British guitar music in 2012/13 was bleak. Nearly all the worthwhile heroes of the mid-00s boom had gone through diminishing returns or intentionally taken themselves back from the spotlight. The press were still fixated on post-Oasis Gallagher brothers projects like either man was making notable music. And the new class were mostly not up to the task of hype-filled magazine splashes at all.
The Vaccines sinking hard into the sophomore slump? The Lidl-brand La’s schtick of Jake Bugg? Swim Deep, anyone? Jesus wept, NME gave their Best Song of 2012 award to fucking Palma Violets! Just reheated, moulding leftovers as far as the eye could see. It was rough. So, the arrival of Savages, which admittedly would’ve still been a notable occurrence in a healthier landscape, was like an emergency shot of the strongest adrenaline a doctor is legally allowed to inject.
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Savages took themselves deadly seriously. They adhered to a strict uniform image: monochromatic clothing, androgynous looks, black-and-white photography. They wrote honest-to-God manifestos and slapped them everywhere, including on the front cover of their debut at a time where digital was becoming the dominant way for many to experience music (and therefore couldn’t easily read it). They held interviews with the press that could be seen as contentious or distrusting, which would naturally be seized upon.
They were highly well-read, philosophical, cited Genesis P.Orridge and John Cassavetes as key influences; one of the latter’s films, 1977’s Opening Night about an ageing actress struggling to reconcile with mortality, provides the sample which kicks off their first album. They made headlines for requesting audiences keep their phones away during the live shows, at the point where phone usage at gigs was becoming common-place but before everyone gave up trying to fight that battle.
Unsurprisingly, this also garnered the London-based quartet a small but vocal backlash. British rock and indie around this time being almost proudly anti-intellectual, not to mention their status as a band comprised of four women (though they tried their best to avoid that inevitable designation and discourse), and the multitude of obvious influences in their post-punk sound. Siouxsie and the Banshees, Swans, Joy Division, Public Image Ltd., the gothic end of things like The Birthday Party and Bauhaus… To some degree, Savages were about seven years too early to the party. Today, you can’t move five feet without being crushed between deadly-serious British post-punk acts who are proudly influenced by the avant-garde and meticulous about their public-facing image.
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And yet, so far, almost none of them have come close to crafting a body of music as phenomenally vital as Savages’ Silence Yourself, the afore-referenced debut album which turns ten on 6th May.
The thing that Savages cannily understood more important than anything else, as all great bands do, is that nothing about your image or your manifestos or your self-belief means a damn if the music can’t back it up. Silence Yourself backed up the mountain of hype that had accrued by May 2013. Even a decade on, this thing hits me squarely in the gut every single time that Ayse Hassan’s bass cuts off the Opening Night sample and commands my attention for the next 38 minutes. The manifesto on that front cover is not superfluous. At a time when so many artists, even the ones who talked a game about wanting to conquer the world, were pumping out anodyne music for Radio 1 playlists in the background of distracted available listeners, Savages made music that demanded those listeners silenced themselves and really hear.
Part of that can be attributed to the production. The band recorded live from the floor in a North London studio, intending to capture the volcanic ferocity of their acclaimed live shows, with singer Jehnny Beth’s long-time creative partner Johnny Hostile behind the boards (alongside The xx mixer Rodiadh McDonald). The results are stark, full-force, yet also make outstanding usage of space.
When the record lets up in intensity for even a brief moment, the breaks from Gemma Thompson’s squealing noise-rock guitar in ‘Waiting for a Sign’ or the ambient interlude ‘Dead Nature,’ you can feel the cavernous silence of the room. Conversely, the charging climax of ‘I Am Here’ and speed-freak bugout of ‘Hit Me’ convey the thrilling anxiety of being surrounded on all sides by this swirling maelstrom of chaos preparing to rain down on your head, constricting your airflow. ‘Husbands’’ paranoia is so effectively communicated by this attention-grabbing production.
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I am fully willing to admit that Silence Yourself often puts me at unease, which is a funny sensation on-paper for what’s largely – not completely, but largely – a sex album. But not in the way that most other post-punk-influenced bands from the mid-to-late-00s were fixated more on the thing between their legs than the state of the world around them. Those bands made sex sound sleazy, cheeky, fun, sometimes even innocent in the more twee examples of that boom. Savages’ depiction, by contrast, is carnal, aggressive, animalistic, and unashamed of its own desires. That’s reflective of their chosen name – “the idea that savagery lives in everyone; you choose to reveal it or not, use it or not”, Jehnny explained in an interview – and their self-admitted mission statement. (“It’s music to break shit and fuck on the floor to!” Gemma stated in a Pitchfork cover story.)
