Falling in Love with a Terrifying, Ethereal, Surrealist Post-Rock Album
British-French post-punks Savages and Japanese experimental psych rockers Bo Ningen create one of the year’s most mind-expanding compositions
The cover art for Words to the Blind, out November 17 on Stolen/Pop Noire
If Words to the Blind, the new album-length collaboration between London-based post-punks Savages and London-via-Japan experimental psych-rockers Bo Ningen, sounds like the title to a new horror film or a section of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, it’s far less frightening and much more accessible than either, possibly in spite of its creators’ intentions. When he recently described the album, Bo Ningen singer Taigen Kawabe used words like “surrealism” and “Dada,” while Savages frontwoman Jehnny Beth likened the effort to “grindcore” and said “guitar music should be scary.” To be fair, Words to the Blind, the largely wordless work of what Beth called “sonic simultaneous poetry,” contains many passages that are intensely harrowing and heady in its 37 minutes, but these moments are equally matched by those that are beautiful, cathartic, or ethereal. And, thanks to producer Johnny Hostile’s pristine stereo mix of the album’s unique recording situation (a live performance in a U-shaped theater with Bo Ningen on the left, Savages on the right, and the audience in the center), these moments can often be experienced simultaneously.
Reportedly, the album was inspired by the multilingual poetry readings the Dadaists held in Switzerland’s Cabaret Voltaire, and it’s an appropriately challenging work that requires active listening. Within my own frame of reference, which previously included Savages’ earlier releases but unfortunately not the music of Bo Ningen and certainly not the mind-expanding goings-on at a Swiss nightclub nearly a century ago, Words to the Blind comes closest to two albums that I heretofore believed were beyond the realm of comparison: John Coltrane’s A Love Supreme and Patti Smith’s The Coral Sea, a live collaboration with My Bloody Valentine’s Kevin Shields. Both albums are similar only in that they combine poetry and music to create compositions that seem to incorporate tremendous forethought with moments of spontaneous inspiration. They’re also both, in my mind, masterpieces of spiritual complexity and emotional maturity that stay with the listener long past the final track.
Only the passing of many years will tell if Words to the Blind has a comparable impact, but I will say I found the album both comforting and exhilarating. Anyone who’s heard Savages’ incredible Silence Yourself should know they’re capable of conveying complex ideas in awe-inspiring ways, and Words rises to the occasion, opening with five-plus minutes of non-musical whispering in French and Japanese that morphs into transcendent, eerie instrumental experimentation. From there the stage is set for the rest of the single, album-spanning track.
That it’s even possible that a new album contains the kind of music from which you might get something, anything, that might be of real, lasting value—inspiration, exhilaration, a new outlook on human relationships, and language’s infinitely complex effects on them—in short, the kind of music that really matters, makes Words to the Blind a must-hear.