Since Algiers debuted in 2015 with their inspired blend of post-punk/goth/industrial/art rock with gospel and soul, another band, Zeal & Ardor, has gotten attention for mixing gospel with black metal. They actually predated Algiers’ full length with a 2014 debut, but people have really begun to respond this past six months to music that taps into righteous rage that draws on music that evolved during 400 years of slavery. Algiers’ history goes back a while too, as guitarist Lee Tesche, bassist Ryan Mahan knew each other growing up in Atlanta, to the point where they are not quite clear on when exactly the band formed. We do know that at some point, vocalist Franklin James Fisher joined, Tesche and Mahan departed to London for post-graduate studies, and they released a 7″ single in 2012. While the Algiers debut is brilliant, brimming over with ideas and expanding on innovations by bands like TV On The Radio who initially incorporated doo-wop into art rock, The Underside Of Power sees them continue to explore diverse genres while drilling down into a more focused, seething anger. Their power is aided with the addition of former Bloc Party drummer Matt Tong. Like the first album, a vivid focal point (whether he wants it to be or not) is Fisher’s vocals, which boast a loaded toolbox that evoke gothic dread, spitting aggression and even sweet soulful melody.
On opener “Walk Like A Panther,” Fisher wails and screams as if he’s already in Hell, backed by explosive post-industrial noise. Significantly, the song samples a speech from murdered Black Panther Fred Hampton, which gives an early indication of where this band is going. “Cry Of The Martyrs” like psychedelic era Temptations infused with a hybrid of gospel soul and gothic doom. Is it a call to arms or the ringing of the apocalypse? With the biblical imagery of locusts and calling for the cavalry, it’s a bit of both. “The Underside Of Power” brings to mind updates to R&B and soul from British groups like The Style Council and Fine Young Cannibals, but roughed up with some noisy post-punk. If there’s any doubt to the lyrical sentiments, the video puts those to rest, a menacing re-imagining of a Weather Underground/Black Panther type of revolutionary organization in a grimy compound. It’s nothing new for the band to have political content. After all, the band was named after The Battle of Algiers, a 1966 film about the anti-colonial uprising in the 1950s.
“Death March” is a glorious mix of synth heavy darkwave equally informed by early Cure and Italian prog horror soundtracks, applying the sentiments of T.S. Eliot’s “The Hollow Men,” to the horrific political climate with Brexit and the “crypto-fascist contagion” at the time they were recording in Bristol, England. “A Murmur. A Sign” continues the synth doom vibe to great effect. I would not be surprised if this were used in the next season of Stranger Things. The remarkably fresh take on a blend of these genres can be partly attributed to the production team chosen by the band, which includes Portishead’s Adrian Utley and Ali Chant. The album was mixed by Randall Dunn (Boris, Black Mountain, Sunn O)))), with post-production by Ben Greenberg (Hubble, Uniform).
“Cleveland” samples “Peace Be Still” by Rev. James Cleveland, and may be their most direct addressing current events, namely innocent black people murdered by cops, like Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland. It’s well chosen as the album’s second single after the title track. “Animals” is fast and furious, basically a hardcore punk song, giving the album a prickly edge that can be hard to get into at first, but is a well-placed injection of driving, kinetic energy. That energy is diffused on “Plague Years” a short, eerie instrumental. “Hymn For The Average Man” sounds like an ambient Massive Attack track, ending with a repeated loop. This track has grown in stature from repeated listens, as it’s seeming simplicity blossoms into something bigger and psychedelic. “Bury Me Standing” is yet another short ambient interlude composed by Tesch and Tong. It would make more sense to have those pieces on a sprawling double album, but on this 44 and a half minute album, it leaves me wishing for at least one more fully fleshed out song. But it’s better to be left wanting more. The album concludes with one last tune, “The Cycle/The Spiral: Time To Go Down Slowly,” driven by piano and clapping that brings to mind Nina Simone’s superior, epic “Sinnerman.” In this sense, it’s a mistake to reference that song because this falls short, illustrating that the band still has some room for growth to achieve that kind of immortal power. But the fact that they aspire to those heights is reassuring.
More jolting than comforting, The Underside Of Power is an imperfect but bracing document of our times, bristling with rage and indignation. And just like reality, it might provide some catharsis and hope, or possibly leave one feeling more enervated or even eviscerated. What it will not do is leave one bored. Certainly a contender for album of the year so far, destined to be remembered for a long time.