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Lean, Angry, Polished And Pointedly Defiant: Savages’ Silence Yourself

Silence Yourself
Matador / Pop Noire

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There are records and then there are records. Savages’ brand new debut Silence Yourself is, quite decidedly, one of the latter. The release date May 7th has loomed impossibly large for many of us for quite some time now. Anticipation this keen brings with it a peculiar, exquisite pain. There wasn’t much question  this album was going to meet, surpass, very possibly smash into umpteen brightly lit splinters the expectations its imminent arrival gave rise to, so it wasn’t a matter of “Will it or won’t it?” so much as a case of ‘CAN TIME GO BY ANY DAMN SLOWER? I’M IN PAIN HERE!’

Well, the day’s here, and we may now rejoice.

Understand, last June when the initial single “Husbands”/”Flying To Berlin” (on new label Pop Noire) appeared virtually out of nowhere on our screens and eventually our turntables, a multitude of hopes and questions and vivid possibilities exploded simultaneously, the type reaction that’s to be expected when one’s jaw has been clapped open in such thrilled disbelief. A work of singular immediacy and power, racing headlong as if fed some accelerant from the inside while also as sharp and angular and laser-cut as anything one could think of from the holy halcyonic post-punk days it was cut from, “Husbands” was a breathtaking shock to the system, not least during its chorus, singer Jhenny Beth huffing out the aitch of the title’s chorus with a ferocity not heard since Patti Smith drove horses through our heads in 1975. I can’t say it any better than the Guardian did at the time: “‘Husbands’…makes us dream of what it must have been like to have been around to hear, in real time, the debut releases by Public Image Ltd, Magazine, Siouxsie and the Banshees and Joy Division, to feel, as those incredible records hit the shops, that unearthly power and sense of transmission from a satellite reality.”

Having ‘been around’ at that time, I can attest to the accuracy of that statement.

Before the needle had even lifted off the record a frenzy of clamorous, impatient voices arose – ‘Who are they? Where are they from? What’s the story, can I see them live?’ and, most important, of course, ‘When’s the album coming out?’ Aside from learning it was four young women from London, ‘All in due time’ was essentially the answer, as teaser appearances on Jools and at CMJ and a live 12″ EP in the fall kept us whetted and salivating like the addicts that first 7″ had made of us. Often, during lengthy gaps like this between the initial big bang and the arrival at last of the debut LP, energy flags, interest strays, anticipation dissipates. Not so this time. Such was the intense curiosity generated by that sudden little single last summer that we all held on with a fervent believer’s faith, faith recently buoyed by buzz-worthy live appearances at SXSW and a quick West Coast tour (including Portland, thank the blessed fates).



Personally, I can say this: Not since ever has my patience been more joyfully rewarded. Taut as a soon-to-snap guitar string, lean, angry, polished and pointedly defiant by equal measure, Silence Yourself is a revelation that has no intention of following its own directive. From the Cassavettes film clip that opens proceedings on “Shut Up” to the fuck-off breather of a track (“Marshal Dear”) that closes things out, where even amidst  the pretty leavening of a piano, the calmed-down bass and the throaty sax outro a creeping menace abides, there’s not a moment of excess, not one throwaway second. What there are, though, are songs, eleven indelible songs that mark this record out as not just debut – and, for that matter, album – of the year material but, simply, one of the finest debut records in the post-punk canon, joining Marqueen Moon, Real Life, Affectionate Punch and even that most sacred of relics, Unknown Pleasures.

There is nowhere on this album to escape being thrilled. “Shut Up,” once it gets started, shatters instantly any nagging concerns one may have harbored regarding either over-hypedness or that all the fevered anticipation would go unfulfilled, Ayse Hassan’s driving throb of trenchant bass takes care of that and if more proof is needed (it isn’t) the power of this band in unquestionably certain a measure later with the punching arrival of Fay Milton’s precise pummel of drums and Gemma Thompson’s strike-plate guitar. This before we’ve heard a single note of Ms Beth’s plangently honest, don’t-mess-with-me voice nor the McGeoch-like outbreaks of that guitar, the source of course for the many Magazine allusions making the rounds.

As has been clear from what little vinyl evidence that’s proceeded this release, there’s not a small amount of tightly-wound fury animating Savages’ sound, much of it due, beyond the clenched/explosive nature of the arrangements themselves, to that voice and what it says. Too cagey to be strident, the lyrics nonetheless are unapologetically testy and rilled by the prickly edges of someone negotiating, quite fearlessly, the fractured media-riven landscape of the early 21st century. Exasperated but undaunted, Beth’s voice takes to the podium with an insubmissive gleam. “I don’t want to hide” she avers on the incendiary, pulse-quickening second track “I Am Here,” a statement of intent already made drivingly clear, even this early on. Intelligent, biting, concise, this is Lesley Woods if she’d been born thirty years later, the Au Pairs trembling with that many more years of rage and urgency, re-imagined and re-energized against the soul-sucking ennui and iphone apathy in this age of celebrity. Savages aren’t an answer to all that, they’re not flag-bearers, but they do reflect the constant twinge of anxiety that hovers over us daily and they do it unflinchingly, with a kind of oblique clarity that perfectly captures the kinetic restlessness this state of affairs has left us in.

