Soundtracking the emergency: Is there space for climate change in dance music?
Although at times they’ve been bemoaned as a lost art (or to The KLF’s Bill Drummond, a sidelined form of ‘publicity stunt’) the musical manifesto might be making something of a comeback. Among the most noteworthy in recent times is that of The Knife, with their all-encompassing document/mission statement to accompany ‘Shaking The Habitual’, which zoomed in on the “DNA” of dancefloor energies and pondered whether that same energy could be distilled in the fight against Monsanto, fracking and frenzied capitalism. Such statement-making will often be prone to falling flat, but that’s bound to be part of their charm: WU LYF’s manifesto a few years ago reached toward poetic profundity but ultimately worked aesthetically and coined their “heavy pop” sound. London post-punk four-piece Savages are among the latest artists to present such manifesto pieces on their website. All no more than a paragraph in length, at the end of ‘Savages Manifesto #2’ is the simplest of instructions on how to take in ‘Silence Yourself’: “This album is to be played loud in the foreground”.
While these manifestos aren’t interested in reaching for the epoch-shifting aims aspired to by The Knife, what they reveal is Savages’ sincerest of beliefs that their music can provide more than just sensory pleasure, and more than just background silence-filler. Savages demand more than just your full attention, they want you to “reconnect your PHYSICAL and EMOTIONAL self”; they want to stir up the innards of the individual and re-awaken them from the prevalence of conformity, from the modern myth that “an honest life is advertised as a life of normality and dull conceit”. These wishes for bodily awakening come out most clearly on the track Hit Me. As much an exorcism as it is a song, it teeters between masochistic desirousness and abuse in direct and confrontational terms – while simultaneously seeming to call out for that metaphorical slap to the face to cause that all-important jolt away from the status quo.
The band’s strong statements solidify the feeling that we’re in the midst of a troubled mindset that – as the Dreijer siblings say – are in need of being shaken up. But it could be easy to sense something of a breakdown between these very 21st century ambitions and the band’s unashamedly post-punk image and pallette. It was something I couldn’t quite look beyond when seeing them on Jools Holland late last year: those emphatic Ari Up yelps on Husbands and their pitch-black late-seventies demeanour initially prevented me from taking them in as much more than a throwback. While the Yeah Yeah Yeahs’ recent riling against cameraphones at gigs seemed mostly rooted in a kind of “just stop it, it’s annoying” attitude, it might have been easy to sense some levels of nostalgia in Savages’ own recent plea to fans: “Let’s make each evening special, silence your phones”. Read one way, this could feel like a deliberate rejection of the modern: of a wish to hark back to a day when gigs were self-contained affairs and didn’t end up readily available to the world on YouTube several hours after the event. It would also be folly to try and deny that much of ‘Silence Yourself’‘s sonics involve a backward glance: Siouxsie Sioux is an inescapable reference point, while Waiting For A Sign’s environing, spacious bass work is undoubtedly cut from the same cloth as Joy Division-era Peter Hook.
“Being cynical about bands with big ideas is as easily done as it is said, but when the vibrations of those declarative mission statements can be sensed in the sound itself, the overly-dismissive are in danger of missing out.”
But while one eye is firmly squinting to the past, there’s just very little that feels dusty or stale about ‘Silence Yourself’. It’s not only a case of singer Jehnny Beth being clearly foregrounded, but you can almost feel the specks of saliva flicking toward you as she tears through I Am Here: a mantra-like call for empowerment over a grunge-y stop-start groove. Those manifesto statements are continually ever-present: these volatile, vehement songs consistently focus on the corporeal, citing the “marks on your thighs/wrinkles under your eyes”, while No Face bemoans the frustration of looking inside of someone and only finding vacancy and expressionlessness looking back. If the backing behind Beth wasn’t delivered with comparable conviction the stated mission would rapidly be bound to fail. Fortunately, every low-slung bass line and every drum crash is delivered with three-dimensional clarity; Gemma Thompson’s caterwauling, expressive guitar work is genuinely thrilling and thrillingly genuine, and praise must go to producers Johnny Hostile and ex-The xx and HTDW collaborator Rodaidh McDonald.
Savages are bold and widescreen in their thinking, and ‘Silence Yourself’ is built to withstand the weight of their aims. Being cynical about bands with big ideas is as easily done as it is said, but when the vibrations of those declarative mission statements can be sensed in the sound itself, the overly-dismissive are in danger of missing out. This debut is one of the most blistering rock records released since the reincarnation of middle-aged post-punkers Swans with 2012’s ‘The Seer’; ‘Silence Yourself’s’ tireless energy and bare-faced conviction is going to take some beating this year.