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Album Of The Week

Karl Smith On Algiers' The Underside Of Power
Karl Smith , June 23rd, 2017 13:04

In a record both timely and timeless, Franklin Fisher, Ryan Mahan, Lee Tesche and Matt Tong have tapped into something both immediate and primal. Their most politically-drenched record to-date, The Underside of Power, Karl Smith argues, is also proof of their quality as musicians

Considering its now well-established status as a “surprise (see also: “snap”) election,” the real surprise (the real “oh, snap!”) — it seems - would be if either Franklin Fisher, Ryan Mahan, Lee Tesche or Matt Tong didn’t possess at least some modest powers of clairvoyance allowing them to see the events of this last month coming when others among us had readily dismissed them out of hand. To be clear, Algiers are not wave riders — they are not opportunists. They are a band — and the same applies very much to each of them as individual human beings - of irrefutably strong, and unquestionably sincere, convictions. This, though, has always been the case.

Over the last five years Algiers have consistently proved themselves to be among contemporary music’s most intelligent and most genuinely politically engaged musicians. Perhaps, it has been suggested more than once, it is even true that they have been, on previous, a little too intelligent and a little too engaged — for both the mass market and for their own ambitions as a band: potently cerebral assassins whose only failing has been to prize grey matter over red meat.

That is to say, since 2012’s ‘Blood’ / ‘Black Eunuch’ double A-side, through 2015’s breakout Algiers, it has been irrefutably clear that Franklin Fisher, Ryan Mahan, Lee Tesche — and now Matt Tong — have had a cohesive message as a group: their politics as formidable as they are undeniable. The issue, then, is that their music — particularly on record — has not always had the strength to carry the weight of those most deeply-held convictions. With the release of their second full-length, Algiers have taken a sonic sledgehammer to that critique.

To start from the very beginning, it's difficult to imagine either a more apt title for the music contained in this album or a more apt crystallisation of what Algiers do best than what is suggested by The Underside of Power. There has, after all, always been something of an undercurrent to their music: a Southern Gothic, even Southern Doom-like kind of foreboding which -- in a commingling of industrial electronics and the kind of gospel that penetrates to the very root of Fisher's being -- even two years ago, on their debut album, created a bubbling tension throughout each and every verse or chorus. As a stylistic trope, this has only intensified: the distorted drums of opener 'Walk Like a Panther', the speech by murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton, and the righteous hymnal that follows are nothing if not testament to this -- as are the church organs and vaguely Who Will Survive, and What Will Be Left of Them?-era Murder By Death-recalling guitars of 'Death March'.

It is also fair to say these feelings – and a particular strength of The Underside of Power is that it converts idelogies and theories into relatable, human feelings where Algiers was a masterclass in decoding those texts -- have only intensified with the coming of the hour: any flippant remarks about psychics powers aside, this is unmistakably a timely and necessary album. In a year where demagoguery, cronyism and the real-life consequences of neoliberalism have been exposed to the world en mass -- when we have, for ourselves, seen the underside of power that has been so fastidiously hidden from us through dark mechanisms up until this point -- Algiers have provided a reference point for what feels, tentatively, like the earliest eye-rubbings of a political awakening. And the alarm they are sounding is loud.

In his seminal work, The Wretched of the Earth, the philosopher Frantz Fanon made note that “Everything can be explained to the people, on the single condition that you want them to understand.” It's a phrase which -- in the era of thought bubbles, both left and right, of Trump supporters and Conservatives and Brexiteers who refuse to deal in facts -- though slightly tautologous, has never rung more true in recent memory. And it is from this platform which Algiers shout: “We won’t be led to slaughter / This is self-genocide,” Fisher bellows, seamlessly endowing vestiges of Motown with the kind of raw power that might be attributed to the very filthiest of industrial post-punk.

This, too, is emblematic of what Algiers do so well on this album: the blending of seemingly disparate, cross-generational, pan-century styles of music -- Franklin's gospel vocals that veer into screams, Mahan's sulking bass, Tesche's grubby guitars and Tong's rhythmic pounding -- paired with the omission of any real, tangible references to current events beyond subtext, points to something much deeper. Something much older. And something much, much darker in its nefarious reach and longevity over the course of Human existence. It is a nod, to quote Fanon once more, to the fact that “Imperialism leaves behind germs of rot which we must clinically detect and remove from our land but from our minds as well.” Or, as Fisher put it in a recent interview, “As long as you have injustice and suffering, I think you’re going to have these themes resonate... I think that’s just part of the human condition.”

Reading all this it's perhaps tempting to think that The Underside of Power is either some kind of lecture in musical form or that its peculiar power is temporary. To make either of these assumptions, however, is to do this album a grave injustice: it is not powered by the fading light of The Bern in the US or even, now, by the apparent ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn in the gaping political void that is the UK, but by something truly essential and powerfully -- if regrettably -- relatable.

Tinged with Suicide, Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds, sounds that hark back to their original meeting in Atlanta and which pay homage to their official formation in London, The Underside of Power is both the latest chapter in a long-running and universal story that seems to be nearing climax, and solid, sonic proof that Algiers are capable of not just acting with their hearts, but ripping them out and offering them up on record.