Graded on a Curve: Savages,
Silence Yourself

Savages are a London band that’s currently getting hyped to the high heavens. Post-punk is the style they flaunt and with nary a sign of hesitation. In keeping with their influences the group is also invested with a rather prickly attitude, and many will surely find this off-putting. However, the bottom-line concerns whether or not Savages’ first full-length record holds the musical goods. The verdict is yes; Silence Yourself is one of the stronger debuts to appear in quite some time.

The very cover of Silence Yourself portends an intriguing experience. Those words in the lower left corner aren’t lyrics, but instead comprise what has been described as a manifesto, one that expresses a deep dissatisfaction with the intense chatter and distracting noise of modernity, positing it as a controlling mechanism of the powerful (described in the text only as “they”) and inevitably presenting an alternative to all the madness; if the world would just stifle this overstimulation and ceaseless racket for just a little while, we might actually get back in touch with the better side of our nature.

Of course, many will read these lines and simply decry it as pretension. In pinpointing and proposing an answer to contemporary ills, the words certainly do possess a quality that might be called intellectually-inclined arrogance, but that’s sorta in keeping with the big whopping tradition of the manifesto. To get down to brass tacks, the passage that adorns Silence Yourself is just the latest example in a very long history of rebelliousness over the perceived manacles of complacency and stagnation.

Rebellion often ain’t very pretty, and it’s even less frequently polite, and Savages’ decision to title their LP with a phrase that solicits the audience to basically be quiet (and naturally give them the floor for approximately forty minutes) makes this very plain. And yet it’s the sort of blatant (and again, more than a bit haughty) defiance that isn’t exactly being offered up with regularity these days.

But the text is only part of what makes the record’s cover so interesting. Immediately drawing the attention is the stark use of black and white, a tactic that also stands out from the norm, deepening Savages disengagement with the qualities of the new. And this aura of the out-of-step extends to the cover’s photo of the band. Simply put, very few albums in the rock sphere these days (and for a very long time, for that matter) sport cover snaps of the individuals that made the music. It’s a practice that in other hands could easily court a retro vibe.

That none of the Savages are smiling in Silence Yourself’s pic, with only bassist Ayşe Hassan looking directly at the camera while delivering a stone-cold stare (who’s gonna blink first?), is befitting of the post-punk tradition that the group mine so boldly. And the deliberate use of black and white can’t help but be remindful of an era that’s dying with not nearly enough resistance, that being film.

That’s where all really worthwhile B&W imagery, from solitary photographs (for instance Robert Frank’s sublime collection The Americans) to moving pictures on celluloid (think film noir, specifically the magnetic bleakness of Edgar G. Ulmer’s Detour) derives. Somewhat unsurprisingly, exposure to classic cinema has played a part in Savages singer Jehnny Beth’s youthful experience.

She’s mentioned watching the classic Hollywood work of Alfred Hitchcock and the art-house breakthroughs of Nouvelle Vague-giant François Truffaut as a child via her parents, and in the films of both artists the use of black and white was far more than just a casual decision, it was a conscious strategy. And so it also seems to be with the cover of Silence Yourself, the visuals reflecting a debut of impressive confidence and development.

Some of the above might seem more appropriate for a review on a graphic design website, but in contemplating two other record sleeves from a pair of bands that have been name-checked as being impactful upon the music Savages play (you know, influences), the digression in this case registers as quite fitting.

Folks have mentioned Joy Division (which is readily apparent in Savages’ sound) and Wire (a similarity yet to be personally detected, but it’s early yet) as antecedents to what’s offered via Silence Yourself, and both Unknown Pleasures and Pink Flag (each notably debut albums) featured covers that provided insightful peaks into those band’s grand personalities before the needle was dropped onto either one.

And if the rumination upon matters filmic reads like a stretch, the opening moments of Silence Yourself’s first salvo “Shut Up” brings the association home. While the video for the song finds Jehnny Beth reciting that cover manifesto, the version found on the LP replaces this with a sound clip from Opening Night, a masterful late work from the great director John Cassavetes.

That might seem like just another example of the modern impulse for cred-inducing homage, but if so, in this instance it’s not exactly a shallow one. That is, the vast majority of folks hearing “Shut Up” will likely have no idea of the source unless they stumble upon it while reading an article somewhere. And as a huge Cassavetes fan who actually owns a copy of Opening Night, I didn’t immediately recognize it myself.

