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Savage Republic - Procession: An Aural History 1983-2010

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Artist: Savage Republic

Album: Procession: An Aural History 1983-2010

Label: LTM

Review date: Sep. 10, 2010

Savage Republic was a group that walked along lot of paths common to the 1980s underground. Like Einstürzende Neubauten, everyone participated in percussion, and the preliminary part of their gigs involved collecting scrap metal, with a 55-gallon oil drum center stage. The desert vista leads came from a guitar strung with 12 B-strings, overtone-drenched like the No Wavers of NYC. Ethnic folk melodies were explored irreverently, like Camper Van Beethoven (who were scenemates at the start). Like a British post-punk band, bass held the racket together.

And then there was the packaging. The booklet that comes with this anthology dedicates a good two pages to the details of Bruce Licher’s letterpress work. With the chipboard speckle and slight embossing around the ink, Savage Republic’s records looked like they were shipped from some tiny nation — a place where bureaucrat’s uniforms are strewn with golden rope, making government documents with technology left behind when the empire pulled out. Along with the tribal rhythms and gruff chants, it gave the band an aura of a cult.

Hardly. A bunch of rumpled UCLA artists, the draw of third-world culture started with stamp collecting rather than enthnomusicology. The tribal rhythms sometimes owed more to warpath toms in cowboy flicks. “Mobilization,” a great track from 1983, is an existential complaint backed by a cha-cha. The irreverence could lead to confusion. Africa Corps, the band’s original name, was creeping people out, necessitating a change just before the first album. Gig fliers done in Arabic brought baffled foreign students to shows. An off-the-cuff cover of a Greek pop song created an ongoing fan base in that country.

The music is mesmerizing stuff, infused with all those contradictions. Even at its most grinding and punky, represented here by “Ivory Coast” and “Viva La Rock n’ Roll,” it’s expansive. Coming from a scene where everyone was outdoing each other with harshness and confrontation, Savage Republic’s music skims and skitters. By their second record, Ceremonial, Licher was pushing for the band to become all-instrumental. He lost, but the music kept evolving from art-punk towards something less easily pigeonholed. “Pios Den Mila Yia Ti Lambri” (a track absent from this disc) could serve as AM radio bumper music, mariachi, or twee indie. It’s industrial music appropriate for grandpa’s backyard cookout. One could speculate that had the band emerged a decade later, in the thick of post-rock and lounge exotica, the albums would have made more sense. But they seem destined to be permanently out-of-place.

Savage Republic was inactive during that time anyways. But over the last decade, the members have performed and recorded. It’s a testament to the project’s spirit that the current version has kept up the quality, with only sporadic participation from founding members (though core ‘80s members like bassist Greg Grunke hold it together). This collection closes with a strong single from last year, “Sword Fighter.” In the middle of the pinwheels of guitar, a melodica creeps in. It’s a new instrument, but the sort of lonely sound that could have been there all along.

There’s an undeniable energy in hearing a 55-gallon oil drum taking a beating, something guys in Trinidad figured out in the 1930s. It became a whole culture there, and has worked well enough for these city guys. In both cases, a unique sound arose from what was available, and in that sense Savage Republic does capture a spirit of ethnic music; it’s created its own microculture. Procession collects 14 high points, but it’s not all of them — it doesn’t even have the track “Procession.” Instead, it’s an intriguing brochure for an independent sovereignty that deserves more tourism.

By Ben Donnelly

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