Algiers’ ‘The Underside Of Power’ Is A Chaotic And Sanctified Soundtrack For Revolution

To a certain underprivileged class of people, the election of Donald Trump already sounded like an old saw. Have you heard the one where America isn’t as enlightened as it likes to pretend to be? That brings us to Algiers latest album The Underside Of Power. The band rose to prominence in 2015 with the smashed-together sounds of industrial, soul music and gospel. But on their new album, the sampling of other eras sounds like a reminder of just how long folks have been dealing with this kind of bullsh*t. When I spoke to several of the band member’s last month, they shared their lack of surprise over the current state of the world.

“Just being in a band and traveling around, you are kind of in tune to these negative attitudes that are always there,” said lead singer Franklin James Fisher, who wails throughout the raucous album like a reeling preacher intent on making his sermon stick in the frontal lobes of his flock via brute force. “You can feel it constantly bubbling under the false, cellophane facade of liberalism.”

“We have these benchmarks now, culminations of what’s been going on in Brexit and Donald Trump,” he said. “It shows that we’re not being paranoid. Much of this album was written before Trump. But the rise of right-wing populism around the world, if you’ve been paying attention, really isn’t much of a surprise at all.”

Drummer Matt Tong seconded that idea, citing hip-hop and its decades-long track record of reporting the facts on the ground for poor black Americans.

“Hip-hop has always been sort of a news network for Black America,” he said. “People who get it have been talking about it for a long time.”

It’s no surprise that the group was thinking of hip-hop when they made Power. A keen ear catches the booming and dark influence of producers like Lex Luger in the album’s drums. The claustrophobic sounds of Atlanta’s most crabbucket neighborhoods are slotted right alongside snatches from the political era of Motown and the angry basement shouts of punk rock.

It’s all part of what Franklin called an attempt to “incorporate aspects of every and any social or historical movement that engages in emancipatory politics.” But if that abstract sounds a little academic, the album as it exists is anything but. The band put forth the effort of bottling the manic energy of their live shows, and the resulting album comes across somewhere between a tent revival and Northern Soul night in Thatcherite England.

It might be difficult to jibe church imagery and religious text with the idea of revolutionary politics, especially when you consider the often-cited relationship between Christianity and the American right-wing. But trust that it’s not difficult to reckon the two when Fisher drops lines from Revelation over a song like “Cry Of The Martyrs.” Algiers’ music is a stark reminder that almost all religion is built on the revolutionary idea that there’s a better world than this out there, and it’s a place where you can be a little more free.

Given the scope of the music — and the fact that they are wielding a mash-up of century’s worth of protest music to talk about the many ways in which we still haven’t touched Calvary — it would be easy for Algiers to adopt a fatalist outlook. Drawing from these many eras could’ve lead them to settle on a “things are as bad as they’ve always been” ethos and leave it at that. But Franklin carries a lot of the church in both his vocal delivery and the stories he chooses to tell. It’s clear that he learned a lesson that most preachers intrinsically know: You have to end on a high note leave the congregation with a feeling that things can get better.

“I’ve seen the underside of power,” Franklin shares on the album’s upbeat title track. “Yeah, it’s a game that can’t go on.” That positivity, like much of what makes up the album, is a flashback to a vibe from another generation.

“Our parent’s generation had really good music,” Fisher said. “And it was all about how people were just so sick of it. It wasn’t a game, this was peoples’ lives. And it addressed real issues… But why can’t you have something that realizes it’s a miracle we’re still here while still talking about what’s going on?”

That’s not to say that the album is entirely all positive either. There is a song on here called “Death March,” after all, and it’s commenting on a world that has real problems. But — fittingly for a band that likes to slam together sounds that shouldn’t work on paper — Algiers’ doom-wop is willing to hold multiple realities in its head at once.

Franklin calls the album “upbeat and celebratory” even though “there is something very tangibly wrong with the world.” But, then again, you can’t preach only fire and brimstone and expect parishioners to be energized enough to do the hard work of making change outside of the sanctuary.

“I think you have to imply that there is something better,” he said. “Without that embedded optimism, it’s too easy to fall into a vortex of nihilism… It’s too easy to imprint this idea that the world is good vs. evil and that it doesn’t matter what you do. You have to remind people that hope is possible.”

The swirling, skittering and grey tracks on The Underside Of Power might not sound your parent’s version of hope for the future, but it’s the perfect soundtrack as this generation works out how to fight back in its own messy way.

The Underside Of Power is out today via Matador Records. Get it here.