Savage Republic – Procession: An Aural History 1981-2010
Savage Republic is the rare band whose art school pretensions were additive to the overall package, rather than an annoying distraction from the music. Emerging from Los Angeles’ heady late ’70s experimental music scene, the group took the DIY aesthetic to new extremes. Despite its unique sound, the constantly changing collective is perhaps best remembered for the unmistakable look and feel of its albums in 1980s indie store bins – heavy recycled chipboard jackets featuring hand-pressed, mysterious sovereign images conjuring faraway lands – a motif that provided a decent foreshadowing of the music within.
Led by Bruce Licher, a UCLA graphic design major and inveterate stamp collector (both sensibilities that informed the band’s presentation) and joined by sculpture student Mark Erskine and eventually colleagues more seasoned in the music scene, Savage Republic made a unique racket throughout the mid/late ’80s – one that was equal parts industrial, soundtrack and avant punk. Their music was propulsive and percussive, relying on oil drums and sheet metal more than traditional drum kits, and set a template for followers as varied as Trent Reznor and Slint.
This chronological anthology opens with “The Ivory Coast,” an instrumental that sounds something like Joy Division precursors Warsaw covering “Rock Lobster.” Savage Republic’s early output owes a debt to Unknown Pleasures-era Joy Division for its prominent basslines and cavernous dynamics (titles like “Ceremonial” and Procession seem lifted from the Ian Curtis notebook), although the austerity of early Bauhaus or tonality of downtown NYC guitar provocateur Glenn Branca also spring to mind. Licher and company perhaps shared the most DNA however with long-running New Zealand noisemongers the Dead C, who similarly threaded the needle between formalism and severity.
Savage Republic quickly found its own voice by assimilating Middle Eastern and Greek phrasings that complemented its enigmatic aura, and thankfully Procession draws heavily from the band’s golden period stretch from 1885’s Trudge EP to 1988’s Jamahiriya, during which they grew more focused and confident. Licher himself acknowledges the band was at its best on instrumentals, which comprise half this set – including three wordless gems from 1986 high water mark Ceremonial that sit at the intersection of Sonic Youth and the UK’s then-incubating C-86 movement. Sure enough, the vocals can sound unconvincing and lyrics self-consciously nihilistic (“Walking through life with a chip on my back/ I thirst for knowledge, but where the hell do I find that?”) but Licher claims to have left some in as a concession to group harmony. Two excellent tracks from 1989’s Customs may offer a further window into internal friction, as the increasingly subtle “The Birds of Pork” sits alongside the starkly brutal “Sucker Punch.” The band disintegrated soon after – a similar schism occurred in 1983, spawning the likeminded 17 Pygmies.
Savage Republic reconvened in 2002, its members’ musical differences softened in part by longtime member Ethan Port’s narrow escape from the World Trade Center on 9/11. Licher participated in a 2002 tour before turning over the reins to a core group that took the band in a somewhat rawer yet familiar direction – with more powerful vocals. The three tracks from 2007 and 2009 that close this collection don’t feel out of place, but come across as a coda more than a climax.
Procession is rounded out by a live set from a 2010 Spanish festival with roughly 50% overlap of material with the main disc, and ample proof that this latest batch of Republicans are quite capable of carrying the flag.
Procession: An Aural History 1981-2010