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SPIN Essentials

Savages, ‘Silence Yourself’ (Pop Noire/Matador)

Jehnny Beth and Fay Milton of Savages / Photo by Earl Mcgehee/Getty
SPIN Rating: 8 of 10
Release Date: May 07, 2013
Label: Pop Noire/Matador

Savages dare you to judge this, the London quartet’s debut full-length, by its cover — its monochromatic severity, its bleak simplicity, its bold manifesto plastered down the left side in a font best deciphered on the 12-inch version. It’s a cover that looks more than a few decades old, one that might shrivel to the touch of anything other than vinyl. But we’re clearly dealing with 21st-century women here: business-savvy (lead singer Jehnny Beth runs her own Pop Noire record label), effortlessly seductive, sinfully shrewd, bravely blunt. They’ve already earned acclaim with fiercely focused live performances; they’ve even formally debuted with a live EP, I Am Here, just to prove how naturally badass they are.

And so, on Silence Yourself, we get a 38-minute, estrogen-powered post-punk barrage, one that starts with a woozily creepy excerpt from the 1977 John Cassavetes film Opening Night, and then proceeds to suck the listener into a cold, black void (“The world’s a dead, sorry hole,” after all, as Beth puts it). The album is stunningly crafted; their influences (Joy Division’s mystic menace, Siouxsie Sioux’s gothic howls) are proudly worn on blackened sleeves, but rather than dance around such matters, they dance with them, a philosophy made clear on their website via a document entitled Savages Manifesto #2:

“SAVAGES is not trying to give you something you didn’t have already, it is calling within yourself something you buried ages ago, it is an attempt to reveal and reconnect your PHYSICAL and EMOTIONAL self and give you the urge to experience your life differently, your girlfriends, your husbands, your jobs, your erotic life and the place music occupies in your life….”

As their band name implies, Savages are imploring us to get in touch not so much with our brains as with our viscera; the quartet itself feels like one living entity, negotiating the interplay of its various parts. Physically, drummer Fay Milton and bassist Ayse Hassan thump manically yet steadily, like a heart that’s just been defibrillated back to life; the emotions are supplied by guitarist Gemma Thompson’s wailing guitar and Beth’s feverish cries, both of them alternately overtaken by utter pain yet hell-bent on inflecting it.

Throughout Silence Yourself, Beth plays the existentialist, the soothsayer, the feminist, the instigator, and, by album’s end, the Grim Reaper. With every role change, the band responds accordingly — or maybe it’s vice versa. Milton and Hassan propel songs like lead single “Husbands” and opening track “Shut Up” from a steady staccato pulse to an ever-increasing throb, as eerie drones rise from underneath like a ghost furtively floating up from the grave. On “I Am Here,” the bass stalks Beth patiently before she pummels back, repeatedly shouting the song’s title; on “City’s Full,” she shares a tenderness for imperfections (stretch marks, wrinkles and all), but tension rises as Milton and Hassan defy that sentiment with a perfect motorik beat. And guitarist Thompson is a constant manipulator, transforming a song like “No Face” from eerie to entrancing in the blink of a chord change; her carefully controlled feedback squeals and shivers, then crystal-clear notes cut through the gloom like crushed glass sparkling in pavement.

The album’s midsection takes a detour through psych- and metal-tinged muddiness — the screeching guitar and distant cries of “Waiting for a Sign” could give Nick Cave the heebie-jeebies, while instrumental “Dead Nature” sounds like a death march up the stairs of a clock tower. The beat picks up again with “She Will” and a stinging song about abuse, “Hit Me,” both of which resonate like Karen O high on Joy Division. The album closes with trained jazz pianist Beth adding soft ivory touches before a fluttering sax wafts in, leading us to the light, portending death and requesting silence.

Which all circles back to the poetic statement printed directly onto the album cover: “The world used to be silent / Now it has too many voices”; “If the world would shut up / Even for a while / 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.” It’s an apocalyptic viewpoint, but an optimistic one, too. The world didn’t end in 2012, but the Mayans could still be right: Maybe this is the age of the divine feminine. Who better than four badass women to soundtrack its dawn — or at least the darkness before it?