Music Reviews

posted: June 24, 2017

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Algiers The Underside of Power

Matador, 2LP or CD

America, 1971. Soul singer Marvin Gaye released What’s Going On, the pop-music equivalent of a breaking news alert. Racism, poverty, war: Gaye brought a personal and groove-laden touch to monumental topics, creating a work that decades later still feels urgent. Two years prior, and seemingly a musical universe away, the MC5 issued what served as a rock n’ roll call to a revolution with Kick Out the Jams.

Cut to Los Angeles, 1988, when N.W.A amplified the most aggressively volatile aspects of modern hip-hop with Straight Outta Compton, a record that for all its controversial language presaged what has become decades of anti-police sentiment. Then, last year, Southern rockers the Drive-By Truckers tried to make sense of an increasingly divisive political and cultural landscape with American Band, a set that meshes blues, folk, and blazingly hot guitar riffs while tackling, with nuance, everything from the Black Lives Matter movement to debates surrounding the use of the Confederate flag.

In summer 2017, all the aforementioned albums feel decidedly of-the-moment. Consider: The trial surrounding the death of Philando Castile at the hands of a Minnesota police officer, the recent stealth removals of Confederacy-honoring statues in New Orleans, or any of the inflammatory rhetoric coming out of our nation’s capital. And now, Algiers, a band with roots in Atlanta but now spread among multiple continents, has in The Underside of Power an album uniquely built for our still-troubled times.

With debts equally owed to the come-together spirituality of gospel, humanity of soul, fists-clenched rebelliousness of punk rock, and telling-it-like-it-is realism of hip-hop, The Underside of Power doubles as a cultural melting pot that builds on all the progressive sounds that came before it—and then some. Hyper-literate—in track-by-track descriptors released by Matador, band members cite underground artists, the speeches of Black Panther activist Fred Hampton, and 80s cartoons with equal reverence— The Underside of Power goes deep on what its members see as ailing a nation.

Adventurous, risk-taking, and one of 2017’s must-hear statements, The Underside of Power also stands as the sort of collection that can inspire people to think music can change the world. While that’s too much pressure to put on any compendium of songs, you get the sense Algiers believe it. Explosively opening with “Walk Like a Panther,” a song that quotes Hampton, the record launches with a protest march of an anthem that in three minutes links decades of socially conscious music. Is it hip-hop? Is it dance? Is it funk? Is it punk? It’s all the above. Coarse and slightly industrial, “Walk Like a Panther” sounds like a riot, as much as it may want to avoid one. Creatig an inspirational ode for the have-nots against the haves, singer Franklin James Fisher asks for the ear of those in power and warns if it isn’t granted, “it’s the hand of the people that’s getting tenser now.”

Expanding on while also diving deeper into the gospel influences of the band’s self-titled 2015 debut, The Underside of Power is be best described as a modern soul record— one restless and relentless in the manners in which it moves through styles and current events. “Cry of the Martyrs” takes Fisher’s church-ready passion and places it inside a bleak, sci-fi landscape. “Cleveland” goes one step further, slicing up a gospel choir amid rapid-fire electro beats. The song samples Rev. James Cleveland’s spiritual “Peace Be Still” but puts it inside a warzone, resulting in an approach that ricochets between the bleak and the hopeful. “Innocence is alive and it’s coming back one day,” sings Fisher, giving voice to victims of police shootings and believed-to-be hate crimes.

Algiers, whose three core members—Fisher, Ryan Mahan, and Lee Tesche—met in suburban Atlanta before scattering to pursue various graduate degrees, now split time between Europe and New York. No surprise, then, the musicians, in their mid-30s, reference last year’s presidential election and Brexit movement for coloring the album. The Underside of Power often feels like a panic-attack reaction to both. It’s dedicated to activity and forward momentum, as evidenced by such vastly different tunes as the elastic Public Image Ltd-meets-Southern blues of “Death March” and slow-burning “Mme Rieux,” where a classical piano shares space with reverberating guitars and digital effects that flicker like a raging torch.

A diverse string of collaborators, including Adrian Utley of electronic act Portishead and experimental hard-rock producer Randall Dunn, flesh out the varied elements. More than any genre or literature influence (the group cites Albert Camus’ The Plague for leading to “Mme Rieux”), The Underside of Power proves irresistible because of its lived-in topicality. Fisher, for instance, works at a posh New York nightclub checking coats. The job is certainly beneath his literature degree but allows him to witnesses casual, everyday elements of classism and racism—in part due to the mostly white clientele celebrating music that documents the black experience.

As The Underside of Power winds down, it slows down, with some songs approaching lament status. The fiery anger of the title track ultimately leads to a place of confusion, wondering if a way forward exists from this mixed-up, muddled and acrimonious moment in history. The solitary and hauntingly repetitive piano of “A Hymn for An Average Man” twists and turns until it resembles a horror-film soundtrack, the tune condemning not questionable leaders but those who gave the misguided their power, urging them to see “the mess that you have made.”

Ultimately, it serves as an optimistic moment, for this is not an album of us versus them. Rather, The Underside of Power wants everyone to open their eyes and see we’re all in this together.

–Todd Martens