself as “the raffle-meister”. Indeed.

(That night also featured the most laughable display of posing I’ve ever seen. A pretty awful group played onstage while a tall man bobbed his head along with their racket in the crowd. He turned out to be the singer’s boyfriend. When she finished the last song, she walked over to where he was standing and fell to her knees. He then fell to his knees and they stared at each other for ages. Eventually the drummer tapped them on the shoulder and suggested it was time to go, and so off they went. Everyone thought they were twats).

I next saw Chvrches at the ABC, where a slightly older and more static crowd appreciated the songs without diving headlong into them. The album was out by this point so it wasn’t such a journey of discovery. Still an amazing night, of course.

And that gig saw the debut of what is surely the highlight of every Chvrches gig: Lauren’s story.

(Actually, I don’t know if this happens outside Glasgow. You should move here for the opportunity to hear one of them if not).

Lauren Mayberry is perhaps the only currently prominent instance of a rich tradition in pop history – the journalist/ theorist/ singer. Neil Tennant, John Robb, Morrissey and Chrissie Hynde are among the more famous examples of this lineage, graduating to stardom as they did after writing for the music press. Lauren’s by-line is still glimpsed occasionally writing about music and culture, and her literary voice is as clear and engaging as her singing.

By the time of the ABC gig she clearly felt comfortable enough onstage to reveal a bit of her personality, and did so in amusingly veritĂ© terms. I won’t recreate the full anecdote in case any children are reading, but she regaled the thousand-or-so Glaswegians in the audience with a tale of an early boyfriend’s rather public infidelity in the toilets of the very same venue in which we were all then gathered.

When I saw Chvrches for the third time, in the Barrowlands this time earlier this year, Lauren had another anecdote for us. We all have stories about the Barrowlands and Lauren is no different, although her tale of going down the front for Jimmy Eat World, aged 15 and tiny, and getting KO’d by a crowd surfer, was somewhat more graphic than any of mine.

Which brings us back to last night, also at the Barrowlands.

My other half and I arrived early enough to see the support act, which is something I haven’t managed to achieve for ages. Lizzo rapped over some 90s-ish r’n’b and plucked a young chap from the crowd for a twerking lesson. It was pretty amusing, despite the sound being horrible from where I was standing. It sounded like they were playing through my old ghetto blaster (which hasn’t worked for fifteen years).

Happily the sound was impeccable for Chvrches. The bass was so deep for the first few songs it was making my nose shake. You know you’re in a battle when the bass is making you sneeze.

We had to nip to the toilets during Night Sky and my cubicle window sounded like it was about to smash. The toilets are on the floor below the stage, so that’s some serious bass.

I didn’t mean to miss Night Sky, but that song had never really been the same for me since I found out the eponymous lyrics in the chorus aren’t actually “I’m a nice guy!”

There was a new song last night – a pretty, La Roux-esque torch song in the starry high registers. Otherwise it was business as usual, but with the complete command of their sound and stage that comes from touring all the time.

We got another story from Lauren but alas I missed the start of it on my way back from the gents. It ended with her reminiscing about drinking cheaply on a Tuesday night and listening to Drowning Pool, so I’m guessing she was talking about Revolution at the QMU, but I could be wrong. I never really went to Revolution, and I’m much older than Lauren, so I can’t confirm if she was a regular or not.

One of the highlights of last night, and every Chvrches performance, was the aforementioned Under The Tide (aka the guy on the right going berserk). Part of the band’s intrigue comes from the backstory, recorded and inferred, of the two guys either side of Lauren. Iain was in my cousin’s favourite ever group, Aerogramme, while Martin (the guy on the right) was in Twilight Sad. You can hear the melancholy and, frankly, indie dynamics of those groups in the Chvrches song craft.

Whether the chaps see Chvrches as they’re last shot at glory or not, Martin leaves absolutely everything on the pitch every time he sings Under The Tide. He just can’t, he just can’t, he just can’t control his feet. He looks a bit like a toaster has been chucked into the bath alongside him, but in a totally brilliant way. It’s utterly captivating and every crowd I’ve been part of has been ignited by the energy and commitment of his performance. By the end of the song the crowd is transformed into a heaving mass of sprawling limbs, and last night was no different.

There really is nothing quite like watching a Scottish man releasing himself from his cultural inhibitions.

Science/ Visions was the highlight though. It’s a staggering piece of music. It builds from a brooding Moroder intro into a tense web of Knife-esque synths and strange goth backing vocals, before rising to a propulsive, dark house climax. And it’s all done so deftly.

And that’s the Chvrches magic. These are proper songs with stadium-sized melodies and touching lyrics (if you’re into that sort of thing). These are beautiful soundscapes, painted with deep pinks, inky blacks and vermilion shades. And these are dynamic, liquid grooves, dappled with skittery heartbeats and swollen by bass depth-charges.

These are the best songs of the last couple of years, by the best band of the last couple of years. They’re obviously good people, with interesting things to say about how their creativity is recuperated by the culture industry. And Lauren’s a neo-riot grrrl.

Hold Chvrches close in these uncertain times, and hear in their music the heart of a heartless world.

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Comments
  1. […] I’ve written about my love of Chvrches at some length here. […]

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  2. Karen Pearson says:

    Reading this I’ve realised that I appear to have been at 2 of the 4 above mentioned exact gigs (abc & barrowlands). Caught the start of their seemingly endless tour at benicassim 2012 too, where most of the crowd seemed to be dancing like a fully disinhibited Kate bush (including myself..) by about mid-gig despite knowing 2 songs. Magic.

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  3. […] Chvrches: bittersweet synth-onies […]

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