Two years ago, Algiers announced themselves to the world with their raw but fiery debut album. Algiers introduced us to the intercontinental band’s kaleidoscopic sound that was unlike anything released that year or even in this decade. Elements of gospel, soul, post-punk, New Wave, blues, and indie rock were masterfully blended into a maelstrom of combustible sonic energy. Algiers’ brilliance and inventiveness, consequently, landed the LP on our Favorite 50 Albums of 2015. Now what could the band do for an encore?
The question is answered within The Underside of Power‘s opening seconds as “Walk Like A Panther” sets the tone for what is to come. The voice of Black Panther member Fred Hampton, who was killed by Chicago police in 1969 at age 21, filters through the industrial layers. It provides the perfect lead-in to frontman Franklin James Fisher’s soulful vocals, which are intense and powerful. “This is the hand of the people / That’s getting tenser now / and when we rise up!” Fisher mournfully hollers. Yet a moment of clarity comes where his vengeance is replaced by the realization that violence is not the answer.
“It should be murder for murder
For what you did to the cause
It should be straight retribution
But we’re your flesh and your blood.”
The energy amps up on the soulful, gospel-infused, Krautrock-influenced “Cry of the Martyrs.” The scorching distortion of the guitar, the military precision of the rhythms, and the searing production create a feeling that the apocalypse is nigh, but, on the contrary, it is the rise of the people. Specifically, Biblical references abound but reinterpreted to reflect the state of many places around the world. It is scripture turned into a powerful message of protest where the oppressed will not succumb to their oppressors.
They’ll say our whole life is a locust,
Disturbing their fascist peace.
But it is they who mangle our horizons
Of our defeat at Calvary.
That same spirit of resistance and energy are repeated on the emotional anthem, “The Underside of Power.” The song is a gritty, soulful rocker that will get your adrenaline flowing and your heart pounding. Whereas “Martyrs” was an attack on the establishment, “The Underside of Power” offers hope that change will eventually come. Everything, after all, must come to an end.
Algiers unleash their Gothic, post-punk side with the dark and menacing “Death March,” a blend of early ’80s-era The Cure and the contemporary interpretation of the genre as heard on Preoccupation’s/Viet Cong’s albums. The harrowing bass line and stark synths create a dystopian feel that suggests the planet has become infected by a “crypto-fascist contagion.” The disease, though, isn’t a biological pathogen but rather a belief system that has been handed down generation after generation. “Hate keeps passing on. This is how the hate keeps passing on,” Fisher repeats, as if he is also consumed by the darkness.
A darkwave ambience envelopes “A Murmur. A Sign.” and acts like the companion to the previous number. “How can you go on? I’m lost without it,“ Fisher exclaims. Desperation is on his breath, like a man hunted. The solitude of the brooding, piano-driven “Mme Rieux” further reflects the loneliness and isolation that have overtaken the world. But in this case, Mme Rieux (a character in Albert Camus’ The Plague) is a symbol of the resistance. She is the Joan of Arc of this story, a woman who unafraid of the plague that has covered the Earth. At this point, the album’s focus turns, and “Cleveland” becomes the second half’s anthem.
The song is a menacing and gospel-infused. Dark, suspenseful, and layered with industrial effects, Algiers channel the Civil Rights movement of the 1960s with Fisher unleashing a fury of hard-hitting lyrics directed at the continuing police violence plaguing the African American community:
It’s been the same evil power since in ‘63
They hang in Homewood, Alabama with the whitest sheets
And in Montgomery County, Maryland from a sapling tree
But innocence is alive and it’s coming back one day
I don’t think you’re gonna get away
With the Seal I can hear them singing!
The names of past victims – Kindra Chapman, Brother Andre Jones, Lennon Lacy, Sandra Bland, Roosevelt Pernell, Keith Warren, and Alfred Warren – are all listed. As their names are spoken, a euphoric cry of “We’re coming back!” is followed, representing the people’s resilience and resistance.
With “Animals,” Algiers release a furious, ferocious rocker. The guitars, bass, and drums are played with feverish intensity, cascading toward a closing cataclysm of noise. This song is of people on the move, a collective who will not be silenced. Its sonic companion – or opposite – is the melancholic, Nick Cave-esque “Hymn for an Average Man.” The somber piano is accompanied by haunting orchestration and highlighted by chilling strings, while Fisher’s languid vocals capture the thoughts of people who have accepted their fate and the state of the world. Their fire has gone out.
The album closes with the companion pieces “Bury Me Standing” and “The Cycle/The Spiral: Time to Go Down Slowly.” The former is an instrumental that sets the mood for the final five minutes. Its stark arrangements create an atmosphere of uncertainty and fear that reflects times of immense change. When it happens, it is simultaneously exhilarating and tense, with the moment brilliantly captured on the frenetic finale.
“The Cycle” reveals the genius of Algiers – a song that crosses genres and generations without losing focus of their sole attention, which is to challenge our perceptions of the world. So while we may wish to believe change will be sustained, the resistance to it results in retention of the status quo. We need not look further than what happened the past decade. In 2008, we subscribed to the Audacity of Hope, only to see that progress threatened with elimination in 2017.
And this is the most striking element of The Underside of Power – for all of Algiers’ sonic creativity, their brilliance resides in the powerful messages they communicate. The album is a reminder that progress is a never-ending exercise and complacency can have unintended consequences. It is, in other words, the album that represents 2017 and possibly even the next three to seven years. That makes The Underside of Power not only the most important and relevant album of the year, but possibly even for this entire generation. It is a remarkable achievement that will be remembered well beyond this year.
Algiers are Franklin James Fisher (vocals/guitar), Ryan Mahan (bass), Lee Tesche (guitar), and Matt Tong (drums).
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