You’ve probably noticed that the synthesizer has gone from being a quirky 80s throwback instrument to something nearly every band utilizes over the past decade. As electronic-based music has come to occupy a larger and larger share of the indie scene, a plethora of bands have emerged to try their hand at music that attracts both the dancefloor crowd and your archetypical hipsters. This of course means that the synthpop market has become saturated, making it harder for new groups to break through and gain recognition.
For CHVRCHES, success came from a very simple formula. Primarily, Lauren Mayberry sings and Iain Cook and Martin Doherty play the synthesizer. There’s no gimmicks, no unusual instruments, and no obscure subgenre influences – it’s just straight-up synthpop. But what sets CHVRCHES aside is that they do straight-up synthpop really well. Their 2013 debut The Bones of What You Believe combined layers of pulsing synthesizers, intense build-ups and explosive choruses, all topped by Mayberry’s airy voice. It deservedly earned its way onto many “best of 2013” lists, as in the span of one album, CHVRCHES managed to establish a sound all their own.
As expected, Every Open Eye doesn’t change the fundamental CHVRCHES formula. It’s still straight up synthpop without any frills, and is roughly the same length as their debut. This isn’t to say it’s a carbon copy though, since the album has a slightly different overall feel. While The Bones of What You Believe walked a fine line between radio-friendly pop and less accessible indie stylings, this album falls slightly more on the former side. It has a somewhat sunnier sound, with fewer effects added and Mayberry’s voice sounding stronger. Yet it also takes fewer risks, and the polished result isn’t as striking.
One of the main components that set The Bones of What You Believe apart from its electronic-indie competition were Cook and Doherty’s absolutely killer synthesizer lines. Synthesizers drove the songs and frequently created some intensely catchy melodies. From the opening notes of “Gun” to the outro of “Tether” to the chorus of “By The Throat,” nearly every song had a vaguely New Order-reminiscent synthesizer part that complemented Mayberry’s voice and lyrics. But compare these to the synthesizer lines on Every Open Eye, and you’ll be disappointed. Now the synthesizers are slightly toned down and are rarely given the chance to actually be the driving force of a track. The notable exception is the end of “Clearest Blue,” where for nearly two minutes the band lets loose with one of its best dance beats to date. There are other great moments like the pounding notes of “Keep You On My Side” and the uptempo chorus of “Empty Threat,” but altogether the album’s synthesizers act with more subtlety and some tracks can blend together as a result.
The other part of the CHVRCHES formula, Mayberry’s voice, is given more prominence this time around and ends up being the more memorable part of Every Open Eye. Despite the varying emotions on the album, she manages to keep things fairly even-keeled and never shouts nor sings in a confessional tone. There is some additional vocal intensity around the choruses, but for the most part it stays the same course of The Bones of What You Believe. Doherty sings on track “High Enough to Carry You Over” and his voice has noticeably improved since his appearance on “You Caught the Light” two years ago. While not as striking as Mayberry’s voice, Doherty manages to leave a mark with passionate delivery. Lyrically, the album is filled with parting verses of resentment (see “Leave a Trace”) and reflections on past missteps (see “Empty Threat”) delivered in such a way that listeners may not realize their weight until really thinking about them. There are no more recurring threats like those on The Bones of What You Believe, which was filled with lines like “I’ll be a thorn in your side til you die” or “I will be a gun and it’s you I’ll come for.” The contrast of these violent lines with Mayberry’s voice really made the album unique, although the thinly-veiled criticisms on Every Open Eye are not necessarily a step down. Instead, it’s the more anthemic verses on the album that do it a disservice. “Bury It” consists largely of the chant “bury it and rise above,” and “Make Them Gold” has school assembly friendly lines like “if you push yourself then I will pull you on” and “we will take the best parts of ourselves and make them gold.” This is perhaps too much bubbliness too fast from a band that had only recently declared “I’ll take this thing by the throat and walk away.”
CHVRCHES are likely to remain one of the more noteworthy synthpop bands with Every Open Eye, since the essential formula that won them their popularity is largely unchanged and there are few obvious faults on the album. Yet the changes that have been made, such as the toning down of synthesizers and the occasional over-polishing of tracks to the point that they’re somewhat uniform is an unfortunate backslide from an exceptionally promising debut. CHVRCHES have shown themselves to be highly capable of creating addictive melodies, poignant lyrics, and ground-shaking dance beats, and as album highlight “Clearest Blue” shows, it’s just a matter of the band letting themselves loose more often.