There’s an old adage in music that often goes round during times of political unease that argues that bad politics makes for good bands.
You might have heard murmurs of it after the surprise general election result in 2015 or after Brexit took almost the entire political establishment by surprise last year. But you’ll almost certainly have heard it after the presidential victory of Donald Trump last November. Trump’s victory, with its combination of unbelievable probability and disturbing consequences, saw a noticeable group uniting around this idea as a weak silver-lining, one that is often suggested in good faith despite it being of little help to the real world. Okay so the leader of the free world might be an isolationist sexist with the impulse control of a dog in a ball-pit but at least punk rock is going to get to its edge back. That’s got to be a positive, right?
Unfortunately, the hope that having governments in power that musicians dislike will inspire said musicians into creating great works of art is rarely a hope that pays off. At least, not when the artists in question aim directly at their target. For example, how many songs from the Our First 100 Days compilation have been embraced by the general public? And how many of the songs from last decade’s Rock Against Bush movement are now celebrated as classics? However, this article isn’t about all that issue, although I’m sure we could talk about it on another day. What it is about is one of those rare example where politics and music do work well together. Great music with a political focus will always exist regardless of the mood of the general public, often shunted off to the margins of alternative scenes, but sometimes a band can find itself in the right place at the right time. Sometimes, those factors can inspire a band to aim higher than they’ve ever done before. And this is where Algiers come in.
The Atlanta band first turned heads back in 2012 with a set of songs that seemed to find the middle ground between synth-rock, angular post-punk, and 60s soul. At the time they felt like a lone confrontational voice in indie-rock while a set of largely apolitical bands* dominated the genre. Their sound was experimental, turning old tropes of soul and gospel on their head, and their lyrics cried out against injustices that often go unchallenged. On their 2015 debut album, they sounded inspiring and stirring. Now, they sound emphatically necessary. Having been recorded during the EU referendum and the US Presidential campaign, The Underside of Power finds the band in a revolutionary spirit. It’s an album that’s low on subtlety but high on drama, taking aim at the threat of fascism, police brutality and governments that mistreat their citizens, against a music backdrop that sounds unmistakeably apocalyptic. The voice of lead-singer Franklin James Fisher has become more commanding and powerful since the band’s debut while his bandmates, with the recent addition of ex-Bloc Party drummer Matt Tong, have pushed the group’s sound into wilder territory. Across the album’s 12 songs, Algiers balance wailing guitars alongside Motown-influenced grooves and beat-switches inspired by trap music. The only thing that ties the whole thing together is the band’s commitment to reworking each sound with the same powerful intensity.
The Underside of Power is not a concept album in the traditional sense but its songs are united around one clear idea – you only know real power when it’s turned against you. As a dominant group, every power you take from another may soon be taken from you and at some point those who have control have to decide whether they use power to exploit others or help. Pointedly, the album opens with the voice of Fred Hampton, a charismatic and extraordinarily talented member of the Black Panthers who was assassinated by state officers in 1969. His appearance so early on in the album should remind listeners that while The Underside of Power is undoubtedly topical, its concerns resonate throughout much of modern transatlantic history. With members and origins that link the band to both the UK and the USA, Algiers have crafted an album that speaks to the anger felt by members of the public on both sides of the Atlantic by incorporating sounds from both countries’ histories. From the USA, they take the skittering hi-hats of Southern rap, ferocious hardcore punk, and the righteous power of gospel. From the UK, they take the gloomy synth-rock of bands like Depeche Mode and the experimental edge of 80s post-punk. All together, these influences create a dizzyingly original sound that feels refreshingly current, even when it is reaching back into classic genres. The thematic significance is that the songs on The Underside of Power are undoubtedly connected to the present day but have a place in time at any point during the last 50 years, much like their lyrical concerns.
Injustice did not begin with austerity and Donald Trump, and it will not end with them either. For centuries, men and women have faced cruel treatment at the hands of those more powerful than them, something that can only be stopped when those people are given opportunities and a voice. In a small sense, The Underside of Power is Algiers’ most potent contribution to that cause; a record that aims to empower anyone who wishes to stand up against those who seem to be unstoppable. It’s a record that is concerned with heavy, unpalatable topics. Most notably, the roll-call of death in ‘Cleveland’ is effectively chilling. Elsewhere, ‘Mme Rieux’ appears to take its name from a character in Albert Camus’ The Plague, a novel that has been read as a metaphorical reimagining of the French resistance against the Nazis. But amongst the death and terror of The Underside of Power there is also a thrilling energy to this music. Algiers have created an album of protest music that is as terrifying as it is exhilarating. Its songs hit like a punch to the gut on first listen but on repeated plays reveal themselves to be impressively complex and engaging.
On their debut album, Algiers were making political music even if no one was listening. Their style was notable but lacked the focussed message that they needed to stand out. On this new album, they’ve done a very rare thing, cutting out the superfluous features of their music whilst expanding their sound into more interesting territory. The songs on The Underside of Power are both more ambitious and more accessible than their predecessors and they come together to produce a record that could turn the band into an important force in rock music. There’s no denying that the extraordinary, and sometimes horrifying, past year and a half have provided Algiers with the perfect opportunity to make the best music of their career. Nevertheless, they must be commended for how triumphantly and resolutely they have risen to the occasion. With an uncompromising vision, and an uplifting, fearless fury, Algiers have crafted an album that might be the finest of the year so far.
*Tame Impala, Beach House and Bon Iver immediately come to mind
Get Volume #19 here.
Words by Conrad Duncan