Review: Savages – Silence Yourself

Savages Silence Yourself
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I’ve been reading Please Kill Me, an oral history compiled by Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain that traces the evolution of the musical anti-movement we know as punk in New York in the 1960s and 1970s. It’s immensely jealousy-inspiring – those interviewed talk about going to see the Velvet Underground or Patti Smith or the Stooges or Television play among their first shows at divey Lower East Side clubs, sensing they were watching history in the making. It’s appropriate, at least for me, that the London quartet Savages’ debut record Silence Yourself is coming out around the time I’m totally immersed in this history – seeing Savages live in October 2012 felt like watching history in the making perhaps more than any other show I’ve seen, and they’ve reminded me since I first heard their music of Kim Gordon’s t-shirt from that famous Sonic Youth press photo: “Girls invented punk rock, not England.”

The first word that comes to mind about Savages is “challenging.” It’s complicated, like so many other things about them, because their music itself isn’t inaccessible or difficult or alienating (you try to resist Ayse Hassan’s basslines), but everything about it functions like a dare: the first chorus singer Jehnny Beth gives you to latch onto is “If you tell me to shut up, I’ll shut it now;” on “No Face” she croons “Don’t worry about breaking my heart, far bigger things will fall apart.” On “Strife” she sings stunningly frankly about a torrid love affair – “they wonder how come I’ve been doing things with you I would never tell my mum” – over Gemma Thompson’s apocalyptically distorted guitar. Then there’s “Hit Me,” less than two live-recorded minutes of Beth’s breathless shouting over Faye Milton’s percussion avalanche, “Will you hit me, I’m ready.” It’s the most explicitly punk the band get – huge drums, bottled-up tension that bursts forth, in-your-face lyrics like Beth’s reinterpretation of X-Ray Spex’s “Oh Bondage, Up Yours” – but Silence Yourself is thoroughly laced with that sense of intense confrontationality that characterizes the genre. Still waters run deep under Milton and Hassan’s slinky motorik groove in the form of Thompson’s guitar, playing along and then utterly not (see: her collapsing walls of noise in “Waiting for a Sign”), and Beth’s forceful, hypnotic vocals and lyrics, as she mediates on lust and violence, often juxtaposed discomfortingly closely. She switches roles in a teasingly chameleonic way: on “I Am Here” she’s your mom dispelling your nightmares, and then she’s leading you by the hand through the rest of the band’s thunderclouds-gathering firestorm coda – “Are you coming?”

The idea behind Gordon’s t-shirt still resonates: as evidenced in Please Kill Me, it’s often marginalized communities – women, queer communities, people of color – who, faced with adversity, channel their frustration into truly game-changing art. Savages’ smart reorganization and shuffling of punk, post-punk, krautrock, and noise music into something brutal, jarringly confrontational, and completely singular is a breath of fresh air and an unignorable statement of power and resistance. We still live in a world that’s always finding new ways to silence the breadth of women’s voices, and Savages, adamantly, defiantly, will not be shut up. It’s in the requests they’ve posted at their shows for concertgoers to turn off their cameras and cell phones, it’s in the title of their record, it’s in the considered, seething hypnotics of their music itself – you will shut up and listen, and Savages dare you to try and look away. [A-]

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