Music News

Savage Republic

. . . and then God created the Savage Republic. Circa early '81, in the transverse utility tunnels beneath the UCLA campus to be precise, spontaneously combusting in a post-punk/industrial clatter of guitar, two basses, drums and scrap-heap percussion -- Joy Division and Einstürzende Neubauten colluding on the Can songbook in a crowded, noisy Ethiopian bazaar. Later adding keyboards, tapes and assorted stringed things, SavRep wound up lasting for four albums, eight years and numerous lineup changes (Sedona artist and guitarist for the group Scenic, Bruce Licher, was the one member common to each lineup). It left behind a rather handsome corpse whose twitching influence is still felt in the rock underground.

That twitch is felt anew via four new remastered reissues of Savage Republic's studio legacy. 1982's Tragic Figures is an artifact of feral intent, its mélange of transnational sound at once owing to rock tradition yet contradictory enough in its synthesis to suggest the very term "savage republic." Even the song titles themselves held forth extant purpose: "Attempted Coup: Madagascar" is all ominous bass skronk and drum circle conjure; "Exodus" is a frantic retreat of paranoid guitar shrieks and skull-thwacking percussive angst; the edgy, gear-grinding riffs on "Machinery" are punctuated by drill-press vocal barks worthy of The Fall's Mark E. Smith.

Next came 1986's instrumental Trudge EP and the full-length Ceremonial, here paired on one CD with the latter material presented as it was originally conceived, also all-instrumental (the original vinyl edition had vocals on several tracks). Again, titles perfectly forecast the music, from the searing, pounding tribal psychedelia of "Trudge" and the violent, dizzying churn of "Siege" to the serenely cinematic, distinctively Morricone-esque travelogue "Andelusia" and the acoustic, Middle Eastern-tinged "Mediterranea." These are easily Savage Republic's most "accessible" moments and remain highly favored among fans.

But it's the tongue-curling Jamahiriya Democratique et Populaire de Sauvage, from 1988, that, in retrospect, represents SavRep at powers-pinnacle. Boasting an expansive sonic ambiance and tautly wound arrangements, it burns from start to finish as a rock album (albeit one industrially and ethnically flavored). As if to suggest just that, there's even a surprising cover of Alternative TV's snarky anthem "Viva la Rock 'n' Roll." Amid extended forays toward the heart of the sun (the shuddering, Floydian "Tabula Rasa"; the title track's supersonic cyber-space boogie), pogo-dives into the mosh pit (the turbulent, at times Stooges-like "Lethal Muse") and outright nods to the aforementioned Joy Division and Can (check the Peter Hook-y bass line and Damo Suzuki-styled vocals in "Moujahadeen"), Savage Republic carved out a unique patch of turf whose exotic veneer masked the land mines hidden a few inches below the surface.

The fourth and last studio album, 1989's Customs, was recorded in a whirlwind and under stressful circumstances while the group was temporarily stranded in Greece during a 1988 European trek. As such, its rawer, more dissonant/discordant overall sound is daunting at times, although there's a satisfying edginess in, say, the blurted vocals and PIL-like sonics of "Sucker Punch" or the industrial-gospel drone textures of "The Birds of Pork." One live bonus track, an improvised freakout (and Steve Albini nod) called "Rapeman's First EP," is added to the album, giving the listener a sense of the monumental sheet of noise the band could erect in concert. (Two live SavRep albums were also issued, in '87 and in '90.)

As per the original vinyl releases, the Licher-designed CD reissues come handsomely packaged in elaborate hand-letterpress-printed Discfolios along with complementary inserts; the albums are available individually or as a slipcase-enclosed boxed set. Bonus tracks -- singles, compilation cuts, instrumental mixes -- round out each disc.

Sonic Youth's Thurston Moore once noted that Savage Republic was one of the great, underrated American bands. (Listen to portions of 1985's Bad Moon Rising or the official live SY bootleg from '86, The Walls Have Ears, and you'll detect the influence.) These days, visionary hyphen-rock outfits such as Mogwai, Bardo Pond and Godspeed! You Black Emperor continue to carry the torch. But listening to this transcendent four-CD assemblage prods anew the listener's primal instincts into flickering awareness, like a Sisyphean journey into the heart of some uncharted savage republic. The horror, the horror of it all -- viva la rock 'n' roll.

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Fred Mills