In a turbulent political climate, Algiers channels outrage into hope
At a time of near-daily political upheaval, pop culture has seen an uptick in art that reflects a time when “#resist” is a common sight on Twitter.
But while TV and movies have seen adaptations of Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel “The Handmaid’s Tale” on Hulu and an Oscar-nominated documentary about James Baldwin, pop music and indie rock, by contrast, have been relatively silent.
One exception: Algiers, a multi-ethnic band with roots in Atlanta whose sophomore album, “The Underside of Power” (out June 23), doesn’t just touch on police shootings and the right-wing movements that fueled Brexit and Donald Trump — it addresses them head on with an urgent mix of Northern soul, echo-laden industrial rock and gospel.
“Politics is about community and being together and existing. All that stuff is reflected in our personal experiences and when we play,” said bassist Ryan Mahan, who was reached by phone along with lead singer Franklin James Fisher during a recent tour stop in Paris, where Algiers is opening for Depeche Mode. “Yes, we feel discouraged — that’s the point. But we can come together and reflect that in some way.”
And yet the band’s members don’t feel like their form of protest music is an anomaly in 2017.
“I think it’s always there, you just have to know where to look,” says Fisher. “We find ourselves in a particularly fortunate situation wherein we have somewhat of an audience and somewhat of a platform where we can be recognized and heard.” (Algiers plays the Echoplex on July 18.)
Apart from new drummer Matt Tong (formerly of Bloc Party), the members of Algiers — all now in their 30s — first met as students at Georgia State University in the early ’00s. But the band didn’t come into being until years later when Fisher was living in France, Mahan in London and guitarist Lee Tesch in Atlanta. The trio sent song ideas to one another long distance, which led to the 2015 release of a self-titled debut on the indie label Matador.
A haunted vision of post-punk refracted through elements of gospel, R&B and funk, the album channeled a spiritually charged protest music that proudly referenced the past while sounding like the future.
For the follow-up, Algiers expanded its scope by working with Portishead’s Adrian Utley, who helped shape a more electronics-shaded sound courtesy of a collection of vintage synthesizers. But a new record didn’t come easy for a band that needed to navigate the demands of geographic differences, day jobs and new creative methods.
“We’ve always been, for lack of a better term, like a bedroom band,” said Fisher, who like Tong now lives in New York City. “A lot of that composition includes editing, and we had to hand those reins over.”
“We have a very particular and unique process that sometimes is even opaque to us,” added Mahan. “We were hoping to trust the process, but at the end of the day, we learned that we also have a very clear idea of what we want.”
The result is “The Underside of Power,” an album that announces its intention with its opening track, “Walk Like a Panther.” Bookended by a sample from a speech by slain Black Panthers leader Fred Hampton, the hard-hitting track finds Fisher soaring over rumbles of synthesizer and a crisp, mechanized beat and reaching for a cry for action: “When everything that was solid finally melts into air, and all the Champagne runs sour, will we finally have your ear?”
Like many of the album’s lyrics, these were written by Fisher while working at a coat-check counter at a Manhattan nightclub, and he described it as a “love letter” to many hip-hop superstars.
“I’m primarily talking about how the culture industry manufactures and perpetuates negative stereotypes about black people and how that resonates back within the communities,” he says. “But I’m also indicting people who are complicit in that perpetuation of caricature for their own personal gain, for their wealth, for their stature without regard for how what they’re doing sends shock waves through the community.”
Recorded at Peter Gabriel’s Real World Studios in England, the album was also framed by the country’s Brexit movement, which unfolded as the band was working with Utley. “There was very much a sense of dread that we shared in the initial sessions,” says Fisher. “The environment is always going to have some kind of role in what it is that you create, because you’re reflecting the world that you’re in.”
And yet, for all the darkness outside the studio, the album is most striking for its moments of hope. With an echo of Sam Cooke, the title track is the record’s catchiest moment, with a driving beat, a flinty guitar and a murmured assurance that “One day, a change is gonna come.”
Inspired by the police shooting of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, “Cleveland” in part feels like a requiem with its roll call of other victims of violence, but keeps its focus forward with an uplifting call-and-response and repeated promises that “innocence is alive and it’s coming back one day.”
“I think what you pick up on in the record is that in the darkness there is a tiny bit of light,” Mahan says. “And in that light there is a look toward the future, and that it’s OK to attempt to articulate some alternative future rather than what we’ve been peddled.”
Of course, in a divided 2017, it’s nearly impossible to take such stands without a backlash from the other side, whether online or elsewhere. Should Algiers’ profile continue to rise, that remains a possibility.
“I hope they do,” Fisher says. “Whenever you endeavor in any sort of public art form, that’s inevitable, regardless of whether or not you’re vocally political.
“At least, this way, people know where we stand and what it is that we stand for.”
Follow me over here @chrisbarton.
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