Music Reviews
The Underside of Power

Algiers The Underside of Power

(Matador) Buy it from Insound Rating - 8/10

It’s not easy to exactly pinpoint how our current political crisis started. There are many layers to really place the blame on any set political agenda, and depending on how you look it there’s a myriad of reasons to justify a nation’s discontent. Which is why it’s equally troubling to assume that music will ever play a role in solving any of our problems. There’s been something of a collective apathy in the current musical landscape, as if the better option is to proceed with caution as everything slowly unravels. And in this day and age of false information and cocktail napkin-written resolutions, the vast incredulity of public governance, treated as a normal way of everyday life, lulls us into a perpetual state of fantasy. So there’s certainly a risk to demonstrate your convictions with haste, to avoid sounding dated when the moments’ passed. But does it ever just pass?

This is a question that Algiers pose on their second release, The Underside of Power. It’s a difficult discourse to be had amid such partisan imbalance, though according to passionate frontman Franklin Fisher, he sees dissent amongst the opposition as merely a small function of the vast and cyclical nature of history. This slice-of-the-pie approach is more effective, and even Fisher himself doubts the effectiveness of protest, there’s still much value in doing what you can regardless of the outcome. From a musical standpoint, Algiers is a fitting platform to get that message across, as their biting, immersive post-punk also tends to rattle its more undeviating conventions. And though maybe not in the way that Slade once envisioned, Fisher isn’t shy to assume the mantle of rock n’ roll preacher: "And I see the light and I see the sea / Despite the future crashing down and closing over me,” he croons over a shrieking industrial beat, as he waits for a divine being to pour out his holy wrath on the world.

Fisher’s source of inspiration stems from a Christian background, though he argues these ideas within the trio’s fearless knack for reinvention. Much of the lyrical imagery on The Underside of Power is informed by a more bookish examination of diverse philosophical teachings, a practice that enhances the band’s intellectual and all-inclusive discourse. There’s a confrontational energy to The Underside of Power that encourages conversation, and not just rapturous abandon. It’s an unorthodox approach that immediately distinguishes them. The simmering title track takes many directions within its four minute format: it begins with a charging synth line that never ceases, which subdues once Fisher elevates his voice to the highest high as he proclaims over a buoyant chorus: “Because I’ve seen the underside of power/ It’s just a game that can’t go on/ It could break down any hour/ I’ve seen their faces and I’ve known them all.” In his view, the powerless will struggle, but that doesn’t mean that there’s always the slightest chance to overcome the odds.

These polarizing forces are what keep Algiers from falling into a specific template: the bleak and grimy production of Walk Like a Panther sounds like it could’ve been conceived by The Infamous-era Mobb Deep, though they emphasize the track’s sparse instrumental samples with a euphoric message that makes a stance on the Black Power movement. Meanwhile, the gloomy swirl of Death March adopts eighties mope rock as Fisher shines the spotlight on the never-ceasing reality of systemic racism: “This is how hate keeps passing on.” Their steadfast deviation of usual rock dynamics is further subverted as it approaches its final stretch, utilizing piercing instrumental shards of noise to depict a potentially fatal occurrence - though undercut with a faint glimmer of hope.

Algiers’ form of resistance never offers an easy path. And though Fisher errs on the optimistic side, he’s just as vitriolic about bringing justice without the slightest sign of sympathy. He’s just percipient about what’s to come, considering the slow progress we’ve made. He leaves his final warning on The Cycle/The Spiral: Time Will Go Down Slowly, and referencing Nina Simone’s version of Sinnerman no less, trying to make sense of how violence thrives when in the hands of the merciless. It’s a solemn way to end The Underside of Power, but also a necessary one, even if the journey to get to that finale unfolds with a conflicting glut of emotions. Algiers are aware of the eye roll responses when artists denounce and provoke the broader culture, and how it ultimately doesn’t amount to much. Their response? To take it as far as they can.