Review | Savages

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SAVAGES @ The Shacklewell Arms, London 29 May 

“In some inland post feel the savagery, the utter savagery, closed round you – all that mysterious life of the wilderness that stirs in the hearts of the wild. There’s no initiation either into such mysteries. We have to live in the midst of the incomprehensible, which is detestable. And it has a fascination, too, which goes to work upon us; the fascination of the abomination. Imagine the growing regrets, the longing to escape, the powerless disgust, the surrender.” Joseph Conrad, ‘Heart of Darkness’

Buzz bands are in a tricky position. While the music scene is much more open, much less sectarian than it used to be, bands buoyed up on a wave of media flurry and management push have to face the increasing dangers of our famous-for-fifteen-fickle-seconds cultural attention span. We all know the window of pop-fortune-ity might not be open for long before the next-next big thing. But on the evidence so far, Savages could prevail, and those of us who refuse to let caution become cynicism can readily recognise the substance beneath the spotlight.

Savages are an ambitious new London-based rock band led by Jehnny Beth (vocals) and Gemma Thompson (guitar), with bassist Ayse Hassan and Faye Milton on drums. They’ve been performing for no more than 5 months, yet seemingly every one of their dozen gigs has been reviewed or you-tubed, while their debut single ‘Husbands’ (b/w Flying to Berlin), just released digitally on 28 May, has brought that attention into finer focus. Savages have been called a ‘post-punk’ group, they’ve been given many names, as if we’re supposed to be yearning for bands to tick the boxes of X crossed with Y rather than artists with a new angle on the universe. As an all-woman band you can imagine and you can read for yourselves elsewhere all the usual comparisons with femme-punk icons from a century ago, but you’ll get none of that here. Why should female musicians have to work cramped between such narrow horizons of expectation, categorized before they even crystallize, when male musicians never have to deal with that pinpointed pressure?

The rear room of the Shacklewell Arms is a sepulchral cavern ringed by mirrors and arched alcoves. Lugubrious electro filters through the half-light while clouds do the looped-mushroom on the slide projector. This being Dalston there is the usual contingent of punters who spend more money on their hair in a month than I do on food, but in truth it’s a varied crowd, good-natured and free of artifice. The artifice will be on stage, and deliberately so: Savages take a consciously theatrical approach to performance and the calculated construction of emotional topography; every band does so, of course, but in an almost Industrial strategy, Savages are sharing their secrets. In the end there are no spoilers because in the moment, it’s as real as anything.

Tonight’s soundcheck is a taut bass and drum tattoo to a demented click-track. We’re not kept waiting though, and after a brief pause Savages are back on stage. Wasting no time on ceremony, they grab their instruments and launch into ‘I Am Here’. Tribal drums, metronomic bass and impassioned vocals will be the order of the evening. Contoured feedback arcs off the stone walls as Jehnny surveys the crowd. Pensive but full-on, in austerity attire and cropped coiffure, she assaults the songs with military precision, the band galvanized by the urgent power of their music and our affirmation.

‘Husbands’ follows, all paranoid disco, and already it stirs a ring of recognition in the audience. Jehnny’s phrasing is perfect, the words come thick and hard; Ayse swings with the rhythm, eyes closed, while Gemma is still, white-shirted, androgynous; her guitar seduces and then attacks. The bass is a pounding pulse, and Faye’s drums are somehow both bellicose and understated. This is music to lose yourself in and simultaneously music to wake you up: the band balances on the high tension line between escapism and confrontation. The succinct song titles reflect the aesthetic: next is ‘Give me a Gun’. Jehnny jerks her head left and right to the swirl of noise before leaning back to the mic. Then, lost in thought, she steps back and gives the space to Gemma as ‘Flying to Berlin’ slows the pace with sinister whale-song guitar and an elegaic wash of textured white noise over an extended groove. None of the songs out-stay their welcome.

Savages aren’t like anyone else around right now. At times they could be scouting similar territory to Covergirl, but ultimately this is less party music and more like a soundtrack to an exorcism. In other moments there are whispers of a less spectral, more rhythmic Rayographs, and, to these ears, a faint echo of the mechanik dance sensibility of early euro-period Simple Minds– but more acute, on the sheer edge of fracture, and peppered with spasmodic guitar surges. And always that driving, driven urgency, so that the slow songs are fast too. There are dozens of high profile female bands out there underwhelming their audience with reverb-drizzled reverie, retreating into childhood daze, but Savages are pulling in a different direction, stirring it all up – the return of the repressed. The band are ‘Waiting for a Sign’, the couple next to me are kissing, and the rest of us are sweating and dancing, both equally inescapable.

‘No Face’ is next, a new song, never before played live. Every line is spat as much as sung, Jehnny’s performance the opposite of the coquettish seduction that seeps into the body language of so many vocalists: she is pure concentration, focused aggression. The band take themselves seriously; the audience suspends disbelief. ‘City’s Full’ is the set-closer, a visceral soundscape of a future single, and a perfect encapsulation of urban dread, millenarian paranoia and suppressed violence. But they’re not finished yet: one extra song, ‘She Will’ slams the point home, relentless and hypnotic. The band’s grasp of dynamics is total.

As their interviews confirm, Savages are openly literary in a way that can only be applauded in these dumbed-down times. No doubt this will rub some up the wrong way but those people should remember that this is no class issue – Joy Division, The Jam, Manic Street Preachers were literary too – and like the song said, libraries gave us power. Never underestimate the latent public desire to be liberated from the tyranny of the everyday. If rock music is ultimately a game of bread and circuses, at least it gives us something to chew on. (Actually, Savages’ European qualities may well shield them from that traditional British inverted snobbery.) In more than one way, Savages have thrown down the gauntlet for 2012, maybe even for a new generation. Why not? Who says everything’s been done, and done better? No-one watching Savages at the Shacklewell Arms was thinking about the past, and no-one wanted to be anywhere else. Hold on to that possibility that anything could happen, and keep your mind and ears open: the future will be SAVAGE.

Kofi Smith

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