Album Review: Savages, “Silence Yourself”
by Samuel Tolzmann on April 30, 2013
Posted in: Album Review, Music, Rock
Album: Silence Yourself
Label: Matador/Pop Noire
Release date: May 7
RIYL: Bauhaus, Fugazi, Iceage, Public Image Ltd., Siouxsie and the Banshees, Sleater-Kinney
Key tracks: “She Will,” “Husbands,” “City’s Full”
One minute and twenty-seven seconds into “She Will,” the seventh track on all-female London post-punk quartet Savages’ extraordinary debut LP Silence Yourself, drummer Fay Milton grabs the kit’s cymbal with one hand and proceeds to beat it as hard as possible. It takes a great deal of strength, and to successfully maximize the noise while keeping time requires skill as well. To do it for as long as Milton does in the second half of “She Will” is pretty damn impressive; to do it night after night live, well, that’s just amazing. This particular approach to drumming is a good place to start when talking about Savages, who make music that is at once technically virtuosic and violently unnerving. And although frontwoman Jenny Beth maintains that the album title is meant as a command the contemporary individual needs to give the interfering voices of society, not a directive to the listener – a stance suggestive of the intense amount of political thought put into this music and of the capital-R Romantic faith its creators have in both artistic endeavor and the individual – it’s also important to note right away that two of its tracks also have titles in the imperative mood: “Shut Up” and “Hit Me.” All of the brutality, austerity, and gravity, all of the tension and abjection, all of the sheer power of the music is neatly summed up in those two pithy titles. One track from their 2012 EP I Am Here that didn’t make the full-length is called “Give Me A Gun.”
This is a band that insists on having all of your attention or none of it (they recently turned one of their live shows into an avant-garde dance performance, to the chagrin of a boisterous skinhead-heavy crowd) – more still, all of the control or none of it (they’re already infamously cagey about what their music is supposed to “mean”). A recent Pitchfork feature described the way their live show at David Lynch’s Paris nightspot Silencio opened with thirty seconds of the band staring at the audience in silence; writer Laura Snapes called the scene a “war of attrition.” No kidding. Half of the time, Savages sound like they’re itching for a fight. And the other half? They sound like they’re actually fighting. More than anything else, this is a band with which you do not want to fuck. And because of the unusually high degree of seriousness that Savages bring to the table – their mission statement is thorough, the atmosphere oppressively bleak – for the first time in a long time, that specific, threatening intensity really matters. This is very rare. Savages aren’t assuming the poses of people who will stand up for what they believe and kick your ass if they have to; they really mean it. It’s as simple as that. Cue: Milton, bashing that cymbal as hard as a person could.
And, holy hell, what a record. Silence Yourself opens with a lengthy dialogue sample lifted from a Cassavetes film, under which moaned vocals and waves of feedback swell gradually. Then bassist Ayse Hassan cuts the intro off abruptly with a taut, menacing groove and “Shut Up” kicks off. It’s one of those great album-opening moves, the kind that sends a chill up your spine and instantly confirms the good hype. Things don’t really ever let up after that. There’s the ominous gothic dirge “Waiting For A Sign” and the insidious atmospherics of interlude “Dead Nature,” but both are filled with dread and neither provides much respite from the general onslaught. The band’s sound itself is fairly straightforward: Savages play a blend of wiry, agitated post-punk and D.C. post-hardcore. The combination of these elements is deft, often relying on pace – the faster, more dissonant numbers like “No Face” and “Hit Me” lean toward the latter genre, and the straight-faced British post-punk-isms of “Husbands” and “I Am Here” surge violently with electric currents of anachronistic fury when the tempo increases at the end of each verse and on the refrain respectively. The rhythm section of Hassan and Milton is responsible for controlling these shifts and balances, and they rise to the challenge, their ability to tighten and loosen directly and presumably intentionally recalling Fugazi. Wildly dynamic, the band and their producers Rodaidh McDonald and Johnny Hostile make expert (and very ’80s post-punk) use of negative space, which cloaks the whole record so that every sound — every drumbeat, every searing guitar chord, every yelped vocal – sounds crisp as a whip. And all around the four musicians, scraps of noise fly off into the surrounding void, congealing into tense industrial ambience.
