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Jehnny Beth, frontwoman of London-based post-punk group Savages, is a marionette. She moves from her shoulders, her arms swooping around her torso, and her weighted wrists rise in quick, sharp motions as though pulled by a string. Yet Beth isn’t controlled by anyone else.
She’s moved by sound, the physicality of each passing moment, and the need to unearth some “excitement from such an empty space,” as she half-sung on set-opener I Need Something New. Her performance at Sydney’s Metro Theatre was intense, poetic and just commanding enough to cut those puppet-strings which so often leave other performers dangling without a sense of their own gravity.
“WE BELIEVE THE USE OF PHONES TO FILM AND TAKE PICTURES DURING A GIG PREVENTS ALL OF US FROM TOTALLY IMMERSING OURSELVES. ONLY WITH FULL EXPERIENCE WILL THE WORDS WE SPEAK BE TRUE,” read one of Savages’ short, taped-up manifestos.
Dressed in black like her three bandmates, Beth delivered a cutting gaze that made one instantly reluctant to capture her performance on their phone, as though you knew she could call you out and embarrass you in front of everyone.
Savages don’t want to be represented to their audience through some external medium, they want fans’ instinctive first reactions to their muscular sound and visceral messages. They want total immersion and “FULL EXPERIENCE,” which can be an intimidating task for any crowd, and something all bands will forever struggle to achieve.
New loves, new sounds, new surroundings, the carnal desires which underpin sexuality and the necessities of movement and strength — Beth embodied all of these recurring lyrical themes as she stabbed at the crowd and kicked the air during the rolling City’s Full.
She shooed away a security guard disturbing a barrier-hugging audience member, before full power screaming to close out I Am Here and seeping into the crowd for what appeared to be a snog with a female fan. These were the moments in which the somewhat reserved Sydney crowd were momentarily immersed — when Beth harnessed the gravity of her own dramatic presence.
“You’re all very pretty,” she told us as the intensity waned with the slower Waiting For a Sign and a cover of Suicide’s no-wave classic, Dream Baby Dream, highlighting the band’s mellow side. Then the momentum shifted, as it did so easily throughout the set. She Will climaxed with Beth’s breathy screams, while guitarist Gemma Thompson broke a string as the group’s bassist, the talented Ayse Hassan, lead them into the hardcore-tinged Husbands.
Savages closed out their set with a taste of new material. The appropriately titled Fuckers, which Beth explained is about people who think their lives are more important than everyone else’s, is a marching number with obvious krautrock influences, putting drummer Fay Milton at the centre of the room’s focus.
“Don’t let the fuckers get you down”, Beth repeated, as the song rose, collapsed, and rose again for over ten minutes, before enveloping every ounce of the band’s energy into shrill screams and a mighty crescendo. No encore here, there was no need.
Savages are a spectacle with an instantly apparent magnetism. They’re tight, no fuss, efficient, and exact, but with a perfect amount of dissonance and discontent at the base of their sound. And that sound is what comes first.
The quartet can so easily hold an audience’s focus through Beth’s poetics and raw intensity, but it’s the relentless, emotive sound which made their 2013 full-length debut, Silence Yourself, so riveting, which now pushes them and their audiences ever closer to total immersion, and ever closer to a full experience.