Savages: Unleashed in the East

Londoners bring post-punk darkness to the Land of the Rising Sun

Jehnny Beth
(Image: © Emma McIntyre \/ Getty)

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As has now become traditional, the recent announcement of the nominations for the 2016 Mercury Music Prize was followed by the usual professionally offended blowhards pissing and moaning about rock music being discriminated against and disregarded, ignoring the fact that the UK’s best young guitar band were already right there on the shortlist. It’s almost as if Savages were invisible.

Perhaps the Londoners’ indifference to pandering to industry standards confuses those with locked-in expectations as to how a rock band should look, sound and carry themselves. While so many of their careerist peers appear more concerned about their clothing lines, bespoke tattoos and sponsorship deals than their art, the quartet have developed a distinctive, powerful voice of their own - one informed, but never overpowered by, early ‘80s post-punk – and crafted an accessible, singular sound with a fearless, experimental edge. It’s hard to imagine any other British band with Top 20 chart success releasing a 37 minute, single track, one-take album (Words To The Blind, their 2014 collaboration with Japanese psych-rockers Bo Ningen) and it’s this bold, restless spirit which has garnered Savages praise from the likes of Iggy Pop, Queens of the Stone Age and Henry Rollins and drawn maverick spirits such as Mike Patton and PJ Harvey to guest on singer Jehnny Beth’s acclaimed Beats1 show Start Making Sense.

“If you’ve had a difficult day, if you’ve had a difficult week, if you’ve had a difficult month… this song is for you. It’s called Fuckers.”

This is how Jehnny Beth signs off on Savages’ hour onstage in Osaka, 60 minutes of captivating, emotionally-charged, dark and dramatic music which leaves their Japanese audience roaring with approval. Beth is a transfixing presence throughout – whether inciting frenzy with a mid-set walk into/onto the audience Iggy Pop-style or holding the room silent and awed with her acapella vocals on beautiful gothic torch song Adore – but in a true band of equals, her star quality is matched by the intuitive instrumental brilliance of guitarist Gemma Thompson, bassist Ayse Hassan and drummer Fay Milton, who lock together in a manner which recalls Killing Joke or Fugazi at their most intense. In full flow, as on the ferocious City’s Full or the scalding T.I.W.Y.G., Savages suck out all the air from the room and simply pummel, a white noise assault from four figures in black, crouching and lunging as the music drives harder. But there’s spaciousness and subtlety here too, as on a masterful cover of Suicide’s Dream Baby Dream (from 1986’s Ghost Riders album), with Beth’s beatific vocals floating above Hassan’s spare, stark bass lines and Thompson’s carefully harnessed feedback drones. This is the kind of confidence and control that comes with trust built from months of solid touring, and while tonight – playing ahead of US indie types Deerhunter on a short co-headline run- is as stripped down a staging as one could imagine, the theatre is all in the playing and poise on display. There’ll be much larger crowds to face soon, with the Londoners set to appear in prominent second stage slots at the upcoming Reading and Leeds festivals, but right now you sense that Savages are operating at a level which will make each and every challenge ahead greeted with appetite. Chances are the Mercury Prize will elude them – you’ll get short odd against David Bowie triumphing even in death - but Savages are doing just fine walking on the margins, and tonight is another memorable step towards an intriguing future.

What kind of band plays a gig at 8am?

Paul Brannigan
Contributing Editor, Louder

A music writer since 1993, formerly Editor of Kerrang! and Planet Rock magazine (RIP), Paul Brannigan is a Contributing Editor to Louder. Having previously written books on Lemmy, Dave Grohl (the Sunday Times best-seller This Is A Call) and Metallica (Birth School Metallica Death, co-authored with Ian Winwood), his Eddie Van Halen biography (Eruption in the UK, Unchained in the US) emerged in 2021. He has written for Rolling Stone, Mojo and Q, hung out with Fugazi at Dischord House, flown on Ozzy Osbourne's private jet, played Angus Young's Gibson SG, and interviewed everyone from Aerosmith and Beastie Boys to Young Gods and ZZ Top. Born in the North of Ireland, Brannigan lives in North London and supports The Arsenal.