It took less than a year for the whole “witch house” phenomenon to quietly fade into obscurity, a status its purveyors no doubt welcome, considering how much they favor the cryptic, Internet-fueled anonymity the genre has long celebrated. In truth, however, many of witch house’s star players, including oOoOO and Salem, just aren’t ready for primetime, obsessed as they are with dabbling in murky experimentation and building their shadowy personas, all at the expense of their actual musical conceits. Perhaps even more damning, the most successful members in witch house’s ranks are those who sit on its peripheral: Crystal Castles, Grimes, Charli XCX, and Clams Casino aren’t names usually associated with the genre’s churning, chunky dubstep primarily because they use it as window dressing, owing the bulk of their sounds to more versatile styles like electronica, R&B, and pop.
If witch house is to survive beyond its dark novelty, it will ultimately need to sustain artists hoping to use it in a much more expansive manner. Purity Ring’s Shrines was an effort to do just that, appending the band’s gothic, chopped-n’-screwed sampling with a poppy, twee allure. In its best moments, Shrines played like an acid-tripping Disney princess singing over Balam Acab’s Wander/Wonder, a formula Scottish newcomers Chvrches attempt to make their own with The Bones of What You Believe. The question here isn’t whether Chvrches are Purity Ring 2.0 (they are), but whether something as monolithic, grinding, and self-serious as witch house can make room for Sara Bareilles-esque pop-rock, complete with the puppy-eyed lovesickness the latter style wears on its sleeve.
As it turns out, the answer fluctuates wildly depending on the strength of the songs’ melodies. Album opener “The Mother We Share” is the kind of glittery, uplifting track that manages to overcome its sickly sweet gloss with some powerful synth-laced hooks. Ditto “Tether,” whose pleasant but rather boring first half is offset by a storm of dazzling shoegaze arpeggios straight out of M83’s Dead Cities, Red Seas & Lost Ghosts sound library. But much like Purity Ring before them, Chvrches have a habit of indulging their worst (read: impulsive, cloying) qualities. The thumping club anthem “Science/Visions” finds the group’s music steeped in ham-fisted angst straight from the school of Paramore, while the celebratory, too-perky “Recover” has them leaping almost comically to the other side of the emotional spectrum.
These wild variations suggest that Chvrches, like most of its witch-house brethren, don’t quite know what kind of band they want to be. As such, The Bones of What You Believe is a wildly capricious debut. While the album has its fair share of sweet spots, the handful of capable melodies never quite balances out its bizarre impulses or the utter lack of thematic unity.