Before their show in Seattle last month, London four-piece Savages posted a sign around the venue that laid out a couple of ground rules: no Instagramming, no video, no tweets– in short, “SILENCE YOUR PHONES.” This could be seen as a part of a growing trend of bands pointing out how sick they are of looking out into a sea of smartphones rather than human faces (the Yeah Yeah Yeahs posted a similar missive at their recent New York homecoming show), but it felt more like an extension of Savages’ overall manifesto. And no, “manifesto” is not too dramatic a word; especially in contrast with the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ sign, which tempered its message with chatty humor (“PUT THAT SHIT AWAY!…MUCH LOVE AND MANY THANKS!”), Savages’ fiery imperative read like something hammered onto a door.
“OUR GOAL IS TO DISCOVER BETTER WAYS OF LIVING AND EXPERIENCING MUSIC,” they wrote (caps theirs). “WE BELIEVE THAT THE USE OF PHONES DURING A GIG PREVENTS ALL OF US FROM TOTALLY IMMERSING OURSELVES.” Ironically, their ability to see the value of silence in a world of noise might make Savages the most web-savvy band of the year. People have been tweeting and tumbling about their live shows the way that people used to talk about live shows: something you just have to see for yourself. If you’ve paid even the slightest attention to Savages in the year leading up to their debut Silence Yourself, you know that this is how they do things– in fact, it’s very likely you knew something about their philosophy before you heard a note of their music. Whether you find it profoundly refreshing or a little tedious that Savages draw lines in the sand, none of this would be worth mentioning if the music didn’t live up to the force of the message. Silence Yourself proves that Savages are more than just talk. It’s one of rock’s most commanding and ferociously poised debuts in recent years, the work of a band whose outsized confidence and sharp clarity of vision doesn’t correlate with the short amount of time it’s been together. Savages’ music feels out of step with current trends– which I’m sure they’d take as a compliment. With its tumbling, tom-heavy percussion, singer Jehnny Beth’s Siouxsie-summoning battle cries, and the compositional emphasis placed on Ayse Hassan’s bass (in the moments when Beth is silent, the bass feels like Savages’ lead singer), post-punk is Silence Yourself’s most obvious sonic reference point. And it doesn’t matter that they missed the post-punk revival by about a decade.
While the bands that dominated indie rock in the early aughts looked to Joy Division and Gang of Four for reasons that had mostly to do with rhythm, Savages’ music finds kinship with post-punk’s oppositional politics, thematic darkness, and anxiety about the dehumanizing effects of technology– the spirit is the same, but it’s been adjusted to reflect the times. Savages’ distaste for experiencing life through a screen comes from the same place as, say, Wire’s sardonic take on viewers whose idea of adventure was living vicariously through “the Lone Ranger”; after all, if “Ex Lion Tamer” were written today, it’d probably go, “Stay glued to your iPhone.” Which is not to say that Savages are writing scathing songs about shitty service providers; their lyrics are boldly stark, elemental, and timeless. (The titles alone hit with a blunt force: “She Will”, “Hit Me”, “No Face”, “Shut Up.”)
Beth has said that the band’s writing process is less about addition than subtraction, paring each song down to its most essential shape. All of the best songs on Silence Yourself derive their power from this kind of focused intensity, from the driving, dissonant “City’s Full” to the creeping, percussive lurch of “I Am Here”. The chorus of “Husbands”, a phenomenal single first released last year, sharpens that focus down to a single word. “I woke up and saw the face of a guy/ I don’t know who he is,” Beth sings in the song’s paranoia-inducing opening moments. A Savages song is about challenging the ideas, words and desires we consider “normal”, and they’ve found that repetition is an effective way to get that point across.
“Husbands, husbands, husbands, husbands, husbands, husbands,” Beth chants in a manic whisper; with each intonation, the meaning erodes from a word that’s ostensibly meant to evoke comfort, protection and familiarity until it feels faceless. Savages really show promise and range on the slow-burners. The moody dirge “Waiting for a Sign” and goth-cabaret closer “Marshall Dear” aren’t the most immediate songs on the record, but over repeated listens, they bloom. If Hassan and Faye Milton’s punishing rhythm section takes the helm on the more frantic numbers, Savages’ downtempo moments allow Gemma Thompson and her scuzzy Fender to shine. On the excellent “Strife,” she holds back as often as she strikes, underscoring Beth’s most brutal lines with perfectly timed jolts and filling the song’s winding corriders with thick plumes of distortion.
The mix allows each band member’s contribution to smolder with equal intensity and lends a palpable physicality to Savages’ sound. Milton handles her toms and bass drum like a boxer going at a punching bag; Hassan’s bass strings pulsate like a throbbing tendons; Thompson’s guitar cuts with a goosebump-inducing tone that recalls a chainsaw, and Beth shrieks like she’s resetting her own bones. Combining in a constant pendulum swing between tension and release, it all provides the perfect atmosphere for the darkly sensual themes that Silence Yourself explores. As a lyricist, Beth says she’s inspired by the “awkward places” from which “twisted, original desires” spring. “Hit Me”, a sub-two-minute tornado of squalling noise, isn’t about domestic abuse, as some people assume, but is instead about a consensual encounter described by the porn star Belladonna. (Beth: “I hate it when women are turned into victims.”) Savages might make political pronouncements in interviews and on album covers, but their songs come from a lived-in perspective as Beth inhabits her different characters’ states of mind– and forces the listener to do the same.
“How old are you, really?” a voice asks in the opening seconds of the album; it hovers in the air without an answer. It might be a knowing sneer at critics who think Savages are just recycling post-punk’s signature sound, but ostensibly it’s also a salute to an artistic kindred spirit. The line is from Opening Night, a 1977 movie by John Cassavetes– a filmmaker who also saw a kind of beauty in emotional brutality and was prone to spouting off humanist manifestos. “My films are expressive of a culture that has had the possibility of attaining material fulfillment while at the same time finding itself unable to accomplish the simple business of conducting human lives,” he said. “What is needed is reassurance in human emotions; a re-evaluation of our emotional capacities.” Substitute “films” for “songs” and those words could almost be lifted off the cover of Silence Yourself. The album cuts through a world of chatter and distraction because it practices what it preaches, transmitting its message directly through the primal, bone-rattling force of its songs. ( By Lindsay Zoladz from www.pitchfork.com )