Bonfire Night, and the sky is ablaze with colour and lights. Meanwhile, in Brighton’s Concorde 2, all is black. Everyone is in black. The room is black. The stage, bar some minimal white lighting and the occasional strobe, is black. Savages, all four of them, are dressed in black. As setting the mood goes, it’s pretty definitive.
Actually setting the mood came earlier, with the signs from the band arrayed around the venue imploring attendees to ‘silence your phones’, as their use ‘prevents all of us from totally immersing ourselves.’ “They’re not much fun, are they?” mutters a woman to my left, grudgingly sheathing her iPhone in her bag. Well, no – no they’re not. Fun is absolutely what Savages aren’t.
That much should be clear from their intro tape alone, an air-raid drone of rising intensity that silences the room and has more than a few people backing away from the speakers warily – the equivalent of a viper’s hiss, a warning call. Seconds in to opener I Am Here and it’s obvious that it was justified, drummer Fay Milton’s salvo of beats vying with the death-rattled peals from Gemma Thompson’s guitar for impact and sheer abrasiveness – a two-pronged artillery that never lets up. Banish those fool notions of melody and tune: Savages are pure, blunt drive, an assault of reverbed feedback and anguished howls, held together by Ayse Hassan’s bass loops and sheer bastard vigour.
But these three are just shadows beside vocalist Jehnny Beth, both figuratively and literally – they cling to the edges, half-lit and silent, whilst Beth is anything but: she’s terrifyingly present, stalking the stage like a barely-captured animal and exuding the kind of coiled menace that the animal world can only dream of evolving. And sure, it might be practiced and affected but it doesn’t matter: when she pauses mid-line on the spoken-word I Need Something New to face down a guy with a cameraphone three rows back, his flash illuminating her apoplectic rage, the fire is fully convincing. For at least half a minute she stares him down from over the barrier, the only motion the LED light glancing off her face and the only sound the collective breath of the room before she backs away, eyes kept fiercely on him as someone somewhere in the room rounds off a nervous laugh and chokes it halfway lest she range her gaze upon them next. There are notably fewer flashes for the remainder of their set.
It’s Beth who commands our attention throughout, her voice veering from a frenzied yelp on City’s Full to an emotive swell on the standout Waiting For A Sign. When a moshpit forms for a particularly heavy section she admonishes the participants: “No, the dance is a twist,” she says, her voice crisp and clipped, her movements sinuous and hypnotic. For Shut Up she stands atop the monitors, surrounding herself in the sound, her body anticipating every stabbing chord and rhythmic shift. “Turn it up”, someone cries, masochistically. “Louder?”, she replies, an incredulous half-smile etched on her face as she shrugs towards the sound desk. “We can do that.”
This year’s Silence Yourself is a fine record but it does nothing to prepare us for the live show – the claustrophobia’s there, sure, the monochrome palette and the airless delivery, but without the volume it’s like viewing a painting through a pinhole: yeah, you can see it, but what’s the point? But with the volume – with the volume Savages are damn near untouchable, their set a masterclass of build and release, of texture and poise. There’s highpoints everywhere, from the gradual escalation of Suicide cover Dream Baby Dream to Husbands’ fevered mania and the drawn-out ferocity of closer Fuckers, but actually calling out individual songs is irrelevant: Savages’ strength lies not in their songs but in their delivery, in their sheer conviction at the power of their own sound. And whilst eventually they’re going to have to add a bit more substance to their material, right now the noise, colourless and caustic and flailing and thrilling, is all we need.