The first time I heard of CHVRCHES was in 2016 through video games of all things: “Warning Call,” the soaring theme for Mirror’s Edge Catalyst. I was one of, like, 10 people who wanted a sequel to Mirror’s Edge so this kind of stuck. Then, while cruising past some fools in Forza Horizon 3, on came “Clearest Blue” and that Depeche Mode-style beat drop poured in like confetti. And I haven’t even gotten to their fiery collaboration with Paramore’s Hayley Williams.
As a band, I never knew what to make of Chvrches. I only liked 3 songs off of Love Is Dead but was otherwise infatuated with their elegant covers. Once I heard the tie-in song to Death Stranding, I started listening INTENTLY. (Any group that can make Hideo Kojima cry has my undivided attention.)
The moves they made in the leadup to their newest album definitely piqued my interest. The Cure’s Robert Smith lends some guest vocals on the LP, plus a dual collaboration with horror maestro-turned-composer John Carpenter. Now THOSE are some power moves for a Scottish pop-trio you thought you had figured out by now. With Screen Violence, Chvrches defies barriers and expectations, traversing a sci-fi horror synth-scape with the sunny optimism of a John Hughes movie. It’s no wonder they turn to film over video games for inspiration. Their sound has blossomed into something unbearably cinematic.
Chvrches eases fans with the transition in the first two tracks. “Asking for a Friend” is recognizably the bubblegum pop tune that defines their trademark sonics of 80s synths and washed keyboards. There’s something very earnest about vocalist Lauren Mayberry belting out “you still matter” during the bridge, as much as the song sounds like a stylistic leftover. The lead single “He Said, She Said,” too, feels like a Love Is Dead coda.
By the time we get to “California,” they’re gunning it down a different highway. Before, Chvrches seemed to revel in artificial sunlight; here they embrace the shimmering glow of the real thing, aided by a nostalgic guitar line. If cinema is as close as some of us can get to that escapism, then Mayberry is right there with us, howling in the outro, “Pull me into the screen at the end.” Fellow members Iain Cook and Martin Doherty are used to piling on the synthesizers and electronica, sometimes to the point of drowning in their own maximalist sensibilities. This time around they make use of staccato rhythms and the open spaces between melodies—a return to the “less is more” mantra that made them such a breakout discovery in their debut LP.
“Violent Delights” goes darker with an industrialist breakbeat into the abyss. Mayberry’s lyrics paint a gothic nightmare: “Had a dream your father died/I couldn’t scream, I couldn’t cry/The second night, I dreamt you drowned.” The following track, “How Not to Drown” (featuring eyeliner icon Robert Smith) pushes the band further into the darkness than ever before – a gloom that only the Prince of Goth can inspire. It’s SURREAL to hear Mayberry’s sustained timbre alongside Smith’s sorrowful and bellowing tenor like an emo-synth fusion that high school me would’ve absolutely made a personality.
Part of the reason I resisted Chvrches for so long had less to do with style, more a matter of preference. All the glossy pop songs can start to feel material and empty when stacked against each other. How much higher can a note build, or how much further can the beat drop truly until we’re traversing the same peaks and valleys.
Sure, notes and octaves repeat eventually, but the genre can produce more than a Top 40 certified banger. The ones I’m interested in are those that stir my favorite vibe of all – melancholy. The best way I can describe this is through Hayley Williams’ vocals in “Stay the Night,” or the entirety of “Forget” by The Chain Gang of 1974. Both tracks erupt into undeniably anthemic ballads, but they’re also songs that usher a comforting kind of lonesome, one I find nourishing in a digital era where apps and streaming services are battling for our attention spans every waking minute.
I’m not averse to synth pop or festival-friendly dance tunes. More than anything, I crave variety, not sameness.
Screen Violence strikes all the right melancholy chords. The album’s second half is where the horror themes bubble explicitly to the surface, though it’s less an album arc than something played out in a series of horror vignettes.
Mayberry has had it up to here with the judgements, the misogyny, the double standards and the gaslighting, and promptly arms herself with a baseball bat—no, that’s too Lemonade-y; a machete. In “Final Girl,” she proceeds to hack away at her own crippling insecurities and self-worth. “It feels like the weight is too much to carry/I should quit, maybe go get married.” Then the following stanza, “I wonder if I should’ve changed my accent/Tried to make myself more attractive.” Chvrches uses the emotional foundation of a popular horror movie trope – a genre in which we bore witness to many an on-screen violence – and crescendos with the resilience of a would-be Final Girl. Doherty’s colorful arpeggios add another sheen to the retro horror vibe.
But if you’re looking for a track that captures Chvrches’ reinvigorated sound, look no further than “Good Girls.” The hooks here are IMAX-sized in its sheer catchiness and gravitational pull, with a pulsating guitar solo that bursts out of nowhere. You can get lost in the buildup of harmonies and layers as Mayberry rails against the gender expectations of the final girl—the purity, chaste, and moral upstanding values that ensure her survival: “Good girls don’t die… good girls satisfy/But I won’t.”
“Lullabies” is guaranteed to be featured in the next Grand Theft Auto soundtrack while also sounding like something that could’ve played in the end credits of Drive. It’s perhaps the most optimistic track I’ve heard about our current online dystopia. Because for all of Mayberry’s lyrical pondering about the horror we grew up watching in slasher movies, to the horror we’ve grown accustomed to as “content” on the endless doom-scroll of our phones, Chvrches doesn’t have much of a solution other than resignation, albeit tinged with their signature sunshine earnestness: “Televise the great disaster/We’re better off inside of the screen.”
“Nightmares” resurrects the album’s midway gloom yet boasts a rousing chant-like chorus built for the arena crowds. But among the more memorable tracks off the album is also their most subdued and minimalist. “Better If You Don’t” is the acoustic soft-spoken closing number. No chorus or obvious structuring here, just Mayberry ruminating on the rainy regrets of fame and pangs of the past in quietly deterministic fashion. Chvrches doesn’t go out with a whimper, but a whisper.
If Chvrches thus far has been about evoking the past through the rose-colored lens of the ‘80s, then for once and perhaps definitively they’re looking towards the future, flying cars and all. Ironically, they called on past slasher-horror tropes and cinema’s timeless yearning for escapism to get here, but alas they’ve arrived. Screen Violence was recorded across countries and an ocean amidst the pandemic, yet this is the most cohesive and confident that they’ve ever been, charting growth and stunning maturity in a brisk 10-song collection.
Night owls, existentially cool getaway drivers, and the rest of us late-night dwellers up to no good, we have our neon-brite soundtrack to blast at full volume, zero fucks given. So break out the glowsticks, the body bags, and your weapon of choice. Screen Violence is Chvrches’ best album to date.
Five bloody kitchen knives out of five 🔪🔪🔪🔪🔪