Before you read any of this, do me a favor: Take a close look at this photo. Notice any similarities between the people depicted? If you don’t, I suspect you’re blind. On the left is Jehenny Beth, singer for the band Savages. On the right is Ian Curtis, singer for the band Joy Division. Two different genders and two completely different people, however they could potentially be fraternal twins. Sure, Curtis died more than four years before Beth was born (under the name Camille Berthomier), but if you believe in reincarnation perhaps this connection is much deeper than skin deep. Joy Division was an all-male post-punk band from England that became well-known for their dark focus and intensity, particularly on stage. Savages are an all-female post-punk band from England that’s becoming more and more well-known for their dark focus and intensity, particularly on stage. In terms of label dealings, Joy Division signed with RCA, only to later buy out their contract because they were unhappy with how things were going. Despite Curtis calling Factory Records founder Tony Wilson “a fucking cunt” to his face and then repeatedly insulting him on stage one night, the band would eventually sign to Factory, a label best known for letting its artists do whatever they wanted and splitting all profits 50-50. Savages view record labels as evil, but a necessary evil. With Beth still entangled in label dealings from her last band with boyfriend Johnny Hostile, she pushed the idea of not signing to a label until their debut album was finished. Ultimately Silence Yourself is being distributed via Matador Records, in conjunction with Beth and Hostile’s own small imprint Pop Noire. “I believe artists make their own success,” Beth said after signing to Matador. “No record labels are my heroes today.” I don’t doubt that Curtis would have said something dramatically similar were he alive to survey the music scene in today’s digital age. There’s a rebellious, wild and angry spirit that runs through both of their world views, if you can define a person via their interview quotes. But what does all of this mean? A pessimist might view the similarities between bands as a series of coincidences that amount to nothing. An optimist could call this the second coming and the rise of a new band set to change the musical landscape once more for the better. Let’s just hope this new story doesn’t end the way the earlier one did.
To be perfectly clear though, Savages are not Joy Division, even if my first listen to Silence Yourself felt strangely similar to the first time I listened to Unknown Pleasures. That is to say, it felt like a door to an entirely new world of music had just been opened up. Unlike back in the late ’70s and early ’80s however, this sort of post-punk sound isn’t new or novel anymore. In fact, it’s downright out of style at the moment. Of course this is the sort of band that revels in contradiction and doing whatever the fuck they want without a care if it’s in style or out of style. As such, listening to their record can feel a bit like playing a “spot the influence” game. The Joy Division (and similarly Gang of Four) is there thanks to the extremely present and dominating work of bassist Ayse Hassan. Siouxsie and the Banshees comparisons run abound because Beth’s vocals often resemble that of Siouxie Sioux’s, though in more modern terms you can pick up on some early PJ Harvey or Karen O from Yeah Yeah Yeahs when she escalates to a higher and more shriek-filled range. Gemma Thompson’s piercing and rusty chainsaw-sounding guitar work fondly recalls bands like Public Image Ltd, Bauhaus and Converge, while the incredible aggression through which Fay Milton attacks her drum kit draws power from krautrock like Faust and Can, with a bit of Sleater-Kinney era Janet Weiss thrown in for good measure. Savages sound at least a little bit like all of these bands, yet they still manage to break free and expose a sound that feels intense and unique as you’re listening to it. Such a quality is so rare in music these days it can easily give one the impression that this band is out to save rock and roll. They certainly play like it, and though it shines through the record, their raw nerve and extreme ferocity on stage are what they’ve built their reputation on. Simply put, Savages live up to their name.
Silence Yourself starts in an interesting fashion, with audio from the 1977 John Cassavetes film Opening Night. The scene in question is a crucial one, and comes about 50 minutes into the film. In it, the lead character of actress Myrtle Gordon (Gena Rowlands) sits down for a rather informal meeting at the apartment of the woman who wrote the script for the play she’s appearing in. This older, wiser writer Sarah (Joan Blondell) begins their conversation after some pleasantries by asking the actress how old she is. The actress dodges the question repeatedly and never gives an official answer, yet insists that she’s having trouble connecting to the part that’s been written for her because the character is so much older than her actual age. Of course the audio for the intro to the song “Shut Up” and the rest of the album gets cut off before the actual point of the scene is reached, leaving the lingering question of age hanging in the air. Yet lest you be confused, age is not the point of the scene, nor does it have anything to do with Savages’ music. No, the point is about fighting against perceptions and allowing for enough fluidity to maintain your own versatility. As Myrtle says a minute later in the same scene, “Once you’re convincing in a part, the audience accepts you as that.” Her concern is that once she plays this older woman character, she’ll be forever fixed in the minds of audiences as a senior citizen and it will change her career trajectory in the wrong direction. Similarly, Savages refuse to be easily categorized or boxed in. They’re about outward rebellion and an innate desire to turn the music world on its head. Thanks to the primal, uncompromising brutality of this debut album, they’ve done exactly that. At times it’s enough to shake you to your very core.
