Algiers’ self-titled 2015 debut album was an incendiary piece of work, a nightmare of social and economic injustices played out by three politically aware individuals who mixed soul with industrial music and delivered a stunning record. It felt relevant upon its release and moreover, it felt important to have an American indie rock band’s commentary upon society’s ills, something that sets Algiers apart from their peers. Informed by the evils of capitalism, police brutality, and the Black Lives Matter movement, follow up The Underside Of Power feels absolutely vital by comparison, arriving as it does onto a political landscape which has veered dangerously to the right in the last 12 months.
The first voice you hear on album opener ‘Walk Like A Panther’ is that of Black Panther Fred Hampton, shot dead by Chicago police in 1969. Ryan Mahan’s ominous bass and industrial beats yield to the urgency of Franklin James Fisher’s rallying cry which is at once a howl and command, calling out the politicians on Capitol Hill who sold their people out. ‘Cry Of The Martyrs’ references Che Guevara and is a tribute to lost souls who fought battles they knew they could not win, Fisher primarily singing alone but soon joined by his choir in a defiant act of support. The title track is one of the best songs of the year, its Motown drums and single piano note breakdown recalling The Supremes’ ‘ You Keep Me Hanging On’. One of the most upbeat tracks on the album, the lyrics offer similar hope with Fisher’s unshakeable belief that resistance will win out. ‘Death March’ by comparison sees Algiers channel Depeche Mode and Joy Division, with ex Bloc Party man Matt Tong hammering out post-punk rhythms. Lyrics about empty towers, dying in the gutter and state-sanctioned assassination are prophetic and especially poignant in the wake of Grenfell.
The charge towards the barricades stops briefly for a period of reflection on ‘A Murmur. A Sign’ and ‘Mme Rieux’, the latter a ghost ballad pushing Fisher’s voice to the fore before cloaking it in Lee Tesche’s doom riffs and mournful gospel voices. Part two of The Underside Of Power begins with ‘Cleveland’, the city where Tamir Rice was killed by police in 2014, the heart of the song being the call-and-response section where Fisher bellows the names of past victims to hear them ominously respond “We’re coming back”. ‘Animals’ is a furious Otis Redding meets Ministry rocker on which Algiers issue a final warning as the album begins its descent with the sombre ‘A Hymn For An Average Man’, a piano led shuffle interrupted by a Fields of the Nephilim-like chord. ‘Bury Me Standing’ is a prelude to album closer ‘The Cycle/The Spiral: Time To Go Down Slowly’ which reflects on the endless cycle of violence before offering an important flicker of hope “I cried out for power, someday I will find it.”
It’s an arguably darker record than their debut, and although familiar elements of Algiers’ sound remain (fizzing hi-hats, warped guitars, handclaps), there is more high end in the production lending it a colder sparser feel than its predecessor. It sounds cavernous as gospel choirs creep up on you with warnings to heed, more portents of doom than saviours of soul. Using numerous producers and engineers, the band themselves felt constrained by personal and financial issues and to a degree rushed the recording. That is somewhat evident in some of the tracks which feel undercooked but overall The Underside Of Power is a worthy successor to Algiers, and is certainly one of 2017’s most important records.