A little erudition goes a long way, but it’s all for naught when the songs aren’t up to snuff. “Shut Up” more than makes good though, with thick, limber bass, clattering yet highly skillful drums and guitar playing that dishes out both glassy shards and knotty strands of driving, often rhythmic motion. But it’s Jehnny Beth, her vocals drawing upon both Siouxsie Sioux and Patti Smith, who makes the strongest immediate impression.

And “I Am Here” reveals a band that’s confident enough in their post-punk plunder to inject it with noisy blasts of a decidedly more recent vintage. This greatly assists Silence Yourself in standing apart from the deluge of subpar post-punk wannabes. While a whole lot less subtle than NYC’s outstanding Talk Normal (no manifestos for them), they are however much closer to the work of that outfit than they are to the folks who seem to be satisfied with merely reheating the precedent of Factory or 4AD or Fast Product.

The record trucks along at an inspired clip, and if not reinventing the genre, it does assemble a wide range of ingredients, a dash of Bauhaus here, just a touch of Magazine there, into a pretty fulfilling whole. And the vocals can’t help but tilt it toward the rise of female assertiveness that sprung from the late-‘70s UK, but both Jehnny Beth’s inflection and the poetic thrust of her words, especially on “City’s Full,” remain closer to the pinnacle of prime Patti than they do to the self-emancipated yowl of Poly Styrene.

That’s cool. And it ultimately brings Savages a little nearer to the early stuff of PJ Harvey than the more Rough Trade/ No Wave-derived work of Talk Normal. Songs like “Strife” and the moody “Waiting for a Sign,” which slows down and stretches out to nearly five and a half minutes in length (and with some fine string mauling from Gemma Thompson thrown in), might even satisfy fans of Nick Cave’s stuff, particularly from his rowdier days fronting The Birthday Party.

But maybe what’s most impressive about Silence Yourself is that it feels like the result of a natural equality. Jehnny Beth quickly proves to be a powerful front-woman, but this is far more than a one-gal show. All the participants are fully engaged in this 11-song set, with every instrument serving an integral role in fleshing out Savages’ attack.

And if a fairly brief fragment like “Dead Nature” (parts of which sound like slowed-down loops of a sleepy Peter Hook thrumming a bass string to thunderous effect) reveals an inclination for the abstract and/or experimental (and sans vocals), the record is largely a very rock-focused affair.

“She Will” finds Thompson’s in this instance almost-pretty guitar melodiousness and Hassan’s reliably solid, rolling bass lines tangling with the emphatic interjections of Jehnny Beth’s voice and Fay Milton’s brittle cymbals, their disruption eventually overtaking the song and bringing it to a chilly conclusion. And instead of post-punk, “No Face” might actually be more appropriately assessed as tapping into the artier side of late-‘80s post-hardcore.

That’s exactly the sound of “Hit Me” in a nutshell. Loaded with splattering slide-guitar shrapnel that’s matched with a pummeling rhythmic assault, it combines with the vocalist’s scathing invitation for bodily harm and becomes Silence Yourself’s most impressive track. Manifestos aside, it’s definitely the point on the record that makes abundantly clear Savages’ general disinclination to fulfill any sort of post-Riot Grrl role-model/ leadership position.

It’s been stated the “Hit Me” deals with the underbelly of contemporary pornography where sex meets violence, and the song again finds them closer to the sheer emotional messiness of early-Patti (indeed much of Horses, a record with a lyrical edge that feels more than a little dangerous to this day) than to the angry clarity of Bikini Kill, that band’s sound much more in line with Poly and X-Ray Spex.

And “Husbands,” the title of which might be another nod to Cassavetes (or just as likely not, perhaps an actual stretch in this case), presents another very effective hunk of riveting psychodrama. Closer “Marshal Dear,” a somewhat more restrained if still tense and occasionally noisy tune that brings piano and sax into the mix, rounds out the record, the balance of which is very strong.

The main worry with bands that arrive this fully-formed pertains to how they very frequently sabotage their initial impact with accessibility and restraint. Often, the world that once seemed so out-of-joint isn’t so messy anymore. To find the head of perturbed steam that Savages has worked up so well lessened by the mellowing-out that success can frequently bring would be serious disappointment.

But that’s a bridge to potentially cross later. Right now Silence Yourself is simply excellent contempo post-punk from a group that just happens to wear substantial amounts of divisive emotional volatility right there on their collective sleeve for all to see.

GRADED ON A CURVE:
A-

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