Probably the best current comparison for the music on Silence Yourself is the work of the Danish group Iceage: both groups blend post-punk, hardcore, goth, and occasionally noise, and both muster up the spectacularly bludgeoning ferocity, though not the technical signifiers, of metal. Iceage go for sun-scorched and discordant where Savages favor the icy and measured, but their basic sonic qualities are analogous and, more importantly still, both groups are notable for the unbending solemnity and defined sense of political morality with which they approach music-making. That last quality comes through most of all in the lyrics, and here Savages’ slightly more reserved approach abets them. Beth’s lyrics are more audible than those on an Iceage record; although they’re hardly crystal clear, intimidating direct addresses (“When you hit me, I’m ready”) and sinister images (“She will enter the room,” “There are suicides in every dream”) certainly ring through the sonic warfare going down all around the singer. Delivery for these kinds of lines is paramount, but Beth’s formidable vocal chops seal the deal on this collection of already near-perfect rock songs. On the low end, she warrants comparisons to Siouxsie Sioux’s imperious swoop; on the high, Corin Tucker’s hysterical but well-trained wail; and when she groans or squeals, the early days of Karen O come to mind.
Beth shares with all three of those women a sense of doomy drama. However, that performative impulse makes Sioux as relatable as she is frosty; for O, it is transmuted into a confessional urge that can get ugly but is always expressive; it ensures that, powerful though her pipes may be, Tucker always sings as eye-to-eye with her audience as with her lyrical addressees. Each in her own way, those three esteemed rock vocalists provide a point of access, an open human note, in their respective bands’ compositions. This is how frontwomen and -men often end up functioning, inadvertently. However, true to the more antagonistic rock traditions Savages pull from, Beth’s vocal work constitutes no such invitation. She is just another component of a rigidly confrontational collective. Around the three-minute mark of “City’s Full,” the rest of the band cuts out and Beth is left in the spotlight, chewing on the words “I’m going back home!” Another vocalist in another band might make this showstopping moment a wrenching one of vulnerability, but the only hint of vulnerability in Beth’s persona is her apparent resolution to turn our attention away from her life and onto her subject matter, which often includes us as listeners – so instead, she follows it up with a harshly barked “Oh!” that puts us in our place just as we’ve begun to lean closer to her. Stand back, her performance continually suggests. This isn’t about me. This aspect of her performance is the extra shove that realizes the band’s thematic ambitions.
After ten draining blasts of Savages’ relentless furor, the album concludes with “Marshal Dear,” which, unlikely as it sounds, prominently features delicate piano and finds Beth toning down her act somewhat as she delivers its narrative strewn with military references. The song builds dramatically, with Gemma Thompson’s guitars ringing as loud as ever while Beth repeats the album’s titular imperative, but it comes down with the smoky sounds of a jazz saxophone of all things. In part, the track is a bait-and-switch, with Beth in particular playing around with notions of sympathy and accessibility only to revert. But it also does something more impressive and frightening: it converts the piano and saxophone to its cause. By the closing moments, that solitary saxophone sounds capable of unspeakable things. The four women in Savages write songs so effective and generate a pitch-dark atmosphere so thick, even the most notoriously cheesy instrument in the canon takes on a shadowy double life. It’s a sign of the success with which the band accomplishes its mission of revealing the risk at which the individual in society can always find herself. It’s commitment, as much as talent or confidence, that sees this work through so fully, and with most promising and heavily hyped young bands, you’d be forgiven for doubting whether they can really deliver, whether they really have that kind of commitment motivating them – the kind that leads a band to start a concert with a thirty-second staring contest and pull it off without seeming silly. Obviously, such doubts don’t apply to Savages. In fact, doubt in general isn’t something I’d associate with an act so severe and preternaturally assured. For this quartet, rock music is no game, and there’s no time to hold back or mess around. It’s paid off for them and for us: Silence Yourself is surely one of the year’s best albums, and easily its most bracing listen thus far.
Savages, Silence Yourself: 1. Shut Up 2. I Am Here 3. City’s Full 4. Strife 5. Waiting For A Sign 6. Dead Nature 7. She Will 8. No Face 9. Hit Me 10. Husbands 11. Marshal Dear