Having passed what might have been the band's guitarist at the top of the stairs, a thin girl with shock of black hair and “Free Pussy Riot” on her jumper, I reached the band room to be immediately bombarded with atmosphere. Heavy, haunting music reverberated around the filling venue, creating a tense excitement that was magnified by the late starting time of both the evenings acts. Since I couldn't afford a beer ($7.50 for Melbourne Bitter. Really?), all that was left to do was stew in the sonic suspense.
While the original support, and my initial reason for attending the gig, had pulled out last minute, Dead Forest Index provided a hypnotising set of sparse, ambient, guitar music. Dressed like a pair of Bond villains, the two-piece played with space and pulses of sound with some well-handled sandy vocals that occasionally resembled monk-like chanting. They are joined mid-set by a moustached man capable of getting some chilling sounds out of a cello, adding additional layers of prickle to their neat soundscapes.
It’s after 10 when the headliners emerge looking cool and decidedly dangerous. They then spend the next 80 minutes earning their Savages title over and over with frightening ease. Beginning with the stormy album highlight 'I Am Here', washes of feedback bore the quartet’s signature thumping drums and grooving bass. All four members are instantly captivating in their different tasks, each displaying a strong sense of individual character that is rarely so tangible without a great prior knowledge of the band. French-born front-woman Jehnny Beth, in a pixie cut, cigarette pants and sparkling heels, howls with a bottled control that can shift from sincere delicacy to spine-tingling ferocity at the crash of a symbol. Guitarist Jemma Thompson stalks the stage like a wild animal, wreaking all kinds of sonic havoc and evoking the ghost of Melbourne's own “crown prince of the crying Jag”, Rowland S. Howard. It's clear that Howard and The Birthday Party have had a keen influence on these British girls, with Ayse Hassan and Fay Milton's rhythm section continually locked into thumping tribal grooves.
The setlist leans heavily on 2013's hyped debut LP 'Silence Yourself', the band airing singles like 'Strife' and 'Husbands' alongside a gritty HTRK cover to warm reception. While the audience is consistently appreciative and obviously charmed by the band, it becomes apparent that as a collective they are still sounding the group out. This is not a crowd full of Savages fanatics (save for one girl up the front, bless her) - rather, like me, they are coming to see what all the fuss is about… and boy did we. Beth herself must have noted this when the singalong opportunities were missed by a crowd who doesn’t have a handle of the lyrics yet. The relationship between band and audience was strange, but positive and respectful and by the end of the gig it would be hard to say that anyone should be dissatisfied. Melbourne should have a couple of hundred more Savage fanatics next time. Closing out the show with non-album track ‘Fuckers’, Beth requested the audience lights up so that the band and crowd could see each other clearly. While the girls jammed quietly beneath her, Beth takes us through the inspiration for the final song in what becomes a remarkably touching moment. She appears close to tears before she imparts some final wisdom: “Don't let the fuckers get you down”. The band then storms home and departs the stage. No encore, no bells, just business.
They spent the next 80 minutes earning their Savages title over and over with frightening ease.
This is a band of immense power, like a tightly coiled spring. When watching them, it feels like anything is possible. They were responsible for one hell of a set, and I for one cannot wait to check them out again at Saturday's Laneway. If you're around, do yourselves a favour and check them out for yourselves. Highly recommended.