Algiers, “The Underside of Power”

In case you missed it, 2015 was a year filled with black revolutionary voices that presaged the forthcoming white id that defines America’s current political hell. There was a sense during that year, that if only we listened we could have assisted in accomplishments of emancipation, even piecemeal, or merely understood dynamics of power to make better political decisions (both mainstream and subversive). We didn’t listen; we never do, and we should not be afforded triumphant revolutionary music while the activists and everyday citizens that courageously wear embodiment-as-targets continue the work that we were too cowardly to hear, let alone join in years ago. So we stand, in 2017, a political hell that should not whatsoever be understood for its apparently absurd displays of political legitimation crises but instead understood for its validation of old and simple white power politics, law and order politics, a form of politics that was just as absurd in 1960s but never taught that way to generations of students schooled by multiculturalism (rather than militant civil rights) since the 1990s. We were taught multiculturalism as inevitability, and so we stood and watched our great historical moment when we had one million chances to enact simple acts of justice. Now we stand in a sea of white power, which even if it is the last gasping breath of white power politics (as many hope) is white power politics all the same. We couldn’t even listen two years ago. Will we listen now?

“It’s not a question of faith / It’s just a matter of time / We all fall down.”

I feel like reviews are completely missing this context underlying Algiers’ The Underside of Power (Matador Records). I was there, in June 2015 when the Chicago Blackhawks rode a genocidal mascot to Championship with cheers bleeding through the walls of Schubas Tavern while Franklin James Fisher sang “Games” from the band’s debut album. Never have I heard such an honest and stark, fitting, immediate juxtaposition of cultural readings of America. Why do you come around saying my house is burning? Algiers, and timeless local supporters ONO, played in the shadow of cultural dominance, of cultural blindness, a very clear example of how simply Americans could turn from their respective mass hysteria of sports entertainment comas to the room next door and hear the revolutionary experience in first person. So, it’s a little ridiculous to experience something like this first hand and read Pitchfork reviews of the new Algiers record that call out the band’s politics, or the immediacy, or their unwillingness to name certain persons within their politics. The murder of a child by the state — the young victim named Tamir Rice — went unnamed on “Cleveland,” but was there a need to name Tamir on a song that emphasized that these same evil forces have pervaded since 1963? (Obnox also did not expressly name Tamir Rice when he released a scathing cover of Neil Young’s “Ohio.” Was that somehow less of a political statement?) Or down in Jackson, Mississippi they don’t have to hide? Much like the latest Moor Mother record, Sandra Bland is coming back from the dead, too, as are many others, the wide open past that haunts white power even as white power is powerful, the past is coming back again to reclaim this violent narrative thrust upon innocent victims of the state. It’s ridiculous that Pitchfork questioned this, or that Rolling Stone threw this in as a toss off line about another way to “mangle the blues.”

The new Algiers album is fucking urgent, but it’s an urgency that we can no longer understand in the daily portrayal of absurdity and power in America. It was all over before it began, but Algiers capture that wicked anger of the revolution having happened while no one was listening. All we needed to do was listen! We don’t deserve a triumphant album about the beauty of emancipation, which by the way was more fitting a task for Algiers (Matador), the debut album that established a form of post-colonial, black power sound couched in a brilliant blend of industrial and gospel music. Rather, Algiers return, timely as ever, with an album about the struggle of black power. The struggle of any revolution. The struggle for human decency; the struggle for minority embodiment not to be victims of state violence. I can’t claim to understand it, as a reviewer; this music is not my personal experience, but rather I must try and understand what the band is speaking to, and I feel this pain as well in the inability to achieve emancipation while at the same time never having to face physical danger for my inability to do so. Right on time, Algiers deliver an album that speaks to the challenges of political action after a series of unconscionable loss. There’s a reason Fred Hampton opens this album; it’s not a trope, it’s not to call the listener to be a revolutionary, or even to speak to the possibility of revolution. This is a black man, another victim of state violence, calling off in sequence, “I am the proletariat / I am the people / I’m not the pig:” at once calling power in a manner that disembodies power from the state, in complete contradiction to the godforsaken death experienced by so many. It’s ridiculous for any music publication, let alone Pitchfork or Rolling Stone, to criticize or question the political motives of a band like Algiers delivering this message in what is clearly an album suited to carry forward the vision of Hampton in both its triumphant aspects and its forlorn aspects.

On the flip, Algiers deserve reviews of their work that place politics aside momentarily and treat the power of the music that supports the message. Alongside Franklin James Fisher, Lee Tesche, Ryan Mahan, and Matt Tong played the record they were born to play, channeling the diverse edges of their gospel, rhythm and blues, industrial, and punk roots into something that is entirely menacing and nearly unrecognizable to American mainstream music in many ways. The first single, which shares the album’s name, “The Underside of Power,” immediately bridges Algiers to an aspect of political soul music that often goes underrated in American history. Many underlying elements of this record would be at home on Gordy Records just as much as Matador Records in 2017, and that soulfulness carries through the punk burner “Animals,” closing track “The Cycle / The Spiral,” or the dark electronic “Plague Years.” Deep cuts like “Death March” are entirely alien, blending the shrieking noise of Tesche’s approach with Mahan’s punk-as-synthetics execution. Again, previous reviews get this record dead wrong: the density of styles harkens immediately to the density of history littered with victims of state violence from every walk of life, often unclassifiable, often from complete disparate backgrounds, but drawn together through one common embodiment once and for all. This is the Underside of Power as I hear it, and feel it, every time I listen to it, be it in dark moments, bright days, or the morning commute. Tesche and Mahan consolidate brilliant synthetics and metallic shrieks into backbones, and from playing with Tong, the album has a live feeling that is one of the only things missing from the debut record at some points. Algiers sound mean and sharp this record, and they deserve to be recognized for their advances in songwriting and delivery without constantly being judged for whether their politics fit the way that mainstream outlets would prefer them to write about the responses of black power and class justice to white power and state violence.

There are intriguing next steps on this album as well, steps that show the soulfulness of “The Underside of Power” and the pace of “Games” headed in the deepest possible direction. “Mme Rieux” is positively Beatles-esque in its layering of keys, synthetics, and thundering guitars, perhaps the Abbey Road outtake snuck into a 2017 record. “Hymn for an Average Man” carries this feeling into another dense and suspenseful ballad. These songs show Algiers as a band ready to showcase their flexibility while flexing their muscle, and anyone who calls the density of their music a weakness simply has not listened to the album enough (and anyway, since when is delivering dense and diverse music a flaw?). I think it’s important to understand this record as the band presents it, as it exists in the band’s discography and history, and as it exists in music criticism, for I think the critics thus far have missed an important point that stands as the occasion for the full record in the first place: all we had to do was listen. There is a veritable black revolution occurring through sound, in concert with discussions about politics of emancipation, just as there is a veritable revolution existing beneath the surface of every aspect of American life. But as we turn our backs, either refusing to listen or denigrating those forces when they emerge, we ourselves become mechanisms of state violence, perpetuating the occasion for these protests once again. So why is it our power to say that we fail to understand them, criticize their political delivery, and thus dismiss them?