Wednesday night, my second covering this year's CMJ Music Marathon, was utterly dominated by London post-punk band Savages. That they are capable of dominance is a surprise to no one. They were deemed the uncontested victor of last year's festival after a string of brutal, blissful shows, all of which I happened to miss. But the search for novelty, newness, nextness rules CMJ, in a way that doesn't even apply to SXSW anymore. With their world-eating size, the Texas festival has started to feel more centered around surprise Prince shows, or whatever. CMJ, without that kind of magnetic pull, is still all about the tiny unknowns, the shiniest new toys. So, when Savages were announced as a bold face name on this year's schedule, there was a palpable sense of underwhelm. "Really? Again?"
This attitude, as it turns out, is very stupid. I will not see a better set this week than the one Savages unleashed last night.
Before they played, there was grizzled gent Duke Garwood, a journeyman London instrumentalist who had the sort of pervy shaman vibe carried by a Nick Cave or Alan Moore. Playing as a duo with close Savages associate Johnny Hostile, they looked like The Kills would have if that dude didn't know any girls and just started a band with his uncle. It was decent, if sort of stillborn in energy. At one point Garwood produced a comically tiny saxophone thing that looked like Gandalf's ganj pipe. It only really got compelling when Savages singer Jehnny Beth joined them for a smoky closing song. But even then there was no real hint of what would follow.
Now, I get that writers—especially those who caught Savages' 2012 sets—could be a little bit blasé about double dipping for this year's coverage. But isn't that sort of crazy? Doesn't it stand to reason that a band is going to be much more accomplished after a solid two years of touring than they were in their first nervous NYC moments? This is compounded because we are still talking about a very young band, just starting their career. Their debut record, Silence Yourself, came out this May! They are the same age as any number of young bands we're treating as more exciting new commodities this week, but they are untold magnitudes better as performers. I enjoyed Joanna Gruesome quite a bit Tuesday night, but there's no comparison as to who is the more powerful live act right now. It's different universes! It's possible when listening to Savages' songs on record, or especially reading their myriad online manifestoes, to write them off as actually tame or pretentious post-punk acolytes. As Siouxsie without the novelty, to be basic. Live though? Holy fuck.
No duh they "won" CMJ last year, if we're being honest they won this one too. They might be "winning" rock music. Period.
Part of the advance grumbling around Savages repeat appearance has to do with its location at Terminal 5, easily the most reviled big venue in New York City since it opened. But I've never seen a band or performer so thoroughly own the space as Savages did last night. The sound, all booming drums (Fay Milton just beat the shit out of that drum kit without remorse) and bracing metallic guitar tones, rang out freaking huge inside that weird bunker space, which sounded pretty immaculate, actually. It may be be the perfect sort of music to hear in Terminal 5, though few bands who make it have the charisma to get to that size room in the first place. The whole scene called into question the band's frequent rap as a mere "post-punk revival." Sure, they are working in that established style but, as great as it was, how often did even the late 70s stuff raise up to the scale of arena rock? If you are doing it better than the people you are supposedly ripping off, you're off the hook, right? Their grand, nuanced cover of Suicide's "Dream Baby Dream" was no pale imitation.
Singer Jehnny Beth, in perpetual ecstatic fury, took over that room effortlessly, like it was the Cake Shop basement. She stalked the stage before plunging straight into the audience, singing while standing on hands, shoulders, heads. She walked out into the middle of that space aloft like a tiny, feminine Iggy Pop! I've never seen anything quite like it, actually. Go ahead, be bored with Savages if you like. They aren't going away.
After that, anything was bound to be sort of an emotional letdown, so best to settle for a slow, strange unwind. Montreal's proggy psych-rock collective Yamantaka//Sonic Titan, who played at around 1 AM at the Panache Booking showcase at Williamsburg's Knitting Factory, were a perfectly dreamlike postscript. A six-member band, all made up in ghost-white kabuki face, Y//ST are actually less foreboding than their get-up would lead you to believe. Ethereal harmonies floated over chunky metal riffs that veered more towards classic Sabbath records than whatever black metal grinding is currently in favor. They were approachable, though. Especially so for a band working with such obviously complicated structures. It was a light shoe-gaze drizzle in the moments it wasn't thundering.
"Theatrical" seems to be the descriptor sticking to the band right now, for obvious reasons, but their presentation goes beyond the self-conscious drama of kimonos, facepaint, and odd cardboard stage props. Like the Savages show, stark simple stage lighting was crucial to casting the spell. A white light shone on singer Ruby Kato Attwood's white kimono, then on her red-streaked white face, casting whichever had just been lit suddenly black in contrast. The effect was supernatural! Unlike Savages, this band plays a lot this week, so catch them if you can.
It should be said that so far, for a music festival supposedly in decline, one with legal and financial trouble putting the whole endeavor into long-term question, there's a ton of really amazing music going on in this city right now.
Tomorrow: Even more of it!
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