Review: CHVRCHES — Ulster Hall, Belfast
“The irony is not lost on me that we’re basically in a church right now,” spilled Lauren Mayberry in front of a sold out Ulster Hall last night, gesturing to the gigantic pipe organ in the background. “We’re here with these broken crosses and all… I’m sure a lightning bolt will come down and smite me any minute!” While the leading lady of indie synth-pop outfit CHVRCHESdodged any anticipated wrath of God, there were nonetheless bolts of electricity flying from the speakers at this, their Belfast debut appearance.
The illuminating broken crosses Mayberry was referring to contributed to this tour’s dazzling light show—flanking the DJ setups on either side of the stage containing multi-instrumentalist bandmates Iain Cook and Martin Doherty—and emblemize the band’s latest album Love Is Dead. As the album tackles society’s “death of empathy” and clearly has a bone to pick with the empty promises of religion, CHVRCHES clearly has a strong message in mind for their music.
However, the band is swimming ever deeper into the mainstream with this latest electro-fuelled release, and this sound came across louder than any message in their live show. While the set incorporated music from the band’s three albums to date, the live show was overly polished, incredibly digital and exceptionally loud. Nevertheless, long-standing fans of Belfast were still thrilled at the chance to catch the band at long last and rave to the electropop sound.
Touring with CHVRCHES for the second time around was Norwich duo Let’s Eat Grandma. The pair are very much cut from the same cloth as the headline band, yet very much on the cutting edge of the genre. Childhood friends who have been making music since the cusp of their adolescence, 19-year-old Jenny Hollingworth and Rosa Walton of Let’s Eat Grandma brought a wonderfully weird opening act to the Ulster Hall stage. The ladies, who equally shared the task of singing and making melodies on every instrument you can think of, proved to be a powerhouse of their self-proclaimed “experimental sludge pop.”
Clearly always thinking and endlessly creative, Jenny and Rosa did not fail to seize this venue’s opportunity to make a striking entrance at the start of their set. Organ tones wailed on a recorded intro as Ulster Hall’s centerpiece, the classic Mulholland grand organ, was bathed in purple light as the girls, initially sat still as statues, started eerily making their way down the staircases on either side of the towering structure. Taking their places in front of twin keyboards, and accompanied by a hard-hitting live drummer, the girls setting into quirky unison art pop.
Contrasting cutesy vocals with blindsiding backing sounds that fluctuated through a variety of styles, LEG kicked it off with strong track “Hot Pink”, a single off their latest I’m All Ears. This sophomore album tackles the limits of gender of identity, marks a distinct maturity as musicians for the budding duo and has its finger on the pulse of indie pop today. As Rosa and Jenny treated the growing crowd to select tracks off of I’m All Ears, the music was as engaging as the performance was to watch.
Particularly nice to see was the melding of electronic sounds with practical instrumentation; this was not just Rosa’s intermittent guitar scrubbing, but an eclectic range of manual musicianship. “Falling Into Me,” which showed some serious song-writing prowess, saw Jenny bust out an alto sax to thrill listeners in a hypnotizing outro. The intensity of “Eat Shitake Mushrooms” off their first album I, Gemini was mastered by the partnering of Rosa’s plunking on a xylophone to Jenny’s synth doppelganger, and later the zinging of a tiny tin flute.
What really captured the band’s spirit and substance, however, was their stage presence, hitting hard angles as they grooved. They invoked the childlike innocence from whence heir friendship was forged by carrying out hand-clapping games and busting into a synchronized rendering of the Macarena. They danced around the stage like teenagers alone in their bedroom, and mimed a loss of innocence and coming to grips with one’s own identity as they posed immobile and fell flat on their backs again and again during the eleven-minute set-closing odyssey “Donnie Darko”. It was a great introduction to a band I’m sure will persevere on the scene for years to come.
As strobe lights flashed, lightening those two giant exes, a spanking drumkit and that enormous church organ, CHVRCHES took to the stage in a flurry of sound. Lauren Mayberry stole the scene immediately, her vigorous vocals punching through the wall of synth and slapping percussion of new track “Get Out”.Looking dazzling in a pair of chunky wedge heels, a crop top, and silvery sequined shorts, Lauren was spiraling around the stage like a possessed disco ball.
The band wasted no time getting into older crowd-pleasing tracks early on in the set, getting the audience revved up right from the start. Invoking their stellar first album The Bones of What We Believe, Mayberry extended her mic stand over the stage to capture the entire auditorium’s enthused belting out of “Gun.”During the hair-raising volume of the climax of the following song from Bones, “We Sink”, drew Mayberry to the kit to smash cymbals in a sort of trance as she facing the wall of beaming spotlights. Even without the pulse-raising music, the lead singer was enthralling all on her own, striking seductive poses, throwing her body down over her knees, and persisting with that daft Wonder Woman-like spin.
Lauren handed the mic and centre stage over to bandmate Martin Doherty to bellow some of the tracks he sings in their recordings, the new “God’s Plan”and older “Under the Tide.”It was a nice change of pace, dusky and darkly electronic as the man flailed and stamped his foot to the drum machine. Doherty’s grave and common voice tamping his colleague’s operatic heights, but as with most of this set, the older of the two tracks hit the ear much better. Similarly, the poppy new tune to follow, “Miracle”, was bested by one from the original album, the dire and devouring “Science/Visions”.
My favourite moment of performance from Love Is Dead was, not surprisingly, one that was devoid of all the techno trappings and over-the-top pop vocals. This was slow, sad number “Really Gone”, which allowed Lauren to really emote through her lovely voice, not having to compete over blaring sound effects. Amidst affable banter with her fellows, Mayberry announced cannily, “All the songs about my fear of death are done…Now this is a song about my fear of men.” With that the band absolutely killed seriously good tune from Every Open Eye, “Leave a Trace”, and wrapped up the formal set with “Clearest Blue” from the same album, which had the whole place vibrating from floor to ceiling, in the seats and the railings, with pure unadulterated bass.
CHVRCHES could never leave a first-time audience like Belfast without playing the sublime “The Mother We Share” so the gang came back on to serve it up as an encore, reminding everyone of this Glaswegian group’s raw talent. However, the final track, an angry ode called “Never Say Die”, proved one last time that the band’s best material thus far comes out of early days. The gig was nonetheless very impressive and seemed to leave the crowd absolutely gob-smacked.