Wednesday, September 1, 2021

Review: Screen Violence • Chvrches



The headlines to any given coverage of Chvrches’ new record were written as soon as the pop trio decided upon the title Screen Violence: “Chvrches releases quarantine record for the viral age!” The album, yes, is technically the band’s quarantine album, recorded virtually as the bandmates were spread between Los Angeles and Glasgow – but its fittingly pandemic-era title is merely serendipitous. As every interpersonal interaction – big, small, vital, or casual – became technologically mediated, society at large seems to have grown more comfortable with the protection of anonymity in everyday interactions that was otherwise provided to only, say, social media trolls. Having been victim to both myogenic assaults and Chris Brown fans alike, the band knew a thing or two about internet warfare long before a fully virtual world – and much of Screen Violence rockets out from the viral pressure chamber.

The commercial attempt, the sell-out record, the label appeasement exercise – whatever its label, the band’s third album skewed the acceptable benchmarks for a Chvrches record. Asked to work for a band that already contained two in-house producers, Greg Kurstin ironed out the band’s quirks and slanted them toward his territory in arena pop. Compared to its predecessors, Love is Dead was a plain record – but also an angry one. That emotion, having thickened into flat-out resentment, becomes the vital carryover to Screen Violence, which returns to self-produced – albeit somewhat sharper and shiner – products. “He said, ‘You need to be fed, but keep an eye on your waistline,’ and ‘Look good, but don’t be obsessed,’” Lauren Mayberry sings on “He Said She Said.” The mistreatments and double standards stack atop each other until the pressure becomes too much: “I feel like I’m losing my mind,” she repeats in the chorus, a simple but effective climax.

In crafting intriguing soundscapes, the Chvrches of today is unmatched to any past iterations of the band: Together, they have pulled together their most vivid production work yet, tucking away electronic pyrotechnics in unexpected places and emphasizing band’s most exacerbated moments. Album opener “Asking for a Friend” pulls away to a near silent false ending while Mayberry extends a hand for help – “The past is in the past; it isn’t meant to last. But if I can’t let go, will you carry me home?” – before launching into an extraordinary starburst. Both “Violent Delights” and “Nightmares” channel rock opera: Blown out electric guitars and faux-string synthesizers create menacing cathedrals of sound. “How Not to Drown” continues well beyond homage, featuring The Cure’s Robert Smith on a spiraling synth rock centerfold: “Tell me how it's better if I make no sound. I will never escape these doubts. I wasn't dead when they found me, watch as they pull me down,” Mayberry and Smith duet in the song’s heavy chorus.

Screen Violence is a tense listen, uncompromising in the band’s rejection of fame. “And it feels like the weight is too much to carry. I should quit, maybe go get married,” she sings on “Final Girl,” perhaps the darkest reflection of Mayberry’s experiences. The band’s production choices – this time, they electrify their synthpop with a barbed progressive rock – only intensify the internal struggle between pushing forward or retreating to comfort. While this record bears more semblance to the band’s first two than their third, the band aggregates lessons from them all to craft their most gripping record yet. It glorifies our complicated relationship with broadcasted (or more fittingly for this side of the year 2000, streamed) trauma: Why can’t we look away from the scene, even when we are the victims on the screen? Will things ever be as good as they once were? Is there any way to persevere through the pain of unjust wounds? There absolutely is, and it sounds a lot like Screen Violence.

Screen Violence is available now under Glassnote Records.


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© Aural Fixation
Maira Gall