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.

Savages – “Silence Yourself”

Savages

The world used to be silent. Now it has too many voices, and the noise is a constant distraction. They multiply, intensify; they will divert your attention to what’s convenient and forget to tell you about yourself. We live in an age of many stimulations. If you are focused, you are harder to reach.  If you are distracted, you are available. You are distracted; you are available. You want flattery. Always looking to where it’s at, you want to take part in everything and everything to be a part of you. Your head is spinning fast at the end of your spine until you have no face at all. And yet, if the world would shut up, even for awhile, perhaps we would start hearing the distant rhythm of an angry young tune, and recompose ourselves. Perhaps, having deconstructed everything, we should be thinking about putting everything back together. Silence yourself.

So goes the manifesto of Savages, a foursome of singer Jehnny Beth, guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayse Hassan, and drummer Fay Milton that wants to return the world to a simpler time. Everything the band does zeroes in on this back-to-basics, somewhat Luddite aesthetic: the album’s cover is a simple, black-and-white photo of the group and their songs are stark, noisy and rhythmic in a way that recalls many early post-punk bands like Joy Division, Siouxsie and the Banshees, or a less funky Bush Tetras. At shows, they urge audiences to turn off their cell phones and cameras so they can FEEL THE MUSIC.

If you haven’t figured it out yet, Savages are a band that take themselves very seriously, and everything they do is calculated to provoke a response. They have positioned themselves as the elixir for all of rock music’s problems, the band that will restore music to its former glory before Twitter and Facebook and blogs like this one ruined it forever. Silence Yourself is the sound of a band that is very eager — one could say desperate — to “matter,” and it demands your attention.

A lot of this reads like criticism, and in some ways it is. Their style catches the eye and created a lot of hype, which obviously led to a backlash that isn’t entirely undeserved — it’s not difficult to picture people being annoyed by Savages and the persona they’ve built in the media for the last year. But I don’t necessarily have a problem with a band taking music seriously, and think there’s even something admirable about a group that seeks to drive a message into the brains of their listeners. It’s part of why I like Riot Grrrl and a lot of other punk music, and it’s part of why I largely enjoy Silence Yourself despite some of its flaws and the way it sometimes begs cynical guys like me to mock it.

Ranty manifestos aside, Silence Yourself is impressive because of how fully realized it is as a debut album. Whether you agree with what Savages have to say about the world or not, they’re a band that has a clear point-of-view, which they communicate effectively through music that is muscular and confident. The songs also have an urgency that is largely missing from rock music today: “Husbands,” which was released as a single last year and appears in a slightly revised form on the album, reaches the album’s highest intensity levels with its rolling bass and Beth’s increasingly frantic vocal. “She Will” begins with an immediate guitar riff, then explodes into a dissonant, primal chorus, with Beth repeatedly shrieking the title.

The band’s sound is deeply indebted to the 80s, but their lyrics about current hot topics like women’s issues and modern technology help make them more than just a backwards-looking nostalgia act. Silence Yourself does have a couple of lulls, notably when the band inevitably attempts slower “mood” pieces like “Marshal Dear” and the instrumental “Dead Nature” that I think get away from their strengths, which are being loud and strident. Fortunately, there’s enough of those moments to make Silence Yourself one of the stronger releases of the year, and one that is worth listening to for people that are a bit bored by rock’s status quo. You can buy it from their website, http://savagesband.com.