Wednesday, June 28, 2017

album review: 'the underside of power' by algiers

I remember covering Algiers' self-titled debut two years ago, and I remember the most prominent thought running through my head: since the dawn of post-punk and noise rock in the late 70s, it should not have taken this long to get a record like this. I think part of this was inevitable thanks to the internet and the rampant cross-pollination of genres, but still, it's not like there weren't common throughlines that could have enabled more of this fusion of the noisy grind of post-punk with a raw blend of gospel, soul and blues. Sure, there had been those who brought in more of a gothic or symphonic sound to the scene, but this was different, black Southern gothic in a much different but no less potent tradition, backed by the utterly fearsome vocals and writing of Franklin James Fisher. And it was the sort of fully formed debut that of course landed a spot on multiple of my year lists for songs and albums, but really the potential represented by this band was far more thrilling, and not just because when hip-hop looking to sample gospel finds out this exists, it's going to cause a sea change.

No, what drew more of my attention was knowing that their sophomore project The Underside Of Power was going to necessarily get political, and this should not surprise anybody. Much of their debut painted them as harbingers of doom and a brand of violence that only even perceived between the lines of those not willing to look - and that's before we even get the exceedingly well-framed and frighteningly relevant racial commentary - but given what happened last year... yeah, I had the feeling gloves were coming off. And considering the mountains of critical acclaim this record has received already, I was really excited for this. So what did we find in The Underside of Power?

Well, unsurprising to pretty much anyone, this record is absolutely awesome, but the reason why this review is coming out today instead of a few days ago is because I wanted to give this a few more days to really sink in, if it was indeed better than the self-titled album or was more of a lateral more. And after many, many listens, I think it falls more in the latter category - overall some of the individual songs are stronger and this record easily has one of the strongest starts I've heard all year... but at the same time it can feel a tad underwritten, a little more scattershot, and maybe even a little more broadly sketched than the focused, relentless deep-dive that was the self-titled record, even if you could make the argument that the threat is a much more multi-faceted one in 2017 compared to 2015.

And that's one thing that must be placed in context immediately: while Algiers as a debut was focused solely on the black experience, The Underside Of Power aims more broadly. Oh, make no mistake, racism does come up in sharp relief on songs like 'Cry Of The Martyrs' and especially 'Cleveland', which serves as a point where murdered and forgotten black men and women come back at the end times to face those who slew or forgot them, but on the flipside to that you have 'Walk Like A Panther', which is a pretty searing indictment of those who betray or ignore black culture for the escape of the upper class and respectability politics - and it's also one of the most distorted and heavy tracks on the entire record, and a hell of a way to start things out. But that's another thing that needs to be emphasized: for as political as this record is, there's a greater sense of well-reasoned philosophy and an attempt to not just confront the banality of evil, but also how one might fight against it, provide some vestige of hope. 'Mme Rieux' is a Camus reference to a woman at peace with the idea of approaching death, but now being confronted with the possibility there's nothing coming after, and the closing track 'The Cycle/The Spiral: Time To Go Slowly' highlights how violence curls in upon itself to reach that final end, where finding some true love is what's needed to pull up out of it - which is nicely mirrored in the closing moments of the song with the slightly brighter segment, a similar snap back to a 'brighter' reality that also came on the debut, except appropriately less pronounced here. And that hope is important to stress, because while you have songs like 'Death March' highlighting how people can be turned away from the rich robbing them blind to those of the same or lower class to punch down through those balancing capitalist and fascist impulses - although it was amusing how much 'Animals' showed the self-righteous but incompetent flailing of the alt-right and yet how important it was to not sink to their level, hold the moral high ground, and remain on your guard - a song like the title track showcases that hope can indeed come when you have extreme imbalances that must correct, or some vestige of a conscience behind 'Hymn For An Average Man', where fascists who commit crimes in the banality of following the worst orders still have a haunted sleep awaiting them.

In short, Algiers showcases yet again why they're one of the smartest and more insightful groups making political commentary right now, but how does that translate to the music? Well, for me while I think the highs are truly tremendous, some of the lows are frustrating, especially on the back half of this record. I could nitpick a little bit surrounding the drum production - I don't quite think Matt Tong of Bloc Party is utilized as much as he could be, especially when you have some beats that are plainly programmed and placed a bit too close to the front of the mix - or that on the more raucous tracks the vocals can sound a little buried, or that Algiers uses a weird throaty backing vocal on songs like 'A Murmur A Sign' which I don't quite like, but that's scattered. The larger issue comes in pacing, because this record can definitely feel front-loaded - which isn't quite a bad thing, because between the distorted crunch of 'Walk Like A Panther', the huge hook and bass/handclap groove on 'Cry Of The Martyrs', and the staccato guitar switchup again the bass groove on the title track are goddamn incredible, especially with Franklin James Fisher's huge yet remarkably versatile delivery. Hell, with the synth tones on 'Death March' it's not far removed from an upper tier Depeche Mode song, and that's before you get that killer smoky guitar interlude on 'Mme Rieux' or the riotous punk side of 'Animals' or the demented, haunting breakdown of 'Cleveland' or the noisy bounce of the closing track. But in the final third of the record you get two instrumental pieces, and while neither is bad, they are a bit of a momentum killer, especially when between them you include 'Hymn For An Average Man'. Again, I like both of these pieces - 'Bury Me Standing' has a goddamn saxophone on it that sounds phenomenal - but maybe better placement throughout the album, or maybe include lyrics for one to flesh out themes, or at least for 'Plague Years' fade out instead of the abrupt ending, but as it is, they could have been better used.

But as a whole, this record is tremendous, easily one of the best and most relevant records of 2017 - and yet the broad thoughtfulness of the political content doesn't feel rushed or forced, and yet approached with the gravity and real sense of populism that gives it huge weight. And again, the fact that Algiers have fully developed and only seem to be enhancing this gothic blend of gospel, soul, post-punk and noise, a sound that very few if any are doing right now, makes this band one of the most unique and potent of this decade. For me it's a 9/10 and if you haven't heard it yet, you definitely should - for a lot of people, I think it's just the hammering groove they've been looking for.

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