Words About Music
When I first came across the music of New-York-via-Georgia band Algiers in 2015, I was blown away. Not only does vocalist/guitarist/pianist Franklin James Fisher have one of the most powerful, booming voices in rock music today, but his band excellently executes a tightly wound combination of post-punk, new wave/synth-pop, industrial rock, noise rock, and gospel. The group utilizes drums both real and synthesized along with guitar chord progressions both standard and outlandish. Additionally, Algiers loudly and proudly embraces radical left politics, something which very much appeals to me personally. In a world of miserable conditions, to paraphrase Malcolm X, too little is being done to prevent the horrible woes endemic to the capitalist mode of production and all who are forced to live within it. Neither free-market-neoliberalism nor the social-democratic welfare state will fully free us from our chains as workers, immigrants, and overall victims of this system of unfairness, violence, and genocide.
Algiers effectively positions this anger in the limelight, guiding their evocative, soulful music toward all the world’s ills with so much force that one might think the band’s musical strength alone will solve all the problems. I certainly loved the band’s attempt at this on their 2015 self-titled debut, and I couldn’t wait to see what the band would do going forward. With Portishead’s Adrian Utley producing the album and former Bloc Party drummer Matt Tong joining the band as its full-time drummer. The resulting sophomore full-length, “The Underside of Power,” is a spiritual journey into the heart of the global working class, universalizing the struggle against fascism, racism, sexism, capitalism, and all the forces which enrich the few off the stolen wealth of the many.
The album kicks off with the heavy “Walk Like a Panther,” which samples a speech given by Black Panther revolutionary leader Fred Hampton, who was drugged by an FBI informant and murdered by police at the age of 21. Hampton and the Black Panthers were the walking embodiment of revolution for a brief period in this country’s history, and are still loathed by privileged moderates and misinformed racists.
I love the sequenced drums on this track, as Fisher waxes ferocious, lashing out against those who “live [their] lives in the sunshine/You bought your way out of hell/You paid the toll with the souls of your people/Then you absconded to the tower up on the hill.” It’s got a distorted, lo-fi quality to it, and it commands your attention with its warped, disorienting production.
The next song is the uplifting “Cry of the Martyrs,” Algiers’ attempt at a folk song. Sonically, it only embraces folk music in its lyrics, with a narrative that focuses on strength in unity and fighting the common enemy, who “say our whole life is a locust/Disturbing their fractious peace/But it’s they who mangle our horizons.” I love the way the noise and ambience builds in this track, as Fisher sings from the perspective of the globally oppressed as they limber up for battle with their oppressors.
The title track carries on with the static noise, sequenced drums, and lyrical themes of the previous two cuts. It also hits us with a tasty bass line, in addition to a chorus which reminds me of some great, Motown-esque R&B/soul. It’s perhaps the most accessible song on the album so far, with a catchy hook and some jazzy, noisy, distorted bass-and-drum syncopations at the song’s bridge. It perfectly encapsulates Algiers’ atypical sound, hitting the listener with multiple passages of frantic, energetic musicianship. It throws everything it has at you, knowing that now is not the time for subtlety.
Algiers slows it down on the next track, “Death March,” which features a heavy synth presence. The instrumental reminds me slightly of groups like Depeche Mode and Joy Division, with its marching bass line, tribalist drums, and tightly woven sequenced keyboard sounds. Fisher sings once again about “how the hate keeps passing on,” blaming the perpetuation of fascist attitudes on the capitalist mode of production and the multitude of ways in which the state uses its resources to defend capital. I love the way it coincides in dizzying, twisted noise. The band has mentioned in interviews their love for Public Image Ltd., and I think that definitely comes across in this song in particular.
The slow nature of “Death March” is matched by the next track, “A Murmur. A Sign.,” which features some deep-voiced background vocals which take the form of a disenchanted chant. This track is awash in feedback, gradually building up its rhythmic instrumentation atop a sea of heavy drones and horror-movie-soundtrack sounds. I love Fisher’s vulnerable vocal performance on this track as well, even if it doesn’t end up being one of the album’s most captivating moments.
This is followed by the moody and dramatic “Mme Rieux,” an ode to existentialism in the vein of philosophers like Albert Camus. It was written by bassist/keyboardist Ryan Mahan, envisioned as a conversation between himself and his mother about whether or not there is any meaning behind our existence or if everything we know is actually absurd. It’s a soft piano ballad with lovely string passages and ambient noise, cementing together the classically beautiful and the classically un-beautiful, which is practically Algiers’ M.O. at this point.
