Savages review – battling the patriarchy before breakfast

100 Club, London
Intense post-punk band Savages launch album No 2 with a morning workout

It’s 8am in the West End of London, and the pavement sweepers are nudging the rough sleepers from their rest. A line of Savages fans curls blearily round the block. Most, it seems, haven’t been up all night carousing, but have crawled out of bed in the dark to come and witness the official launch of the band’s second album, Adore Life. (You need to have purchased a copy to get in.)

Seize your days, the motivational title implies. It’s a very punk rock sentiment – if by punk rock we mean the more American DIY aesthetic that prizes self-mastery and clear thinking, rather than green hair and gobbing.

“Let’s do this,” declares singer Jehnny Beth (real name Camille Berthomier), before the band power up Shut Up, the first track on their 2013 debut, Silence Yourself. The band are lit by harsh white lighting: none of those flashing coloured gels, so redolent of rock’s default trippiness, for this monochromatic London quartet.

It is hard to know what to expect from any gig at this hour of the morning, let alone one by the famously intense Savages. Drummer Fay Milton manning a tea urn? A commemorative T-shirt on which the raised fist on the album’s cover crushes a croissant? Hair slicked back, Johnny Rotten stare at the ready, Jehnny Beth is clearly a morning person – perhaps a little friendlier than her usual forbidding self. Everyone here is “the coolest person in the office – employee of the month”, she quips.

She introduces the first of the morning’s new songs, Slowing Down the World, as “something a bit chilled” – something of an anomaly for Savages, whose ascetic, dissonant music has mostly operated at speed, or with jarring intensity.

Gemma Thompson (guitar) with Jehnny Beth on vocals.
Gemma Thompson (guitar) with Jehnny Beth on vocals. Photograph: Antonio Olmos/The Observer

A duet between Ayse Hassan’s half-speed bass prowl and guitarist Gemma Thompson’s resonant needling, SDTW is perhaps not the best track on Adore Life; the guitar sound strays near U2’s the Edge by accident, rather than design. But it’s proof that Savages have opened the door to different textures and moods with their second effort.

Jehnny Beth isn’t howling about the frenetic pace of everyday life, as the title suggests, but singing about love – another marked difference from Silence Yourself. Her vocal has developed a great deal since the first album. To her righteous Siouxsie Sioux squawk and art-school yelp, she adds a more thoughtful, expository tone that avoids most of the tired female vocal cliches: sexy, wounded, sexily wounded. Being French helps too, as all Berthomier’s lyrics are pronounced just that little bit differently, subtly subverting phonemes you thought you knew.

That’s about as much slack as Savages deign to cut us, given the hour. City’s Full, a serrated track from the first album, soon gives way to Sad Person, one of Adore Life’s confident highlights. Before recording, this latest album was workshopped and road tested by a series of gigs in the US, which has doubtlessly contributed to its marked upturn in tunefulness. Fortunately, there has been no corresponding loss of gnarliness.

Thompson’s eloquent guitar clangs and moans like a homeless ghost, then resolves into a melodic line, a little redolent of post-hardcore’s funky godfathers, Fugazi. The lyrics to Sad Person analyse love’s transactions – “I’m not gonna hurt you, I’m not gonna hurt myself, so what else?” wonders Jehnny Beth, the whites of her eyes flashing. Love is a disease, she declares, an addiction.

Gradually, an atmosphere reveals itself. This is not like a pre-work rave – allegedly Savages’ inspiration for this dawn show – but more like an all-ages, straight-edge punk gig where the bar is open, but only serving soft drinks. A small percolator works overtime. Everyone is sober and paying attention. Only a few dare to whip out a phone to capture the moment. Savages are one of those bands who actively discourage mobile phone use, a stance totally in keeping with the message of Silence Yourself: be present, stay focused. Also held over from the first album are Jehnny Beth’s fondness for a little a cappella introduction and her lofty impatience – both in fine form on another album highlight, I Need Something New. It begins with Jehnny Beth’s sneer cutting through the attentive silence, her menace taken up by the guitar, drums and bass.

Unlike those all-ages punk shows, though, the crowd remains a little inhibited this morning. When Jehnny Beth finally spots people dancing at the far side during Adore Life’s most storming song, The Answer, she urges them to the middle of the crowd, where there is a preponderance of male pattern baldness and too little movement. Savages are not a riot grrrl band, but it’s an old riot grrrl tenet: girls to the front. And if the patriarchy is not quite vanquished before breakfast, then at least we all leave energised.


Kitty Empire

The GuardianTramp

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