Words By Drew Litowitz, Photos by Ryan Kelly
Savages channel a very specific energy. Their sharp post-punk thumps with discordant aggression; a refreshing tribute to an unplaceable era when stumbling into a damp, dark club with a loud, arresting band performing onstage might actually stop you in your tracks. Watching Savages do just that, I’m immediately taken back to a scene in Anton Corbjin’s heartbreaking Ian Curtis biopic, Control, during which the members of a soon-to-form Joy Division stare awe-struck, as they witness an early Sex Pistols show. At the time, Bernard Sumner, Peter Hook, and Terry Mason are in talks of forming a band, and they look on at the vicious display with eyes as wide as they come. An overconfident Ian Curtis does the same, and immediately after the Pistols exit the stage, he steps in and offers up his services as the new group’s lead singer. History is made. A commanding experience compels one of the greatest bands in the history of rock and roll to form.
Watching Savages is like watching a band recreate that same scene over and over again. Their magnetism is at once nostalgic and revitalizing, recalling the energy and feel of bands like Joy Division, while injecting it with a bit of today’s identity crisis, too. It’s an homage that, though derivative, feels strikingly necessary. Savages are so captivatingly intense, so raw and aggressive, it feels as though they can’t possibly be of this place or time. As a culture, we’ve grown far too apathetic and lethargic for music like this to still exist. Savages captivate with a sort of homage to an era of arty aggression that feels distinctly out of time and place. And as redundant and/or convoluted as it sounds, this very notion is exactly why they are so captivating. They’re making a case for the present, by looking to the past with simultaneous reverence and disregard. They could exist in an art-house coffee shop in Manchester in the late 70’s, a grungy LA basement in the 80’s, or a small Washington, DC concert venue in 2013.
The band’s set Saturday night at the Rock and Roll Hotel was the sort of quick-hit, gut-punch you thought you could only find in, well, biopics about Ian Curtis and old records by The Fall. The band is so impeccably tight, you’d think their orchestrated discordance was some sort of sick joke. In some ways, it’s pure chaos, distilled down to a manageable level and paired with a bass line just catchy enough to ground it, or a hook just coherent enough to hum along to. It’s brooding, danceable rock and roll.
Dressed in all back, the band is loud, deeply dark, and energizing. Lead singer Jehnny Beth hardly blinks as she spews her snarled angst, eyes affixed to the crowd like cross-hairs, possessed by some force of energy. Delayed reverb clanks like shattered glass in a hollow hallway. Bassist Ayse Hassan commands the fret-board with nonchalance, while her deep bass lines support each hazy chord and echoed drum fill. It’s an experience not for the faint of heart, or ears for that matter, but one that’s not too intimidating either. It’s as gripping as it is startling. This is serious stuff.
When the undercutting palm-muted chords and bubbling bass lines of “Shut Up” start, everyone cheers, before the song’s many sounds rip through the small space. The song erupts into feedback and distortion, climaxes with a long-winded yelp from Beth, then drops like a power-outage. The crowd goes nuts. Somebody probably went home and formed a band.