The album’s second half kicks off with the provocative, indicting “Cleveland,” which is more akin to the album’s fiery first couple tracks. It intentionally name-drops the names of those whose deaths have been caused by and then promptly forgotten by the very system which killed them, like Sandra Bland, Keith Warren, and Roosevelt Pernell. Its title also serves as a reference to the city where 12-year-old Tamir Rice was killed by police. One of my favorite lines in this track (and album) is “The hand that brings the gavel down/Is the hand that ties the noose/The hand that finds you behind/And ties the thirteen loops.” From the gospel sample to the drum machines, I love every inch of this song.
“Animals,” the next track, directly attacks Donald Trump and the fascist-wannabes who’ve come out of the woodwork to support him and his openly hostile campaign and, now, regime. It’s the noisiest, fastest track on the album, taking on an industrial punk approach that isn’t far off from a Death Grips track, sonically. Lyrically, Fisher sings about how, today, people who sympathize with fascism and all its elements now have the privilege of hiding their beliefs, which they know to be considered disgusting by the majority of people. As soon as those beliefs are considered normal and acceptable, though, they will happily show that side of themselves. It’s an intense, fast-paced song that hits you with its vibrant, rebellious energy for its entire 2.5-minute runtime.
I love the production on the next track, “Plague Years,” with its skipping drums and ambient embellishments. It has a uniquely British feel to it, which makes sense considering it was partly recorded in England. It sounds like an instrumental, but it actually features some original spoken word pieces laced into the mix, which are definitely worth a read. This track serves as a nice break between the loud-and-fast “Animals” and the repetitive, experimentally designed “Hymn for an Average Man.”
Fisher bases the instrumental on this song off a locked groove, although it takes on the quality of a skipping record. This song takes on the narrative of a fascist leader, trying to picture the small shred of conscience that lives inside the mind of such a person, taking its title from the idea that fascism is implemented not by evil monsters but ordinary people enabled by a system which promotes selfish individualism and greed. It takes a jazzy, trip-hop-esque turn during its second half, and there’s something so implacably satisfying about the 3/4 groove that recurs throughout. It asks the question, “What keeps a fascist up at night?” It imagines a world where the answer to that question is, “The fascist’s actions.”
The next track here is “Bury Me Standing,” an ambient, instrumental interlude composed of field recordings, saxophones, and tape loops, reminding me of artists like Fennesz, William Basinski, and Tim Hecker. It’s an astonishing bit of drone/dark ambient that continues to illuminate the versatility that exists among this foursome of musicians, and I hope the band continues to push in this direction on future releases. I wish that this track had been made into an extended outro on one of the album’s other songs to give that particular song a bit more meaning, build, and length, but on its own, it’s still a cool addition to this record. It also serves as another great cool-down point considering the wide array of very serious topics being considered throughout this record.
The final song sees the band pull out all the stops, with “The Cycle/The Spiral: Time to Go Down Slowly” featuring a jazzy, delectable bass riff (infinite shouts-out to Ryan Mahan on this one). I love the dub influence on this track, with weird echoing effects on Fisher’s voice adding a lot of texture to this track. It’s got a leaping rhythm to it, as well as a sense of finality that makes it the ultimate final statement for this album.
In case it wasn’t clear by my lack of actual complaints about the songs on this album, I fucking love “The Underside of Power.” In many ways, it’s an even greater success than the band’s debut. I do have some minor gripes, like that I wish the mixing on this record was a bit less lo-fi so that I could really feel the power of the production and instrumentation. But for the most part, I have very little to say in the way of negative feedback for Algiers’ latest and greatest album. In every possible way, Algiers has progressed and improved on its sound, mission, and execution, making me feel thrilled for the band’s future, which I’m sure will be full of inspiration for the next several years considering the prevalence of hatred, violence, bigotry, and — of course — capitalism in our lives.
SCORE — 9.25 out of 10
FAVORITE TRACKS — Walk Like a Panther, Cry of the Martyrs, The Underside of Power, Death March, A Murmur. A Sign., Mme Rieux, Cleveland, Animals, Hymn for an Average Man, The Cycle/The Spiral: Time to Go Down Slowly