It’s been twenty years now since the World Wide Web went live and introduced us to a veritable cyber smorgasbord: YouTube cat videos and Facebook statuses and tweets. With so many options for entertainment, the logical response seems to be to do a little bit of everything: to click through the five (or 10, or 20) tabs on our browsers, tend to our phones’ incessant buzzing like a helicopter parent, and blast an album in the background to add some variety to the white noise. And you know what? That’s not neccesarily a bad thing. But if you want to give Savages’ debut LP a spin while you go off on your merry, multitasking way, you might want to explore other options.
At least, that’s what the band insists upon. Anyone who’s attended one of their infamously rowdy gigs is probably well aware of this—the London ladies often put up signs at their shows asking the audience to lay off the Instagram for a few hours. “Our goal is to discover better ways of living and experiencing music,” they instruct. “We believe that the use of phones to film and take pictures during a gig prevents all of us from totally immersing ourselves. Let’s make this evening special. Silence your phones.” And the same rules apply to Silence Yourself. Take this excerpt of the cover text, an elegy for our lost attention spans: “We live in an age of many stimulations/If you are focused, you are harder to reach/If you are distracted, you are available.” Or the liner notes, which specifically mandate that the album be played loud in the foreground. Such commands might seem preachy, but it all comes down to a simple, Faustian trade-off: Give Savages your attention, and they’ll give you their souls.
And what tormented souls they are. Rage, lust, sorrow, fear—the entire cathartic spectrum comes out in full force on Silence Yourself, and with tremendous volume. Not that you’d know it from the start, since the album opens with false calm: an excerpt from John Cassavetes’ 1977 film, Opening Night. But then “Shut Up” kicks in with a perfect post-punk storm of hissing cymbals, wiry, Gang of Four-reminiscent bass, and above it all, singer Jehnny Beth’s distinct howl. There’s no doubt that Savages’ instrumental playbook derives plenty of inspiration from the British post-punk canon—Siouxsie And The Banshees and the Pop Group come to mind—but cuts like “City’s Full” and “She Will” sound decidedly modern, crackling with gristle and gloss.
While frontwoman Jehnny Beth’s theatrics take up most of the listener’s attention, it’s the rhythmic duo of drummer Fay Milton and bassist Ayse Hassan that keeps the band on track. The chasmic spaces created through their percussion enable tension to build exponentially, like on the now year-old classic “Husbands,” which oscillates between furtive verse and frothing chorus under the direction of Beth’s feverish chants. Elsewhere, they create lazier grooves: “Strife” swoops and sweeps like Blüe Oyster Cult, while “Waiting For A Sign” lumbers along with a menacing scowl.
Such musical fortitude would fall flat were it not for Beth’s bold lyricism. As you can tell from the song titles—“Shut Up,” “I Am Here,” “Hit Me”—she’s not afraid to stand up to her detractors, and indeed, many of the songs on Silence Yourself center around reclamation of agency: sexual, idealistic, corporal, you name it. “She Will” just might be the most sinister sex-positivity anthem in existence, describing a woman dead-set on rebelling against the paradigms assigned to her by her gender, who will “get hooked on loving hard/ forcing the slut out,” whether you like it or not. Haunting closer “Marshal Dear,” from whose chorus the album’s title is derived, speaks to greater political unrest: “There are suicides in every dreams,” Beth coos, later remarking, “Crowds grow crazy and fire/Oh Marshal Dear/Can’t you see we’re losing?” The furious squawk of a clarinet rises above the calm, as if to echo the dissent.
Think back, if you will, to those dark, dark days, before Al Gore invented the series of tubes that we would subsequently refer to as the Internet, as our communicative framework, as our lives. Considering how the Apple empire holds more cultural sway nowadays than many small nations, such an era can be hard to imagine, but there was once a time when we weren’t so damn distracted. Once upon a time, not too long ago, we could put on a record, or a cassette, or a CD—heck, even a playlist—and lose ourselves in the music, and comfortably tell ourselves, “This is enough.” Savages is a band determined to deliver that type of satiation, even if it means dragging us kicking and screaming away from our cocoon of connectivity. Sometimes, silencing ourselves—even for just 11 tracks and 39 minutes—is just what we need to be free.