Algiers Fight the ‘Power’ Elite With Soulful Post-Punk
Franklin James Fisher, vocalist of Algiers, has only a hazy recollection of making his band’s new album, The Underside of Power. It’s easy to understand how a hard-working band can get here. A relentless tour schedule, endless nights away from home, and journals and demo tracks full of loose ends can add up to a pretty chaotic environment — one that makes the process of recording a cohesive album end up feeling fragmented and abstract.
Yet, Algiers are a fragmented band by nature. Fisher, guitarist Lee Tesche, bassist Ryan Mahan and drummer Matt Tong each come from different musical and cultural backgrounds, and outside of playing in Algiers, they call entirely different cities home: Atlanta (where the band was formed), New York City and London. It’s a dynamic that the band describes in an interview as a “logistical nightmare,” but one that the four of them are used to operating with. So, when it came time to record The Underside of Power (between dates on the road during the second year in support of their 2015 self-titled debut), it happened in brief windows that, in hindsight, appear to be a bit of a blur for the band.
“I don’t really remember having recorded most of it, to be honest with you,” Fisher admits. “The things I hear ... I don’t remember doing them. I do remember all of the logistical nightmares that went into trying to get it done. It’s kind of like a Frankenstein.”
The professional environment in which Algiers recorded The Underside of Power may have been hurried and clouded, but it happened amid a much more ominous turn of events on a global scale. The band entered the studio to record the tracks for the album a few days before the U.K. voted to leave the European Union, and the band finished mixing and mastering the album just after Donald Trump was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States of America. And though the songs were written before much of this worldwide chaos came crashing down, the album carries a message of defiance throughout — a cry of revolution in the face of a world rapidly growing more cruel and self-destructive by the minute.
The Underside of Power, out June 23 via Matador, continues the groundwork Algiers laid down on their debut album, amplifying its themes of injustice, racism, oppression and corruption via 12 ominous and intense tracks of soulful, atmospheric post-punk. The album’s opening track, “Walk Like a Panther,” juxtaposes an explosive industrial-electro sound with a lyric that condemns those who would turn against their own self-interest and community out of greed (“We won’t be led to slaughter / This is self-genocide”). “Cleveland” explores the epidemic of black Americans being murdered at the hands of police, while the gloomy dirge of “Death March” finds Fisher lamenting how the powers that be reinforce legacies of racism: “This is how the hate keeps passing on.”
“To just be writing and making songs during that period, it’s kind of your job to interpret your environment and come to grips with it,” Tesche says. “It’s one of those things where, intentional or not, that’s kind of unavoidable in a sense. It’s going to show the bruises and scars, whether you like it or not.”
The title of the album is a reference to the people who are poised to suffer the most under the Powers That Be at their worst. The title track, a Northern Soul-style single infused with the group’s own gothic atmosphere, flips that idea and suggests that power — however oppressive or malevolent — is ultimately fleeting. No system can remain in perpetuity.
“If you’re somewhat optimistic, then you have to know that these systems that are in place won’t last forever,” Fisher says. “They might destroy us or our children, but at some point they’re not going to endure. And that’s very much one of the strongest underlying currents on this record. The idea that you’re going to try to persist in the face of adversity, and knowing that you’re not going to accomplish your goals and realizing that the revolution is an intergenerational thing. That’s where the hope comes from.”
There’s anger and there’s darkness on The Underside of Power, but as overwhelming as the ideas behind these songs can be — police brutality, totalitarian governments, exploitation of the underclass, greed over justice — it’s not an album that projects a feeling of hopelessness. It reflects the chaos of the modern age, but it doesn’t submit to it. Algiers — who cite influences in political and cultural movements such as the Black Panthers and the Chicano Movement as often as they do artists such as Suicide or Cabaret Voltaire — raise hell against the “crypto-fascist contagion,” to borrow a phrase from “Death March,” because they believe that, eventually, it can be defeated.
“It’s meant to be [hopeful],” Fisher says. “This record ... it took me months before I could go back and listen to it and it made any sense to me. But there are songs about fantasizing about justice, and fantasizing about vengeance, vindication. ‘Cleveland’ is a really good example of that. ‘Walk Like a Panther’ is another example of that. I think it is. The composition that me and Matt did, ‘Bury Me Standing,’ from what I can decipher, is very much the embodiment of ‘I’d rather die on my feet than live on my knees.’ That is a form of hope, I think.”
An album with themes as resonant as The Underside of Power demands an equally powerful musical component, and its 12 tracks are expectedly varied and captivating. Much like the band’s debut, this album finds them balancing a pervading post-punk / industrial aesthetic with more straightforward garage-punk, Nina Simone-like soul vamps, unsettling electronic ambiance and, on “A Hymn for an Average Man,” a breathtaking psychedelic art-pop ballad that reaches a gorgeous climax. The end result is unexpectedly cohesive; as much as this is the product of brief studio sessions and a band whose members literally come from different places, it speaks to their instincts as musicians and ability to reconcile such diverse ideas and sounds that it makes sense as an album. It feels complete.
“We’re four people who come from very different places, musically speaking, in terms of what we want to accomplish,” Tesche says. “What makes us make interesting music — we find some commonalities where we overlap, but sometimes we don’t. But after a few years of touring and listening to things, it’s just a continuation of the journey we’ve been on.”
With the world spiraling toward instability, and a growing sense of dread and unease both in America and abroad, a band like Algiers feels not only relevant, but necessary. Their music sounds like nothing else right now, but more than that, it carries a message of resistance and struggle that cuts through the noise and the bullshit without equivocation. And it’s not a message that’s growing stale anytime in the foreseeable future.
“As long as you have injustice and suffering, I think you’re going to have these themes resonate,” Fisher says. “I think that’s just part of the human condition. You’re going to have the oppressors and the masters and the people that are subjugated. But that’s not necessarily going to be the music that is pushed by the mainstream culture. In most cases it’s not … like after the crash in 2008, people almost doubled down in this fantasy world of excess and club culture. It’s always funny to me to hear people desperately searching for a silver lining with Trump in office. ‘Well, maybe punk music’s gonna be really good again, or art will be really good or relevant.' I think it’s kind of the opposite. Whenever you have these quasi-fascist regimes in place, the entertainment is just as good or just as distracting as it is normally. I don’t think the majority of people are going to change.”
He reflects for a moment.
“But that’s just me being pessimistic. I hope they do.”
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