Plus, they rock the relentless hell out of it (even when they’re not, really).

With the exception of the short, moodily unsettling interlude “Dead Nature” that sits dead center in the track-listing and brings something close to respite if you don’t mind an intermission filled with dread, setting the needle down on side one of Silence Yourself is akin to setting off a tripwire to a brimming thirty-eight and a half minutes of flash paper brio that very few albums can hope to rival. There is no artifice, no winks of irony, no sarcasm. Everything about Savages, their approach, their sound, their look, gives an impression not of scales having fallen from their eyes but rather that there were no scales there to begin with. What they see, what Beth sings, what the band plays, is unvarnished and lucid and will not suffer fools nor equivocation gladly. With Savages, you don’t say ‘for real’ and not mean it.

“I Am Here,” first heard on that live EP, is just as fierce here (Savages are just as tight live as on the record, just as vehement on record as live), Fay’s gymnastic drum pattern bringing a bit of the primal tribal touch before the whole thing just roars off into (a tightly coiled) abandon and one thinks ‘Savage indeed.’ “No Face” is, like much of this record, punishingly engaging, somehow combining a buzzsaw rhythm with the more delicate shards of pristine guitar harmonics before submitting to a hard rock siege mid-track and pretty much staying there. While certainly still within the troped-out bounds of post-punk, let no one question this band’s rawk credentials.

Somewhat lazily, Siouxsie references are getting thrown at Savages and while it’s understandable it’s not a service to either band. Closest we come is “Strife” but the Siouxsie we’re talking about is the “Helter-Skelter” Siouxsie, not the “Christine” one. Emphasis on ‘banshee,’ in other words, Gemma just mauling her guitars, she’s ferociously melodic here except, that is, when she’s power slashing around like a riot grrl virtuosa and oh dear do I ever want to race about raving about every single track on this record, how “City’s Full’ actually has a chug factor, how it’s gritty and electric sharp, how you can hear the broken glass in the gutters, see the neon smears in the darkness. How, though slower, “Waiting For A Sign” seethes with as much just-under-the-skin venom as anything on here; how, even as its unsure melody line during the verse makes it the only candidate on Silence to approach middling, Ms Thompson looses a scraping squall of a guitar howl that takes it to its end and in the process tears a whole new life into the thing. How the fem-aggressive, sex-empowered “She Will” remains too cunningly ambiguous of lyric for the track to become a tract as it rides, again, Ayse’s imperishably classic, seductive bassline. I want to talk (and at length) about “Hit Me,” the album’s shortest track that’s also the most directly angry, attacking every last pathetic shred of the indecent, ‘she was asking for it’ defense with a teeth-baring verve that’s far too infrequently heard from bands with this prominent a profile. And, especially perhaps, I’d like to delve with surgical tools into album-closer “Marshal Dear,” its haunting ache of a melody, that patter of Nicky Hopkins-like piano that issues bewitching notes of finality before stepping back to let the fat wandering sax solo escort the record to a four-in-the-morning close and definitely I’d want to explore why Jhenny mysteriously pronounces ‘silence’ as a half Latin- half English hybrid, “see-lents yourself.” And at some point I’d heap gushing praise upon the production talents of Rodaidh McDonald and Johnny Hostile, for nailing Savages’ aesthetic without getting in the way, for dancing that unassuming genius dance of the gifted producer(s).

I desperately want to share all that and more with you but what’s the point, you’re going to buy the album by the end of today anyway at which point you’ll find all this out yourself. You’ll find out there’s not an ounce of exaggeration in this review and that, in fact, as is often the case in instances like this, the words I’ve managed to wrangle together don’t quite touch the visceral essence they’re meant to represent.

Speaking of those words, here’s a funny thing: this far into a not-brief piece that is liberally stuffed with superlatives and not once has the word ‘exciting’ made an appearance. Odd? Perhaps, but if ever there’s been an instance where the word has gone without saying, this is it.

Silence Yourself is not just an almost shockingly triumphant album because of how it sounds but as well because the band accomplished that triumph on their own terms. Their movements have been exact, their strategy inspired, their passionate conviction unparalleled. Despite the expectation, in the wake of those singles and live youtube clips and ear-witness accounts, that the debut Savages LP was going to be something quite extraordinary, the fact that the day has arrived and it truly is, well, that, in a word, is exciting.