CHVRCHES’ “The Bones of What You Believe,” the Force Majeure of Brooding Poptronica

(original published on Music Meet Fans)

An irresistible song called “Lies” by a Scottish band named Chvrches appeared on the internet one day in May 2012, as if conjured from the ether. Vacillating waves of synth and playful electronic effects supporting an anonymous female vocalist. Released on the Neon Gold website and accompanied only by a picture of nuns in masks, “Lies” rocketed to number one on the MP3 aggregate blog The Hype Machine and received a tremendous amount of organic, blog-based buzz after regular airplay on SoundCloud and BBC Radio 1. “Lies,” alongside “The Mother We Share,” “Gun,” and “Recover,” fueled the immense pre-release anticipation for the band’s debut full-length The Bones of What You Believe.

“There was this democracy on SoundCloud at the time… where you could use it as a very pure form of marketing. It was about whether people were interested in what you had to say musically, and nothing else,” Martin Doherty said about the early days recording and releasing the first Chvrches songs that would comprise the bulk of their debut record.

Strong Hand

The album’s title derives from a lyric in “Strong Hand,” a song that was ultimately cut from the original track list only to be reinstated on the 2014 Special Edition release. According to frontwoman Lauren Mayberry, the lyric refers to the raw “creativity and effort” that fueled the months of sweat and preparation leading up to the album’s release.

Once labeled merely a blog-band, Chvrches’ The Bones of What You Believe cemented the band as a force in the independent music landscape.
Chvrches – Martin Doherty, Lauren Mayberry, and Iain Cook

Chvrches, the trio of Doherty, Mayberry and Iain Cook, became a viral juggernaut because they made instantly accessible electronic music, but they attained indie omnipresence because that accessible electronic music also contained a human pulse and lyrics that transcended the escapist natter of contemporary, manufactured pop music.

Some of that crossover appeal might be explained by their outsider status. None of these artists had ever produced music that sounded like this in any of their other projects. They had all cut their teeth working with guitars and angst, traditional tools of the indie-rock trade. Doherty’s longest-tenured job came as a member of post-punk Scottish shoegazers The Twlight Sad, a band best known for their dense, “ear-splitting” live performances. Mayberry still looks to Nirvana for inspiration. Attend a Chvrches show and you’ll see glimmers of those origins more readily than in their polished studio recordings.

“It might be difficult to tell,” Cook said in an interview with The Scotsman, “but I think there are still elements of what we’ve done before in the music we’re making now. But the arrangements and the instrumentation, and the focus on catchy melodies and stuff, I guess that’s new for us.”

The Mother We Share

In an era where buzz for synth-pop bands expands and bursts in the time it takes to blow an unimpressive bubble, Chvrches’ spire stands taller because they backed those “catchy” melodies and immaculate hooks with explosive catharsis. Iain Cook’s finely tuned production on The Bones of What You Believe hasn’t strangled the album of individualism; rather, he’s given each song a chance to breathe, creating a rollercoaster of processed effects and synth-pad cadences, thereby emulating the ebb and flow of human emotion.

“And when it all fucks up, you put your head in my hands / It’s a souvenir for when you go-o-o-oh,” Mayberry sings on “The Mother We Share,” the album’s deceptively nuanced opening volley, a song that might have been classified as a disposable confection if not for her willingness to embrace fragility. She calls attention to a darker side of euphoria – the pain of consciously and irreparably discarding an essential part of your whole. This naturalistic alliance between levity and despair runs throughout The Bones of What You Believe. Cook and Doherty’s pulsing and atmospheric throwback musicality balanced by Mayberry’s grounded sincerity. Cook even shouted out 1980’s horror movie scores – Charles’ Bernstein’s The Nightmare on Elm Street in particular – as a primary source of inspiration.

We Sink

At the height of her powers on a peppy but vengeful track like “We Sink,” Lauren Mayberry possesses a relatable range that empowers her simple, emotive lyrics. In the ideal soundscape, her shortcomings as a songwriter attain potency beyond the burnished letters on the page. Depeche Mode’s primary wordsmith Martin Gore, who once called happy songs “fake and unrealistic,” serves as a direct antecedent.

