Dread and agita seep into even the sunnier tracks

Since their formation in 2011, the Glasgow trio Chvrches have been flying the synth-pop revival flag with gusto, wowing festival crowds with their 21st-century update of new wave. Vocalist Lauren Mayberry has a clarion soprano that gleams like steel, making the moments when it trembles with emotion hit even harder; her bandmates Iain Cook and Martin Doherty surround it with guitar fuzz, keyboard washes, and pounding drums, all reflecting and magnifying any feelings in the mix.    

In the wake of their last full-length, 2018's larger-than-life Love is Dead, Chvrches kept busy. In addition to reworking some of that album's festival-ready cuts into string quartet-led meditations and playing shows, they hit the Hot 100 in 2019 with "Here With Me," a collaboration with the bucket-shrouded Marshmello that split the difference between their moody post-post-modern rock and their partner's big-ticket EDM.

'Screen Violence' could be mistaken for a crate-dug find from multiple eras
| Credit: Sebastian Mlynarski & Kevin J Thomson

Cook, Doherty, and Mayberry had begun writing what eventually became their fourth album in early 2020 — and when the pandemic hit, they dispersed, continuing to work across Los Angeles and Glasgow. The three members may have been in isolation while recording their glittering synth lines and plainspoken lyrics, but the album doesn't hew to expectations about what a "product of quarantine" might sound like: Its choruses are still anthemic; its keyboards still leap out of speakers.

Screen Violence could be mistaken for a crate-dug find from multiple eras, a time machine given a narrative through line by Mayberry's winsome cries. It's rooted in the moodier synth-pop that rumbled across college-radio playlists in the '80s: "How Not to Drown," a duet with Robert Smith of miserablist legends the Cure, fills its sonic space with guitars that recall that British act's stadium-sized peaks, with Mayberry's wail slicing through them and Smith's moan stanching the bleeding. But it's also made for the streaming age, with siren-call refrains exploding out of the thickets surrounding tracks like the churning "Violent Delights" and the claustrophobic "Nightmares."   

If there is one aspect of Screen Violence that feels very of the quarantine era, it's the dread and agita that seep into even the sunnier tracks. On the glassy "Lullabies," Mayberry breaks from her musings on the world's cruelties to look at her frozen self: "I'm lying on the floor/ What are we waiting for?" she wonders. "Final Girl," which pivots on the horror-movie trope of one last woman confronting the big baddie, puts Mayberry in the slot of burdened heroine; its thumping bassline and icy synth stabs add to its feeling of foreboding, with jagged guitars and ghostly backing vocals rising as she's reconsidering her life path ("I should quit, maybe go get married/ only time will tell"). That frame of mind also illuminates the reason Chvrches have risen high in alt-rock's ranks over the last decade: Even amidst all the worrying, their defiant, quivering music vibrates with possibility in a way that plainly, and passionately, refutes even the darkest moments of despair expressed in its lyrics. A-

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