Tuesday, June 16, 2015

album review: 'algiers' by algiers

There are some genre fusions that sound so insane that you'd never expect to see them work. Ambient music and country, for instance, two genres that rarely have ever crossed... until Devin Townsend created Casualties of Cool, one of the best albums of 2014. Or take, say, the entire genre-mashing careers of twenty one pilots, and they put together Blurryface, one of my favourite records of this year. My point is that oddball genre fusions can blow up in your face, but they can create something special and defiantly unique, especially in a world where the internet has proven anyone will try anything once.

But then there are the genre fusions that the second I heard about it, it made way too much sense, the sort of material that made me sigh and wish that I had thought of it first. Algiers falls into that category, an American band from Atlanta reportedly fusing post-punk, gospel, and industrial sounds for a distinctly unique debut to be released through Matador Records, the same label that's been responsible for giving us Savages and Iceage. And really, considering how much post-punk and goth culture crossed over in the late 70s and 80s, with the latter incorporating so much religious iconography it's not surprising Algiers might take a stab at pushing through a less classical and more gospel-inspired take. And given how strong the critical reception has been, I decided to give it a look - was it worth it?

Well, yeah, definitely. I had expected to like this album - come on, a fusion of gospel, industrial, and post-punk sounds too damn awesome not to like - but I was not expecting something like this, a record that gets righteously political with an intensity I haven't seen since Kendrick Lamar's 'The Blacker The Berry' this year. And yes, that's also a statement of quality because the self-titled album from Algiers is goddamn amazing, a pitch-black inversion of usual gospel and soul into something far darker and more sinister, with industrial grooves, punk rage, post-punk nihilism, and lyrics that might be some of the biting and incendiary you'll hear this year. It might have taken a while for a fusion of genres like this to arrive, but my God, it's worth it.

Of course, for a critic a group like Algiers is a little hard to describe, simply because the sound is so distinctly new. Sure, they share the same relentless hardline all-caps intellectualism that characterizes Savages and the incendiary swell that Iceage brings to the table, but Algiers' influences run deeper to early-to-mid-80s Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds - not an uncommon influence for Matador signees. The noisier post-punk sides recall Joy Division and Bauhaus, while I'd argue their more groove-centric material reminds me more of Sisters Of Mercy with a thicker, more lo-fi sound. But it's not all 70s/80s gothic post-punk - the righteous howls of frontman Franklin James Fisher recall legends of soul and jazz like Screamin' Jay Hawkins, and the choice to dip into more Afrocentric goth tones remind a little of the most recent Roots album ...and then you shoot your cousin. And yet even with all of that, Algiers still feels like a fully formed unique entity from the first track 'Remains', with the echoing stomp/clap against a simmering wall breaks into waves deeply set guitar, organ, or oily synthesizers, with such a great crescendo build-up that I honestly wish the track had gone on for another two minutes to fully explode instead of just setting the mood. And what becomes startling is how many different permutations on this formula Algiers can create: the oily crackle of the beat against the noisy squealing guitars, lo-fi gospel vocals, and stalking bassline of 'Claudette'; the buzzing synths and guitars that drive into the killer mutating groove of 'And When You Fall', especially during the second verse, the ominous bells over the skittering drum machine of 'Old Girl' that breaks into a frenetic guitar-driven monster with a stellar driving bass, the creaking synth hits of 'Irony. Utility. Pretext.' that was perfectly sampled from an Afrika Bambaataa & Soul Sonic Force track and then fused through a darkwave smash; the charging grooves of 'But She Was Not Flying' with those great piano melodies; to the snarled fast-paced chugging rollick of 'Black Eunuch' and the pummelling walls of cavernous percussion on 'In Parallax' that sounds positively biblical. Hell, even the slower songs are goddamn incredible, like the jingling handclap and creeping beat on 'Blood' to the eerie minimalism of 'Games' thanks to that muted melodies and guitars.