Having opened for Depeche Mode early in their career, Chvrches serves as an extension of that same dual-minded ambition: anthemic and orchestral electronic music. And even though you might occasionally mistake catchy for “happy” on The Bones of What You Believe, Gore likely approves of the album’s scarcity of bliss. Mayberry has even credited Depeche Mode frontman Dave Gahan for teaching her how to command a stage – something she struggled with early on, as her initial presence failed to rival the self-assurance of Chvrches’ recordings.  

On “Gun,” “Recover” and “By the Throat” the band displays an outsized confidence in pacing and patience. This ability to dial back the cacophony before reaching a swelling dénouement would become more apparent on tracks found on their later records such as “Clearest Blue.” Here, however, the results feel less deliberate – each successive element inspired by the urgency of the individual moment.


The greatest example of this occurs on the lesser celebrated “Tether,” a song about emerging scarred but unbroken from a destructive relationship. It begins with a repetitive, understated guitar riff backing Mayberry’s lyrics.

“Trade our places / take no chances / bind me ‘til my lips are silent” she sings as the song’s urgency increases. Just beyond the two-minute mark, when you expect the individual components to unify, the bottom falls out for thirty seconds, leaving little more than a static hum. “I feel incapable of / Seeing the end / I feel incapable of / Saying it’s over,” she repeats. Synth and drum machine ascend and merge into one. The guitar returns, creating narrative agency and releasing the burden of hopelessness. It’s a moment perfected in the best work by a complex sonic craftsman like M83 – hardly territory covered in a self-produced debut record.

While Chvrches has often been hailed as a band made by blogger hype, the description often suggests condescension, as if success fell into their lap. All three members paid industry dues before their instant chemistry forged a creative partnership that’s proven that they’re more than just another ephemeral synth-pop sensation. Bands toil throughout their entire careers to produce one song as resonant as the twelve on The Bones of What You Believe. It takes a lot of work to be that lucky. Chvrches may not have blazed new trails, but they resuscitated the beautiful, soulful heartbeat within electronic music. That singular sound, an assemblage of discarded elements, breathed new life into an increasingly droll independent landscape. 

Live Music Music

CHVRCHES @ Stage AE – June 11, 2014

CHVRCHES @ Stage AE, June 11, 2014



Pittsburgh crowds rarely impress me for being *into* a show.

Last night, I was impressed — not just with CHVRCHES — but with the crowd. I want you to recognize how monumental that admission really is. If there’s any deterrent to me enjoying a show, it’s almost always the crowd. It’s like I seek out some reason to be intensely annoyed. On this occasion it was only the really odd girl who kept dancing at the bar when the opening act was playing.

Unprovoked rhythmic clapping and rampant fist pumping during bursts and rebirths of sound. I absorb and reflect and occasionally join the rhythmic clapping. But grand displays of enjoyment just ain’t my bag. Anything more than regular head nodding and I’ve probably had too much to drink and you might think to call me a cab. That’s just the way it goes, so it might seem strange to be “impressed” by a horde of Pavlovian concert-goers. Clap here. First pump here. Bounce here. And perhaps there’s the rub — none of it was choreographed by the band and none of it was premeditated. That’s what most impressed me, the rare spontaneity.

At the Fitz and the Tantrums show last year at Mr. Smalls, the band constantly called to the crowd for more energy. They’re a high energy band. They want a high energy crowd and they got what they wanted, but in order to get their wish they must have said “Pittsburgh” and cajoled us to great cacophony at least 27 times to get that sold-out crowd in the mood to party. Lauren Mayberry, frontwoman for the Glasgow synth-pop trio first spoke to the crowd after the third or fourth song. She admitted it was her first time in Pittsburgh. Cheers. Applause. And then admitted that all she knew about Pittsburgh came from the movie That Thing You Do when Jimmy dumps Fay and says “I shoulda dumped you in Pittsburgh!”

