Two years in the making, Atlanta experimental outfit Algiers’ followup to their self-titled 2015 debut has landed without making too much of a splash – but it’s one of 2017’s most severely overlooked records. The Underside of Power is political protest music at it’s best; harsh and unflinching, both musically and ideologically, and unwilling to waver for any of its stylistic diversions or powerful sentiments. Algiers’ debut proved the band as one of modern music’s most innovative groups – somehow fusing the sounds of gospel, post-punk, and industrial music together into something sort of psychedelic soul turned noise rock, yet infatuated with both the band’s more experimental tendencies as well as a knack for soulful hooks. With The Underside of Power, Algiers captures 2017’s political climate to produce an album perhaps even more daring than their debut.
In so many ways, it’s surprising that Algiers’ music even works. On paper, it seems simply so wrong – the idea of industrial noise and classic gospel coming together sounds like far from a match made in heaven – yet somehow, it is. The Underside of Power’s most poignant and unforgettable tracks are those where their long list of stylistic influences all have their part to play. Lead single and title track The Underside of Power starts noisily and sloppily, in true experimental fashion, but within moments Algiers transform the track into a catchy groove, with this endlessly funky bassline and a soul-clap rhythm that hooks you in and doesn’t let go. And with such a soulful yet politically charged refrain, Algiers showcase their raw energy and sincere spirit. You just can’t help but be caught in up in their message, their music, or both.
Or there’s the two part finale track The Cycle/The Spiral, where hard hitting gospel piano stabs drive the track forward as much as distorted guitars do. And Cry of the Martyrs, with it’s infectious walking bass and layers upon layers of harsh noise culminates in something so jarring, yet so memorable. Even instrumental sections like the glitchy electronica of Plague Years or the moody ambience of Bury Me Standing are equally as haunting and unforgettable as those tracks backed by gripping vocals and direct political messages. At times, Algiers are incredibly abrasive, harsh, perhaps even totally indistinct, but what grounds their experimentation are those roots in African-American gospel and classic Southern soul – every piece of their warped post-punk puzzle is framed by a lens of heartfelt blues.
But Algiers are a band never short of ideas. The band leaps from idea to idea, all linked in a certain soulfulness and an affinity with harsh noise – tracks like Walk Like a Panther and Animals have the band wear their influences in industrial rock on their sleeve, with noisy drum fills and aggressive vocal energy, showcasing the band’s perhaps more straightforward side, if you could call it that. Inspirations from synthpop and new wave ring true on the gloomy noise pop of songs like Death March or Cleveland – it feels wrong to be caught up in those electronic grooves and danceable moments when frontman and lead vocalist Franklin James Fisher delivers these torturous laments on racism and discrimination, but it’s a formula that works so well in getting their political sentiments across. It’s an album where vocals are so paramount – both frightening cries and gospel-esque performances prove themselves equally potent in presenting the band’s protests.
But slower tracks and melancholy ballads are as much Algiers’ place as aggression. A Murmur. A Sign. is a glitchy and soulful ballad, where synthetic drums, drifting guitars, and haunting choirs come together for a lingering and frightening piece, while Mme Rieux combines light piano melodies with distorted guitar riffs and eerie choruses to form something truly bittersweet. And then there’s Hymn for an Average Man, a prayer-like piece that drifts between soulful pianos, stirring string sections, and religious undertones before evolving into a composition of musique concrete – unnerving squeaks and off-kilter keys enter the fray, but its over just as quickly as it started – that typical aggressive Algiers guitar work and heavy percussion takes over the show before returning to a melancholic gospel section to close out the track.
The Underside of Power is Algiers at their best. It’s an album that’s just so many things at their best; conscious music, noise rock, industrialism, experimentation, gospel, soul, post-punk – all of these concepts are things that Algiers executes brilliantly when some bands can’t even perfect one of them. This is politically charged riot music for those kids who like harsh noise as much as they like dancing – there’s a sort of beautiful paradox in the distinct soul-punk style Algiers have carved out for themselves, and ultimately it’s an impressive feat to be able to create music that inspires people to protest the rise of neo-Fascism through abrasive funk jams and addictive industrial soul. Once again, Algiers have delivered one of the year’s most unforgettable albums and an undeniably essential piece of listening.