, May 3rd, 2013 02:58
Inspiration, not innovation, is what I look for in Savages. One Quietus reader insists, every time we write about them, on commenting "post punk karaoke", ironically himself forgetting that movement's urge to say something new. Of course, it's perfectly easy - as it is with so many bands in this age of refinement - to pick apart Savages' influences on Silence Yourself, their thrilling debut album. But karaoke - the empty, facile regurgitation of other people's songs - this is not.
I'd take Savages, with their furious, high-velocity update of Joy Division, Simple Minds, British Sea Power, The Smashing Pumpkins, Einsturzende Neubauten, Bauhaus, The Birthday Party, Suede and so on over a thousand pallid boys who've managed, somehow, to divine an 'original' sound at the end of post-modernism. Why? Because Silence Yourself is the manifestation of a formidable spirit, a sense that everything they do is done with great purity of intent, and a brilliant sex, life and death album of a kind rarely seen these days. It also manages to capture the power of their live show in a surprising way. I saw Savages' first gig in January 2012, when they arrived as a last-minute support band for British Sea Power far more exciting, with more presence, more intelligence, than any indie band slogging their way up a dull career ladder to that point where suddenly adulation is accorded with a Brixton Academy headline slot. They gave their all then, and they give their all here, somehow distilling that live potency to record.
For starters, this is a very European record in feel, and not merely thanks to Jehnny Beth's French passport and curious vocal delivery. The depressing British trend for anti-intellectualism in pop is gloriously set ablaze by Savages' manifestos, noise excursions with side-project HTB and collaboration with Bo Ningen to create a "Sonic Simultaneous Poem", or introducing dancers, film and support sets by those within the Savages "family" to their concerts. Indeed, some of the naysayers who've sprung up in opposition to the fervent support that many demonstrate towards this band seem to imply that all this is calculated pretension, that perhaps after unveiling these elaborate and thoughtful ways of doing things, they all sit around chuckling a good LOL at a few more hoodwinked in. Such is the current fear, in the indie mainstream, of exercising the mind.
This hermetically sealed world around them is the cauldron in which their fire is nurtured and burns. Like many of the bands who inspired them, Savages fight against limitations as they carve out their songs. Gemma Thompson says she had to fundamentally rethink the way she played guitar after Jehnny Beth joined Savages, and steered it away from an experimental noise duo to songwriting band. Her contributions are incredibly impressive on the yearning, straining 'Waiting For A Sign', with the mood created by Faye Milton and Ayse Hassan's rhythm section acting as the base for dissonant guitar aerobics and an abstract vocal screech that recalls Diamanda Galas. It manages to pack into five minutes what Suede took ten to achieve on some of the songs from that second half of Dog Man Star.
The positioning of that track at the halfway point, followed by the gloomy, bell-clanging textures of instrumental 'Dead Nature' emphasises that Savages whole-heartedly subscribe to the album as a format: that's why the best tracks, 'Husbands' and 'Marshal Dear', are stuck right at the end of Side B. Interestingly, when I asked if there would be a different artwork for the digital release that might allow Jehnny Beth's manifesto on the sleeve to be easily read, the band said that the vinyl was their sole consideration.
Savages therefore seem to understand that the album still offers rock music's ideal format in which to explore challenging ideas. They're not alone in this, of course, as many of the old guard who've inspired them (especially Swans) have been proving over the past few years, but it's certainly rare among Savages' peers. So why is Silence Yourself a radical album that, as guitarist Gemma Thompson told Laura Snapes in Pitchfork, is "music to break shit and fuck on the floor to"?
Overdrive, distortion and Hasson and Milton's swinging rhythms ramp up the rather libidinous feel to Savages' music. Post-Britpop, UK guitar music has become rather prudish - with, say, Wild Beasts excepted - you wouldn't ever have gone to last decade's post punk revivalists Bloc Party or Futureheads for your kicks. America, meanwhile, seems to combine the asexual with a weird tats n' caps 'bro' mentality. Silence Yourself explores thematic concerns of honesty-of-the-self ideology and sexual power dynamics more commonly encountered in the Throbbing Gristle-inspired fringes of electronic and industrial music. However, those artists often manage to become a cliche of leathery lechery, fetishism and BDSM as codified and dull as the vanilla mainstream it claims to oppose.
Silence Yourself, by contrast explores these ideas with sophistication and bravery. When I interviewed the band for Q magazine recently, Beth told me that 'Hit Me' was inspired by porn actress Belladonna, and spoke of how she found pornography to be liberating - a not uncontroversial position. 'She Will' seems to be an ambiguous look at the pleasure and pain of the eroticism that comes with sexual infidelity and jealousy. Then on 'City's Full', she sings "I love the stretch marks on your thighs / I love the wrinkles around your eyes". It's one of the most charming lyrics of 2013, a bullshit-free summation of the honesty and complexity of true, rather than false idealised, love.
Ultimately, Savages are going to be a divisive band, but better to be hated and loved than trundle along with watery, anaemic music that says nothing no matter how original it might be. The openness that Savages display to art, sexuality and the idea that rock & roll can be intellectual, though, means that they're the sort of group who, like the Manics, Suede and British Sea Power, will become a way of life for some. In the essay that features on Silence Yourself's artwork, Beth writes "if the world would shut up just for a while perhaps we would start hearing the distant rhythm of an angry young tune". These are those tunes. Do what these good ladies tell you to do - silence yourself, listen to these songs. It's the least they - and you - deserve.