3.5 stars (out of 4)
Music obsessives could play spot the post-punk reference all day while listening to Savages’ first album, “Silence Yourself” (Matador/Pop Noire). But there is nothing particularly derivative or nostalgic about the U.K. quartet. It astutely filches some of the cool bits from early-‘80s bands like Gang of Four, Bauhaus, the Teardrop Explodes, and gives them a good thrashing – in the way a hip-hop DJ might isolate the break beat in an old funk record and fashion an entirely new world out of it.
Singer Jehnny Beth, guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayse Hassan and drummer Fay Milton plunder their influences and emerge with something vibrant, nasty and all their own. The production, by Rodaidh McDonald and Johnny Hostile (who formerly performed with Beth in a duo, John and Jehn), toggles between spacious and claustrophobic, expertly approximating the visceral ebb-and-surge of the band’s buzz-building live performances.
Thompson’s shape-shifting guitar flips texture and tone within the space of a few bars. She knows when to sit back and say nothing – silence yourself, indeed. And when she strikes, it’s never predictable and often violent. In “City’s Full,” she opens with shudders of feedback, drops off, returns with stuttering rhythm that grows progressively more distorted, spits out a clarion hard-rock riff, glides into some eerie ambient noise – and that’s all in the space of about 90 seconds. Like Gang of Four’s Andy Gill and the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ Nick Zinner, she already belongs in the conversation of great postmodern guitar heroes. Hassan’s bass can take over a song through sheer aggression, and Milton orchestrates rhythm to suit the mood swings, from dreamy to damning.
Beth’s dark, neo-operatic vibrato echoes goth warrior Siouxsie Sioux, but she also phrases with an eviscerating snarl. When she sings “It was a dangerous thing to do” on the opening “Shut Up,” it sounds like she’s biting the head off the word “thing.”
In league with art-punks from Joy Division to Frank Ocean, the music opens up a conversation across a spectrum of ideas. Savages blows open its debut not with a blast of guitar but with a snippet of dialogue from a 1977 John Cassavetes movie, “Opening Night,” in which an actress copes with aging by binging on alcohol. The songs brim with characters facing uncomfortable truths. They throw up masks and diversions, or simply run: “Your serious eyes, dehumanize”; “There are suicides in every dream”; “You have no face”; “Why do you treat yourself so bad?”
When Beth’s narrators do decide to confront what’s troubling them, the blood-letting begins. The assertiveness conveyed in “She Will” opens at a gallop and builds to a maelstrom, Beth pushing her voice higher and harder until it morphs into a nerve-shattering scream.
In the frantic “Hit Me,” she pays a steep price: “I took a beating tonight/It was the best I ever had.” “Husbands” builds unbearable momentum behind racing guitar, drums and bass. Beth turns everyday images – “My house, my bed, my husband” – into something terrifying. The song doesn’t so much end as fly off the edge.
Only a handful of moodier pieces – “Waiting for a Sign,” the instrumental “Dead Nature,” the nightmarish jazz-spiked nocturne “Marshal Dear” – break the break-neck momentum. The album could’ve easily done without the first two, and been even better for it. No matter. “Silence Yourself” is still a disquietingly brilliant debut.
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