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Review: CHVRCHES Explore the Pleasures and Limitations of Synth-Pop on ‘Every Open Eye’

CHVRCHES at V Festival - Hylands Park - Day 1
CHELMSFORD, ENGLAND - AUGUST 22: Iain Cook and Lauren Mayberry of the Chvrches perform on Day 1 of the V Festival at Hylands Park on August 22, 2015 in Chelmsford, England. (Photo by Tristan Fewings/Getty Images)
SPIN Rating: 7 of 10
Release Date: September 23, 2015
Label: Virgin / Glassnote

CHVRCHES devote themselves to early-’80s British synth-pop the way some bands devote themselves to the blues. On their sophomore album, the cavernous synths of Tears for Fears meet Pet Shop Boys’ lovesick croon and the muscular glitter of Eurythmics, presided over by Lauren Mayberry’s powerhouse coo. The band is riding high on a crest of Internet-powered fan bliss, and sounds it: The thorny relationship-dissolution songs on 2013 debut The Bones of What You Believe matched the album’s chilly, sometimes stark sound; Every Open Eye — the work of a band who’s seen which parts of which songs send their audiences into overflowing ecstasy — sets lines about ambition and emotional self-sufficiency (“I am chasing the skyline more than you ever will”) to booming waves of synth.

Few performers close to Mayberry’s age skate as deftly across the glimmering surface of synth-pop anthems. Emily Haines, of sequencer-happy indie-rock vets Metric, melds best with the buzzing menace of at least one guitar; Tegan and Sara Quin, who dabbled beautifully in synth-pop on 2013’s Heartthrob, sang sharper, knottier lyrics — closer than CHVRCHES’ to the wry lightness with which Pet Shop Boys negotiated fraught, collapsing relationships — but neither was as adept as Mayberry, who modulates her reedy voice to resonate gorgeously with her band’s glittering bloom.

That synthesis is pretty as fireworks, and sometimes as fleeting; “Make Them Gold” and “Bury It” offer the weird spectacle of songs stuffed with hooks that don’t quite hook. (Meanwhile, the most indelible track, exuberant never-mind-about-breaking-up song “Empty Threat,” is founded on only one.) Beyond their throbbing, sugary hits, CHVRCHES’ inspirations were willing to get slow, even abstruse: the Eurythmics’ loping “Aqua” and strange, shuffling “Regrets” mar the gleaming pop of Touch; Pet Shop Boys songs like “Rent” find an aching, minimal melancholy in the stutter of machines. Orchestral Maneuvers in the Dark, remembered in John Hughes’ America mostly for the bombastic, singsong “If You Leave,” were often downright weird.

Every Open Eye isn’t exactly monochrome — there’s a smoldering trip-hop ballad, “Down Side of Me,” that beats and clicks like Garbage; “High Enough to Carry You Over,” the token boy-sung track, floats in a chilly, languorous haze before it’s captured by a stuttering beat. But CHVRCHES aim for nothing less than maximum forward impact at all times. Beneath the ice-floe synths and Mayberry’s cool, collected belting is an anxious impulse to please — an impulse that’s admittedly harder to criticize when surrounded by the jubilant spin of “Never Ending Circles,” or when “Clearest Blue” interrupts a burgeoning panic attack with the gigantic electronic stomp of the most crowd-pleasing sound in modern music: a drop. At times like that, you want these kids to keep chasing the big bursting epiphany as long as their synths still gleam.