Monday, August 5, 2013

album review: 'silence yourself' by savages (RETRO REVIEW)

I didn't get into punk music the 'typical' way. I wasn't given an old punk record by a family member or dropped into that particular music scene by a group of friends or attended a party or concert where said music was being played. No, pretty much any exploration of punk music - and indeed of underground culture from the mid-70s to, well, now was entirely a self-driven endeavour.

Funnily enough, I started looking into punk from one of the harder-edged scenes on the fringes of the genre: anarcho-punk. Coming out of an anarchistic high school phase, I was actively listening to Chumbawamba and started to get intrigued about their contemporaries. So one day, I picked up two four-disc collections that I highly recommend to this day as a great sampler of music of the time: No Thanks! The 70s Punk Revolution and Left Of The Dial: Dispatches From The 80s Underground. And I honestly can't count the number of bands I got into thanks to these two multi-disc sets, exposing me to several entire genres of music that I had never heard on mainstream radio or any of the clubs I frequented.

Interestingly, there was only genre that seemed to span both disc collections - and it wasn't punk music. No, it was the dark, brooding, complex, oft-inaccessible genre of post-punk, composed of the leftovers of the punk revolution and a gateway to all manner of weird, twisted music that I fell in love with instantaneously. These were acts like Wire, Bauhaus, Sonic Youth, The Sisters Of Mercy, Nick Cave and The Bad Seeds, Television, Joy Division, The Cure, Siouxsie & The Banshees, The Chameleons, and more. These are among some of the most critically acclaimed acts of the 70s and 80s, and they pushed the envelope of music further than ever before.

It's not entirely surprising, then, that as 70s nostalgia returned through this year (to say nothing of the rise of darker, industrial-flavoured music across the charts), post-punk would make a return appearance. But while Nick Cave did release a mind-blowing album this year with Push The Sky Away, it wasn't so much a post-punk revival album as a moody piece of atmosphere alternative rock from an elder statesman of the movement. 

Instead, we got a debut album from a new act that had been swelling in the underground since 2011, just waiting to explode with a mission statement scrawled in block capitals.

The band was simply called Savages, the debut album was titled Silence Yourself, and it is goddamn awesome.

Youtube review after the jump

Now, there is an immediate temptation - at least for me - to immediately draw comparisons to other potent post-punk and gothic rock greats. Make no mistake, in terms of Savages' sound, delivery, and lyrical content, they would have fit extremely well into the churning undercurrent of post-punk in the late-70s. Yet I can't quite consider them a throwback, because unlike, say, Edward Sharpe & The Magnetic Zeros, Savages aren't just interested in recreating the music of the past, but coming together to create their own unique sound. The slew of musical influences I can pinpoint are crushed together into something entirely new here: ferocious, uncompromising, and profoundly listenable.

And to be honest, I'm almost a little lost where to start with Silence Yourself, the title being a two-pronged screed at the crowd listening and those that would take aim at Savages`musical and lyrical philosophy, which is twisted, raw, and undeniably potent. The band's mission statement seems less a creation of grandiose, rich sounds but instead the stripping away of inessential chaff to expose whatever's left underneath, and you can see this both in the lyrics and instrumentation. With grinding, explosive distorted guitar work reminiscent of Bauhaus and simmering bass lines of which The Cure would be proud, so much of Silence Yourself seethes with energy like an exposed nerve, and credit must be given to the production and layering that allows the tracks to feel dynamic and surprisingly expansive. This is most apparent in the bass lines, where Ayse Hassan's authoritative presence lends Savages' a foundation that is often highlighted in sharp contrast instead of buried for atmospheric purposes, most often letting Gemma Thompson's guitar lurk in the background like a storm cloud. It's the natural expansion of the minimalist styling I discussed my review of Shaking The Habitual - by curbing excesses in the mix, each instrument is given the chance to naturally grow and explode.

And I would be remiss to mention Jehnny Beth's vocal delivery, which nails the tricky balance between sultry, expressive, and righteously pissed. Yes, it's reminiscent of Siouxsie Sioux and Patti Smith, but that's only a compliment, and Beth's delivery tends to trade 'class' for a borderline riot grrl scream when she needs to, yet still managing to hold onto her polish. The vocal production does a lot to help here, alternatively letting her voice swell on the slower tracks with careful reverb or provide a layer of gritty distortion to balance against the guitars or furiously pounding drums. And it helps even more that Beth sells her material with the smart balance between passion and restraint - I was struck by the number of times where instead of choosing to scream, she instead dropped into a more controlled register and let the guitar or bass rise to prominence. Again, whoever did the production on this album should be applauded, because it does wonders for enhancing the band's authenticity and energy.

But now we have to talk about the lyrics, often the point where I tend to... well, not lose patience, but have slightly lower tolerance for post-punk and gothic rock in particular. I spoke at great length about my issues with 'gothic' songwriting in my Depeche Mode review from earlier this year, mostly because of the lack of diversity in the choice of topics (most tending to circle religion or sex or some combination of the two). By the 90s, this was already well-trod ground in the post-punk and darkwave scenes, and I was a little concerned that Savages would retreat into this territory. Granted, I don't think they'd do a bad job with it, but it wouldn't have been anything I haven't heard before.

Savages doesn't do this. Instead, Silence Yourself takes aim at a subject that justifies the usage of 'riot grrl' from before: gender politics (and, of course, female sex). By this point, the majority of you have probably realized that Savages are indeed an entirely female band, and while some opportunistic reviews created the easy label of 'the lesbian Joy Division', I don't quite think it's accurate. For one, the band eschews the depression in Ian Curtis' delivery for something more furious and strident. Forget victimization (Jehnny Beth chooses not to identify as a feminist primarily due to her opposition to this, plus her love of sex and pornography), the women of Savages are putting forward a sex-positive rallying cry that puts everything on display with blunt efficiency. It's potent third-wave feminism at its finest, and yet is smart enough to provide succinct context and detail in the lyrics. 

It definitely helps matters that Savages nails the punk simplicity of their lyrics perfectly. The couplets and rhyme schemes might be basic, but there's a certain curt poetry in them that gets the point across and yet still contains intelligent subtext. Between tackling shallowness and obsession with physical image in 'City's Full' and 'No Face', she throws in subtler songs about exploring sexuality in 'Strife' and 'Waiting For A Sign' and 'She Will', which paint the scene in graphic, yet surprisingly accurate terms. While some will condemn the blisteringly short punk 'Hit Me' for just another song about domestic abuse, in reality it captures an orgasmic moment of S&M perfectly, all the more enhanced by the snarling waves of guitar. And 'Husbands' and 'Marshal Dear' toe an interesting balance between songs of love lost to darkness and genuine grief. It shows that even in stripped down efficiency, Savages can still bring out layers of meaning.

So with all of this praise, do I have any nitpicks? Well, a few, perhaps. It's definitely clear with 'Hit Me' that punk isn't as much of Savages' strength as post-punk, and 'Dead Nature' is a bit of extra chaff that probably could have been trimmed away. Yes, it's a good breath of fresh air midway through the album, but coming after 'Waiting For A Sign', it doesn't do much. But outside of that, I only want to see more. 

In short, Savages' Silence Yourself isn't just a great album, it's one of the most essential albums of the year and almost certainly a major hit on my top ten list. In taking influences from the acts of the past and fusing it with a seething feminist undercurrent that's smart enough to contain nuance over pure rage, Savages created something incredibly accessible and with potent emotional subtext, belied by strong instrumentation and some of the best production I've heard this year. 

And if this is the newest salvo of another post-punk revival, I don't think I could imagine a more effective opening shot.

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