Just reading the band’s song titles like “Shut Up,” “No Face” and “Hit Me” can go a long way towards telling you what to expect from the Silence Yourself listening experience. And boy, “experience” is the right word to use, considering the physicality that blindly attacks you at every turn. As “I Am Here” creeps along down the dimly lit hallways of your mind, the chorus suddenly comes at you like a punch to the gut in a momentary flash of rage. These spikes in noise and aggression come to a head in the final minute of the track, when the intensity finally builds to a release point and Beth howls the song title over and over like a mantra as the pace gets faster and the noise louder. By the end there is no doubt that she has in fact arrived and made her presence known. If a close listen with good headphones doesn’t give you goosebumps, perhaps you should check your pulse. A very similar set-up and execution happens on the single “Husbands.” In that case all the band members steamroll ahead at full speed the entire time, only taking a momentary respite in the chorus as Beth moves from a whisper to a shriek while once again repeating the song title. The effective point of it in this case is to destroy the meaning of a word that many equate with marriage, love, family and security by creating a true nightmare scenario. It’s equally easy to believe that the track “Hit Me” is all about the horrors of domestic violence were you to only think of the lyrics and not the context behind them. The 100 second beating this song will give to your ears (it was recorded entirely live in the studio, by the way) was actually written from the perspective of porn star Belladonna, about a violent scene she agreed to take part in for the sake of sex, art and masochism. “I took a beating tonight / And that was the best I ever had,” she sings, consciously aware of the choice and refusing to play the victim. Provocative and button-pushing as the subject matter might seem, it’s not the point Savages are trying to make with their music. The ultimate goal is liberation and empowerment, even if that means crossing the lines of physical and psychological pain to achieve it. Sometimes it’s the only way we can learn and grow.
The emotions on Silence Yourself finally reach their true breaking point at two spots on the album, both of which wrap up their respective sides of the LP. It’s equally interesting to know that they’re also the songs that break from an attack dog-like format and attempt to truly inject the record with something more thoughtful and progressive. While the haunting and moody instrumental “Dead Nature” might be considered by some to be the singular throwaway track sitting at the center of the album, its actual purpose is to serve as a cooler and buffer before the onslaught of the second half begins. Call it the musical eye of a hurricane and an opportunity to take a breather. The true moment of power hits two minutes before that though, on “Waiting for a Sign.” That 5.5 minute dirge is perhaps the most terrifying white knuckle ride on an album full of them, even as it avoids the immediacy and hooks of everything else. As it plods along led by Hassan’s rumbling bass and Beth’s manic vocal, the final two minutes of this ballad are handed off to Thompson, who takes the old Beatles adage “While My Guitar Gently Weeps” literally, only in this case there’s nothing gentle about it. Thompson’s guitar is crying buckets of tears, and in turn squeezes our ears so tightly it’s difficult not to connect with that and break down right along with it. While the album’s closing ballad “Marshall Dear” doesn’t quite elicit the same strong emotional reaction as other tracks, it is important to the overall record because of what it introduces. Considering the blitz attack that most of Savages’ music so far subscribes to, it’s easy to predict that their sound has a limited shelf life that might stay viable for another couple albums at best. What’s hinted at on the final track is a continued evolution of the band as they incorporate more instruments such as piano and clarinet. In addition to being an incredible singer Beth is also a classically trained pianist. Though that skill is used rather sparingly here, it hints at a larger vision and destiny at play for a band that likely won’t take their own advice and silence themselves any time soon.
Video: Savages – Shut Up
Audio Stream: Savages – She Will