Nervous Trend – “Shattered”

I mentioned Nervous Trend in my earlier swipe at Savages, but wanted to give them their own post because I think this anonymous group from Australia (with a singer from Chicago) might be the best rock band in the world. That isn’t some kind of writerly hyperbole that is only meant to capture attention — I actually believe it. Their latest release, “Shattered,” accomplishes more in two songs and six minutes than most rock bands do in a lifetime.

One of my many complaints about music lately is bands who adopt the attitude and style of punk, but don’t actually back it up with any substance. Nervous Trend actually have something to say, and “Shattered” pulses with an urgency that demands attention and lyrics that sharply combine the personal and political. The title track lasers in on how women are frequently seen as not being “whole beings,” using a brilliant analogy of being shattered into pieces: “Which pieces of me do you want today?” singer Jen Mace asks. “Do you see a virgin? Do you see a whore? Do you see a plaything? Do you see a savior?”

The second track, “Decency,” is a scathing criticism of hypocrisy from those who claim to be decent (also known as “the virtue squad”), but spend their time limiting the rights of women. Mace ends the E.P. with her most impassioned vocal delivery, almost reaching a scream: “This is not your proselytizing. This is my life. This choice lies with me. Fuck your decency.”

None of this is groundbreaking material in the world of feminist-leaning punk, and part of why I’ve been less invested in punk lately is that these sort of lyrics can feel like going after low-hanging fruit for easy cred points. This is exacerbated by bands that intentionally sound sloppy because it’s “punk,” giving the impression that they care more about the message than the music. Nervous Trend care deeply about both, and the pointed lyrics are matched by the music itself, which is tight and roars with purpose while being inspired equally by goth and punk rock. Mace also has one of those voices that cuts through everything around it, and she throws herself completely into these songs while sounding melodic rather than shrill.

I’ve often felt like a grumbly baby about rock music lately, but hearing this band reminds me that, when it’s done with this level of skill and commitment, pretty much nothing is better. Nervous Trend have made themselves hard to find with no social media or Spotify, but their music speaks for itself, and those who find it will be moved.

Savages’ Regressive Revolution

Savages are the kind of band I used to love. This is documented for posterity in my post about them back in 2013, when their first album Silence Yourself was released and I penned a historically bad “review” where I completely bought into the band’s hype and stupidly defended them against some detractors I had seen in my Twitter feed.

It was easy to be fooled by Savages, who marketed themselves as an exciting new rock band, and back in 2013 they looked and sounded the part. Their music was very striking and confident while their lyrics were strident, almost like a call to arms. Some songs, like “Shut Up,” even came with mission statements. These were virtues I admired a couple years ago, but since then my sensibilities and tastes have changed and I’ve become more aware of the phoniness of Savages and their “mission.”

With a new album, Adore Love, on the horizon in 2016, Savages are once again positioning themselves as the self-appointed saviors of rock. One of their new songs is called “The Answer,” fitting the band’s perception of themselves as the solution to all of music’s problems, while the video shows them melting people’s faces in an underground punk show like hardcore rockers. The album’s cover is literally a closed fist in the air, further signalling that Savages are a Revolutionary Band. The video for “Adore,” which the music press breathlessly labeled “stunning,” features singer Jehnny Beth STARING into the CAMERA INTENSELY, as if waiting for viewers through the screen to congratulate her on her bravery and fearlessness. It’s a video that reeks of effort and desperation as the band painfully tries to will their own self-described importance into existence.

Beth’s performance in the “Adore” video serves as a useful proxy for my experience watching the video and listening to the song. I stared blankly at my screen for five minutes, waiting for something to happen that never did. The song goes nowhere and ends with Beth unconvincingly shouting “I ADORE LIFE,” a trite lyric that is delivered like it’s the most radical thought anyone has ever had. This “adore life” message that seems to be the primary theme of their album rings particularly hollow given that Savages are possibly the least fun band to ever exist and make Radiohead look like Andrew W.K.

While I initially liked Silence Yourself, it quickly left my rotation in 2013 as something about the band left me cold. I didn’t figure out why that happened until I discovered a band called Nervous Trend from Australia. They had just released their first demo tape, which I saw linked on Twitter, and when I listened to it I was blown away. This band was drawing from many of the same influences as Savages, but made something that sounded much more original and exciting, without any of the manifestos and other media branding nonsense that had made Savages a small phenomenon.

I don’t think Nervous Trend and Savages are in competition with each other, and I can easily see people liking both of them. But for me, the Nervous Trend demo (keep that in mind, it’s a demo) exposed a lot of the flaws in Savages that I hadn’t considered before, and it helped explain why Silence Yourself had held up so poorly. Beneath all the imagery and attitude, the actual music Savages made wasn’t as inspiring as their portrayal of themselves indicated it was. Nervous Trend showed what a band drawing from similar influences could sound like, and how to have socially-conscious lyrics without being pretentious about it.

Part of my bitterness here is that Savages are a relatively big band, while Nervous Trend remain obscure — they just released an EP last year that I didn’t even hear about until yesterday, because the band doesn’t have a Twitter or Facebook account and has zero traction in the music press. It illustrates to me how Savages are a sanitized version of much better music, but have built themselves into an “important band” through branding, non-musical elements, and a music press that eagerly bought into their self-mythology because the band provides easy talking points.

Savages end up being a particularly brutal combination: a band that believes deeply in their own importance and ability, but makes music that is regressive and uninteresting. There are tons of bands, from the 80s through today, that have worked in a similar musical space and are much better, but aren’t as known because they lacked the flashiness and eye-catching press releases of Savages. It also makes it more insulting when Savages are perceived as fresh and exciting, when their music is mostly an imitation of bands like Bush Tetras.

Savages have ended up being a useful band for me personally, as the original post I made about them was a turning point where I realized I was too frequently liking music and thinking it was important because I was told to by others. It also made me far more skeptical of any band being trumpeted as exciting for reasons that don’t have much to do with their songs. The music decides whether a band is important or not, and in that regard Savages fall woefully short.