Sound poetry lives in the air, as opposed to lyric poetry, which lives on the page. You can read sound poetry written out, but it’s sort of like reading sheet music: The text is a blueprint for an intended experience, not the experience itself. This Dadaist technique blurs the line between literature and music, emphasizing the sound of syllables over the meanings of the words they form. Simultaneous poetry, invented by French avant-garde poet Tristan Tzara, is a branch of sound poetry that requires multiple players to perform. Traditionally, each reads the poem in a different language at the same time, culminating in a work that values the collective voice in the room over any discrete unit of meaning. On their new collaborative album, UK post-punk band Savages team up with Japanese acid-rock ensemble Bo Ningen to push the concept of simultaneous poetry into full-blown musical collaboration.
Written in two days and recorded live shortly after, Words to the Blind is a single 37-minute track that doesn’t sound too much like Bo Ningen and even less like Savages. That’s probably the point. It’s loosely arranged and half improvised, which seems like an odd turn for a post-punk band whose debut succeeded on the strength of its own rigidity. Savages run a tight ship. Even their live show feels carefully pruned and choreographed. Here, they get to let loose, with Bo Ningen’s freewheeling psychedelia egging them on.
For its first few minutes, Words to the Blind is just what the title describes: a sequence of words in both French and Japanese whispered up from silence. If, like me, you speak neither language, the whispers communicate only their own delicacy. The two speakers sound like they’re sharing secrets while trying not to wake someone sleeping nearby. It’s not quite a dialogue — they talk over each other, the texture of each language overlapping with the other, like a sequence of the gentlest interruptions possible.
Then the interruptions get fiery. Bass and guitar drone in, edging out the silence between whispers. A little after the 10-minute mark, the bands dig their first groove, a lurching squall passed back and forth between them. It helps that Savages and Bo Ningen each opt for distinct tones; Ayse Hassan’s bass is easily picked out from Taigen Kawabe’s deeper rumble, while Jehnny Beth’s primal yelps dart between slashes of Yuki Tsujii and Kohhei Matsuda’s guitars.
“We are enemies speaking our love songs in different languages,” sings Beth in the record’s most robust and compelling sequence. “Your body is no more than an instrument.” The two bassists bounce off each other, their instruments cutting closest to the ear above airy guitars and distant patters of drums. Everyone feels far away from everyone else, communicating across an inscrutable distance.
The music culminates with an eerie recitation from Beth: “The skin divides the broken hearts/ The love divides the lovers.” Kawabe wails somewhere across the room from her, perhaps singing the same words at the same time in Japanese. It’s the easiest point to grasp on the record, but the statements Beth repeats don’t illuminate much about the whole process except to suggest that despite their noisy interplay, the two bands remain separated by something unseen.
Words to the Blind doesn’t play enough to either participant’s strengths; Beth does better as a faux-totalitarian warlord at the head of a tight regime than a wisp in a room full of flame. While less regimented in their playing, Bo Ningen also seem to prefer closed structures to open-ended jamming. Words rarely coheres into a legible sequence of rhythms or melodies, rarely evolves into more than textural noodling and atmospheric energy. The performance sounds like it must have been fun to watch as a live event; the cheers and applause included at the end show that those who attended had a good enough time. But as a recorded document, it tends to run tepid. Maybe you just had to be there.