Savages launch like a tomahawk, striking you hard between the eyes from the first minute. After a debut set supporting British Sea Power, the quartet wisely retreated to sharpen their sound to a deadly point, and have deployed it in short, devastating bursts upon unsuspecting small crowds. They’re fierce, androgynous, sexy and uncompromising, and onstage they form a close-knit unit.
The songs veer from insistent Section 25-esque tension to the Cure’s woebegone grandeur. At their core is a taut rhythm section, and Ayse Hassan’s belly-rumbling bass notes stretch out like a cat, embellished with shredded guitar flourishes. Fronting it all, French singer Jehnny Beth is like Ian Curtis in heels, all elbows and cheekbones and boy-hair. Having cut her teeth in arch, elegant duo John & Jehn, here she sheds her impish quirkiness and coyness to become the fully-fledged leader of the pack.
Her remarkable voice has enormous power but is kept firmly in check, only let loose at occasional, opportune moments to swoop, holler and attack. At one point she riffs on a Gang of Four lyric but this is something much slinkier. There’s no plastic sexuality or fey girliness; Savages’ approach is sensual but tough and utilitarian. Jehnny’s nonchalance gives way during Husbands, a stampy Killing Joke-esque sonic assault, as the title is whispered, gasped, shrieked to a shuddering crescendo. Savages' confidence is cool, unstudied and magnetic; it’s a perfect endorsement of the theory that you’ve either got it or you ain’t.
I really want to like Toy. They ply the sort of overwrought shoegaze that I have infinite time for, and they make a nervy, infectious noise that you can swivel to. Think the meanest thoughts you can; your hips will still move disobediently.
But something’s missing, and it’s massively conspicuous by its absence. Is it talent? No – try experience. Though they have played together before (as the Jing Jang Jong for the dubious Joe Lean), Toy are a new and wholly different incarnation, and it’s early days for them to be selling out venues like this. Their sound is compelling but there just aren’t any complete songs yet. ‘Bright White Shimmering Sun’ has a sexy, petulant hook but after the chorus, it’s unmemorable. Singer Tom’s voice needs to toughen up – it dissolves under an unedited miasma of guitar scree. At their strongest his vocals sound stroppy, but is that really what he’s going for?
It’s frustrating because I really want it to work. I first saw this band before Christmas in a small basement in Shepherds Bush, and my interest was piqued by all those squealing guitars, laid over She’s Lost Control bass references. It built to a raging climax and, staggering home, the overwhelming sense was one of ’MORE PLEASE, NOW’. They can obviously handle a headline crowd - psychologically, they’re ready for this. But watching them’s like chasing the dragon; subsequent adventures just don’t live up to the first hit, and you’re left feeling disappointed and increasingly resentful.
But as the set progresses, the hope returns. I know they can do it, and I really want them to. Every time you give up on them, they throw out a melodic phrase that buckles your knees… and then the chorus takes over, and you’re let down and bored again. “I never thought I’d lose my way over you” - that line, if expertly delivered, should hurt, should remind you of your last proper heartbreak, but the vocal needs something (anything), and they haven’t stripped all the miscellaneous shit off it, so it gets lost. Their finest moments emerge when they abandon the songs and just let a wave of densely layered psychedelia submerge them.
The rhythm, the suggestive bass, all that guitar and the staggering noise it adds up to – fuck it, the sheer amount of hair between them (they could supply weave for half of Hollywood) – it’s too much fun not to come to something, but as yet it’s a long way off. Let’s hope it happens before the hype wears off; premature success can be a destructive thing.
An abridged version of this review was also published on The Line of Best Fit.