Review: Savages brutal and brilliant in Pittsburgh debut


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It's hard to believe the band name Savages was available, but let me tell you the right group got it.

Savages doesn't dress up like natives or play double-kick drum metal. Rather, the savage part is in the eyes of frontwoman Jehnny Beth, the primal beats of drummer Fay Milton and bassist Ayse Hassan and the shards flying from Gemma Thompson's guitar.

The British post-punk band's debut, "Silence Yourself," is one of the most buzzed-about albums of the year -- praise that often sets you up for a live letdown. Not this time. Savages saw that album and raised it before a small-ish crowd at Mr. Smalls that would have been throwing each other around the room if it hadn't been a lot of the same people who were seeing Gang of Four and Siousxie and the Banshees in 1980.

Savages musters that same kind of savagery, with a slight singer who walked out -- in black, close-cropped hair, heavy mascara -- glaring at the crowd as if she were choosing her next victim. Part singer, part performance artist, she barely broke her menacing stare while she sang, howled and yelped her dark cabaret. Her one feminine touch was a pair of gold stiletto pumps on which she prowled slowly like a trained dancer, making quick spastic gestures to Milton's beats.

Savages took nine songs from its stark debut, going from pummeling rockers ("City's Full," "Shut Up," "She Will," "Hit Me") to stormy goth drones ("Waiting for a Sign," "Strife") often wielding repetition as a weapon.

"The world's a dead sorry hole, and I'm cold/and I'm cold/and I'm cold/and I'm stubborn," she raged on "Shut Up." That seemed about right, as Beth never smiled, said not a word between songs and looked at people like she was looking through them. (Her Savages kept their heads down and went about their business.) She made a connection, nonetheless, twice stepping off the stage and balancing, in those heels, on the barrier wall body to body with the first row.

A sign in the lobby stated "OUR GOAL IS TO DISCOVER BETTER WAYS OF LIVING AND EXPERIENCING MUSIC. WE BELIEVE THAT THE USE OF PHONES DURING A GIG PREVENTS ALL OF US FROM TOTALLY IMMERSING OURSELVES."

Immersive, hypnotic, haunting, beautiful, inspiring. It was all of those and it built to a final brutal noise-punk assault (my goodness, Fay Milton!) on one of four songs not on the album, this one with an unprintable title, that had Beth finishing on a positive note, pounding home the mantra "Don't let the [f-words] get you down!"

Savages ignored the long plea for an encore, but we all knew there was no way they were going to top that.

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Scott Mervis: smervis@post-gazette.com; 412-263-2576. First Published September 12, 2013 4:15 AM


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