Brooklyn’s SAVAK are a three piece who occasionally bring in other players to join the party. They play in the catchy and danceable end of indie rock and post-punk. The bass looms large, rhythmic and melodic, holding down the songs alongside drumming that struck me as Cheap Trick with a touch of Joy Division. The rhythm section provide an indestructible foundation for the guitars, which seem to be mixed largely one channel each, one right and one left. That works well because the guitar playing veers from the percussive rhythms of punk and power pop to more jangling and complex post-punk riffs. If they were layered on top of each other some of the detail would get muddy.
Altogether the band are something like a really good cup of coffee: you can take it in quickly and enjoy it, and you can take it in slowly with a lot of attention and get extra enjoyment out of all the complexity and subtlety. There are some harsh moments but above all there’s a strong pop sensibility, lots of warmth and sweetness.
If I had to pick just one element of SAVAK’s sound that stands out, I’d say it’s the hooks. There’s the post-punk and the complexity I mentioned, but the band’s greatest strength is how its songs come together in a combination of catchy choruses and guitar flourishes in the best power pop style. I was not thrilled when ‘Aujourd’hui’, the fifth song on the album, opened with clean and perhaps even acoustic guitars – I just don’t see the point of a guitar without distortion, personally; this is probably one of many character flaws of too much punk and metal at an impressionable age – and yet by half way through the song I was nodding my head, tapping my foot, and humming along, despite my own stupid musical prejudices.
The lyrics deserve a mention. I don’t always know exactly what the band are singing about, but they’re catchy and evocative – as in the refrain mentioned in the album’s title, “rotting teeth in the horse’s mouth, the rats have left”, in the album’s second song, ‘Listening’. It often reminded me of some of Jawbox and Fugazi, in that the lyrics are at once slightly vague and abstract but in a way that ends up sounding very expressive, and with a clear theme of social commentary. For example, one of the verses on ‘What is Compassion?’ begins “another city, reduced to rubble, assets sold off, are we surprised?”, with other verses mentioning debt and deregulation, over a tense guitar line. It’s the first song I ever remember hearing about deregulation and the role of finance in contemporary capitalism, and it still manages to be taut and catchy.
The song made me think of Kim Stanley Robinson’s novel New York 2140, about a society devastated by climate change and financialization (that’s a compliment, good art often reminds us other good art.) ‘Bayonet’ lyrically brought to mind the Bad Religion songs Brett Gurewitz wrote, with lines like “in the open market, even sellers will be sold” and “zealots on parade”.
While this is clearly a record expressing some anger and discontent over the state of the world, it’s also a good time, music to move to, expressing a warm sense of togetherness too. The first song, ‘Vis-a-Vis‘ recalls The (International) Noise Conspiracy, imploring someone else “dance with me” but making the joy in dancing together into something that can sustain political hope, adding later “reclaiming history, picking up the pieces of forgotten dreams.” Give SAVAK a listen. ‘Rotting Teeth in the Horse’s Mouth’ speaks to what you’re angry and exasperated about but helps you celebrate what you care about.