But rather than feeling reductive – the kind of reveal that takes the mystique away from a band, like when you realise all alt-J songs are clumsy sex jams – it feels righteously defiant. Maybe a little progressive, even today. Hell, you certainly don’t see many bands writing a song like ‘Hit Me,’ an ode to consensual hardcore BDSM inspired by and dedicated to famous porn star Belladonna. Jehnny’s line on ‘Strife’ about “they wonder how come / how come I’ve been doing things with you / I would never tell my mom” manages to sound both vulnerably sincere and menacingly filthy in a way that’s way more convincing than the dozens of Brit indie bands who made ‘I have SO MUCH SEX’ their whole identity.
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Ayse’s rooted basslines rumble throughout the low-end with unsatiated desire, and Fay Milton’s drums pummel their way forward with a determined sometimes motoric drive. The closest thing to a love song on here, ‘Waiting for a Sign’, writhes frustratedly and makes the prospect of commitment sound like a death march to be rejected; in Jehnny’s lyrics, in Gemma’s feedback-drenched guitar screams, in how Fay slams into the snare on the 4-beat of every 8-bar section she otherwise gently caresses.
This degree of unified interplay is where Savages’ cohesion as a unit most pays off. All bar Fay had known each other to some degree before forming the band and they refused to record even a single demo for the first nine months of their existence, instead honing their songs and sound through live shows. As such, the quartet feel like a proper collective on equal footing and shared vision, each getting their time to take charge without ego.
Ayse’s bass oftentimes functions as the lead instrument, but really shines when dictating the drama on ‘Shut Up’ and the constant ringing alt-strums of ‘Husbands.’ Fay’s drums have a militaristic snap on ‘Strife’ but she also sets the smoky jazz club tone of closer ‘Marshal Dear.’ Gemma is on-record as having to rethink how she played guitar after forming Savages, going from avant-noise to more straightforward songwriting, and you can hear that tension in the bleachers-reaching riff and serrated atonal chorus chords of ‘She Will.’ Jehnny is a formidable vocal presence throughout, but she’s especially evocative on tracks like ‘I Am Here’ and ‘No Face’ where she hits upon a central mantra and repeats it over and over with increasing defiance or fear; fully embodying these protagonists with unique deliveries partially influenced by her natural French accent.
For as much as certain critics or listeners at the time wanted to level charges at the band of unoriginality or lack of depth, Silence Yourself really doesn’t feel like it’s aged a day. It was one of the first records I downloaded to take with me to university and it still thrills and excites me as much now, if not more so, than it did ten years ago. Even in a landscape of bands like Porridge Radio and black midi who similarly aspire to command attentions and be gateways to more serious intellectual guitar music, Savages have an It factor none of them can match. I listen to ‘Husbands’ now, a full decade on from release, and I still want to immediately throw myself into the middle of a pit and just let my instinctual unconscious take over. The Valkyrie cries that close out ‘I Am Here’ have yet to lose their potency. Not a day goes by that I don’t regret not getting tickets to their tour in 2016.
Perhaps Silence Yourself also continues to burn bright because the band that made it burnt out extraordinarily quickly. Savages were certainly busy for the five years they were active – touring relentlessly, Silence being nominated for the Mercury Prize, crafting an experimental sonic poem with Japanese rock band Bo Ningen where both acts played simultaneously on opposite stages, and releasing the also-Mercury-nominated sophomore Adore Life – but the break they went on at the end of 2016 shows no sign of ending.
It seems to be a fully amicable hiatus, at least, and it arguably still fits the spirit of the manifesto adorning Silence’s cover art. Rather than keep going long past the well running dry, losing that vital spark and turning into exactly the kind of mindless stimulation they railed against, here was a band who got in, said what they needed to say, and got out, leaving us with two modern classics to really and truly listen to. To “hear the distant rhythm of an angry young tune and recompose ourselves”.
Savages were the voice British guitar music needed at the time. In some ways, they still are. Silence yourself and listen.
Silence Yourself was released on 6th May 2013.