And that was pretty much it for the Pittsburgh talk or any talk in general. She popped back up to the podium once more to talk about how she’d also experienced her first Tornado Warning that day as well. (Happy to provide a memorable stay, Lauren, you beautiful little pixy!) But the radio silence wasn’t because she was awkward or uncomfortable speaking to the crowd. In fact, she had a warm, casual report. She just knew when to get back to the music.

CHVRCHES - Stage AE - Pittsburgh

If you’ve been read any of my year-end lists from the past two years you might remember CHVRCHES featuring prominently. (See here, here and here.) I’ve spun this record more than any record of the past dozen years and I’m pretty sure the folks that follow me on Twitter probably got tired of seeing this:

#nowplaying CHVRCHES, The Bones of What You Believe #vinyl

Some shows I just can’t understand. The empty show for Savages at Mr. Smalls, for example. I’m still stunned at the attendance. WHY WAS NOBODY THERE?!? The age of the crowd at Naked and Famous. WHY WERE YOU SO YOUNG?? And so on and so forth. Obviously CHVRCHES has struck a chord with me, but I hadn’t anticipated the widespread devotion of a sell out crowd at AE. All ages. All varieties of people. The gathering defied irresponsible generalization on my part.

CHVRCHES played a by-the-book show with tremendous energy. And though I was initially skeptical of the histrionic gyrations of Iain and Martin on their tandem synths/samples — they provided an entertaining contrast with Lauren’s general stoicism. And when Martin Doherty stole the mic for his first of two lead vocals (on “Under the Tide”), he commanded every inch of his available stage, wacking about as if on ice skates, finally unleashed from his stationary synths and samples. Of their catalog (and I believe they played all but one song) “Night Sky” was the live track that most stood out from its album counterpart. That B-Side track from Bones of What You Believe found new life and vigor. The fist pumping registered off the charts with every “oh oh oh,” the rise and fall of that track amplified ever greater by the acoustics and fiercely in-tune crowd.

A “Night Sky” sample from a recent show in Cambridge:

A night of preposterous bass (thank you, AE, for threatening me with the brown note during the encore) and killer synth and then out into the Pittsburgh night with enough time to hop over to PNC Park to catch the last of the rain-delayed Pirates game. Not that I did, mind you, because I’m an old, tired dad with two kids. I went home to turn the game on in bed… and catch up on some of the #Bond_age_ live tweeting of A VIEW TO A KILL that I’d missed out on that evening so I could finally catch CHVRCHES in the flesh… and they were well worth the wait and the sacrifice of missing out on the roast of one of the worst Bond films.

I’ll leave this post with some more CHVRCHES content because I can’t get enough.

NPR Tiny Desk

CHVRCHES covering Arctic Monkey’s “Do I Wanna Know?”

CHVRCHES covering Haim’s “Falling”

Music Vinyl

Record Store Day 2014 Wishlist by Jenn Corker

Most Wanted Record Store Day 2014 Releases

by Jenn Corker

(I first met Jenn on the now defunct tables at I can absolutely vouch for her impeccable taste when it comes to the sweet sounds of the 19-Alt-80’s and beyond.)

David Bowie – 1984 picture disc

David Bowie 1984 Picture Disc

Bowie is a bucket list kind of performer for me. Maybe one day I’ll get to see him in concert, if he ever deigns to return to the stage. I like the look of the disc, maybe it’ll tide me over until I can see the Thin White Duke live.


Chvrches – Recover EP


I’m a huge Sundays fan, so the lead singer of this band reminds me a lot of Harriet Wheeler. They have a very retro modern sound, and opened on a few dates for Depeche Mode on their last tour.


Nirvana – Pennyroyal Tea

Nirvana Pennyroyal Tea

I’m just a Nirvana fan, regardless of what anyone thinks of them. It’s been 20 years since Kurt’s gone, and I can only imagine what would have come next. I would love to find this on RSD for sentimental reasons.


Joy Division – An Ideal For Living

Joy Division An Ideal for Living

Super excited about this one. I’ve been an enormous Joy Division fan for as long as I can remember. This is the vinyl release of their debut EP.