And all of these songs are augmented with gospel backing vocals, produced in a way that initially caught me off-guard but I definitely came to like. See, gospel music has been subverted with a similar tone to this before - The Yeah Yeah Yeahs did it with 'Sacrilege' amazingly well - but Algiers opts for a much more lo-fi vocal pickup for their gospel vocals, which can be jarring when you realize that said backing choir is pretty bare-bones, which might have just been an issue of budget or opting for more of that punk vibe. But the rougher sound and Fisher's distinctive rough-edged howls aren't trying to evoke the clarity and purity of traditional gospel, instead emphasizing just how creepy and unsettling said choirs can be when played through a dirtier lens. Fisher himself is a revelation on this record, showing off a ridiculous amount of soul and power as he pushes his vocals to the limit, only really breaking in his falsetto range, which he rarely touches anyway. The only point where I found some of the more raucous elements not to work quite as well was on the opening of 'Black Eunuch', but comparing to the rest of the song, it's easily overlooked.

But here's where we have to get into the lyrics... and my God, while Algiers might describe themselves as a protest group, their material is so much more fleshed out and articulate than such a label would describe. In short, this is exactly the sort of political material I like: excellently framed, starkly nuanced, and through the usage of gospel swell and great hooks, populist as hell. Most specifically, Algiers is looking to target the current state of racial tensions against black culture, and where Kendrick Lamar targeted the internal struggle of black men and Lupe Fiasco targeted specific institutions, Algiers aims for a broader cross-cultural focus. And in the cruelest inversion of all from traditional gospel, they don't spare the Church as a target, as songs like 'Blood', 'Games', especially 'Irony. Utility. Pretext', and the downright apocalyptic 'In Parallax' don't shy away from burning out the opiate of the masses. That ties into one of the more unsettling elements of this record, and that is how much they don't shy away from putting black culture under fire either - I referenced 'The Blacker The Berry' earlier, but Algiers makes Kendrick look restrained as with supreme disdain they target apathy on 'Blood' or being duped and distracted by religion and wealth on 'Irony. Utility. Pretext' or in the veiled metaphors of 'Claudette' and 'Old Girl', both of which could easily refer to black culture and music seduced and subsumed, losing its identity and soul. And yet on 'Games' they step into that role of exhaustion, how they can barely maintain hope against the onslaught and find solace in bottles and Bibles. And then there's 'Black Eunuch', an absolutely fascinating song from the perspective of the titular character who is still castigated and judged as the hyperbolic sexual stereotype of the black male.

But make no mistake, this album isn't all inwardly focused, and it's here where I have to note the genuinely chilling tracks targeting the broken system. Tracks like 'Remains' show them as targeted and ragged, but not destroyed, and the song 'And When You Fall' shows them waiting for those who appropriate black culture to stumble, often due to their own carelessness. But what's telling on songs like this is that there isn't an attack or strike back, more the ominous presence and knowing eyes, looking back at a system that knows exactly what they did and who fear their sins discovered. Even the most outwardly political song of the record, 'But She Was Not Flying', a track that shows exactly how the system perverts justice to favour men who could target black culture at will - or worse yet, get it target itself - it doesn't really feature a call to action. But that's because tracks like 'In Parallax' seem to foretell the inevitable, that intolerant, superficial, and hypocritical systems will collapse under their own weight or be consumed by those they scorned. And the key word is 'inevitable' - there's a bleak certainty to this record that's very reminiscent of Nick Cave's most cryptic material, dark prophecy that seems to be coming true before our eyes. As such, the fade-out on the track 'Untitled' might seem to feel out-of-place as it fades into a sample of Chicago pastor P.L. Barrett leading his choir, but on some level, it's damn near perfect. Not so much stepping into a lone ray of hope but coming out of a dark daydream at church where the truth of that inevitable is just beneath the surface, waiting for the right spark to explode.

In other words, Algiers' self-titled album is a frighteningly visceral and intense listen, but between the blend of styles executed near-flawlessly, incendiary and strikingly smart lyrics, and a delivery fiery enough to drive it all home, Algiers delivered one of the most striking and unique records you'll hear this year. I will stress that it can be a little intimidating to really delve into - it doesn't shy away from abstract lyrics and metaphors, and I do reckon they could afford to be a bit more direct, and the fusion of styles is a lot to take in - but if you do, you'll find an experience unlike any other. Easily a 9/10 from me and the highest of recommendations. It seems like every year from Matador we get a killer post-punk-inspired record - and with Algiers, I think we might have gotten one of the most explosive ones yet.

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