Out of Black Panther Fred Hampton’s stirring words anticipating his own assassination, Algiers’ second album The Underside of Power explodes in a ratatat of trap-style hi-hats and soulful defiance. ‘We won’t be led to slaughter / This is self-genocide’, lead singer Franklin James Fisher roars into a mic frothing with reverb and distortion.
‘Walk Like a Panther’ is an incendiary opener that encapsulates the ferocious intensity of Algiers’ sound and committed political engagement. It took three tracks for the band to fully hit their stride on their 2015 self-titled debut – here, in one song, they are already prowling with purposeful menace. ‘The Cry of the Martyrs’ – with its nervous bass, bombastic backing choir and echoes of the grand, sweeping riff of Radiohead’s ‘Where I End And You Begin’ – powers brilliantly into the album’s title track and standout single. Featuring a catchy soul chorus and infectious gospel handclaps, ‘The Underside of Power’ is the most joyous and radio-friendly song Algiers have created to date (aside from its bridge where all this makes way for a horror show of ghoulish cries and crashing cymbals).
‘The Underside of Power’ is an important moment in the band’s development: proof that they don’t need to compromise their distinctive sound or political cynicism to create music that is hopeful, unifying and even poppy. Gospel music, ingrained in Fisher from childhood, is perhaps the most powerful influence on the album. Other single ‘Cleveland’ takes the cathartic communal energy of gospel and turns it into a nightmarish lament as Fisher evokes recent institutional murders of Black US citizens. Again the song disintegrates midway through into a haunting cacophony of inconsolable sobs and screeches.
As with their debut, The Underside of Power showcases Algiers’ remarkable ability to inhabit and adapt different genres. ‘Death March’ is a gritty industrial track dominated by a low, looming bass groove, tribalistic toms and New Order-esque synth lines, closed by Lee Tesche’s wailing bowed-guitar outro. On the album’s later tracks, the band add jazz to their already diverse repertoire. ‘Hymn For The Average Man’ circles around a simple piano, sampled to sound like a stuck record, before breaking out into a loose, swinging cool – Ryan Mahan’s bass playing is excellent here as it is throughout. Meanwhile, final track ‘The Cycle / The Spiral’ channels the spirit of ‘Sinnerman’ by Nina Simone – one of the band’s shared heroes – in its restless piano and walking (more like running) bassline. This favouring of piano over guitar as lead instrument, in addition to greater use of self-sampling, show further progression in Algiers’ songwriting.
While The Underside of Power manages to be both diverse and cohesive, not every song is as strongly developed as it could be. ‘A Murmur. A Sign’ builds eerily and understatedly, but feels ultimately incomplete. The punky driving beat and scratchy guitars of ‘Animals’ lack the same clout they carry live. And two atmospheric instrumentals near the album’s conclusion, in addition to the final track’s repetitive motifs and extended fadeout, means The Underside of Power, like its predecessor, does not build toward the devastating finale it deserves.
What cannot be faulted is the prescience and potency of The Underside of Power’s vocals and lyrics. Franklin James Fisher’s delivery and phrasing is masterfully versatile, singing softly and sorrowfully on ‘Mme Rieux’, where he manages to make the word ‘exegesis’ sound almost sensual, while bellowing condemnation and absolution like a preacher standing atop a burning pulpit on ‘Cleveland’. From polemics against Trump and today’s corporate media to imagining Che Guevara’s end days, Algiers’ unrelenting political consciousness is not just timely, but has a historical scope that explores the roots of fascism, racism and class oppression. The apocalyptic, T. S. Eliot-inspired imagery and finger-pointing, accusatory ‘you’ from their first album now has a sharper focus on the collective strength of ‘us’ and what ‘we’ can do to bring about change.
Algiers’ message is just as sincere, just as angry, just as visceral as before – but now carries glimmers of hope. In a critical humanitarian moment, the band exhilaratingly back up their uncompromising revolutionary ideals with a radically powerful sound. The Underside of Power is simultaneously the most fearless and thoughtful album of the year. It’s not an easy listen – but these aren’t easy times to live in.
Featured image: The Aucklander.