Algiers and the Political Structures of Noise

by Robert Loss

17 July 2017

How can there be a political movement if we're unwilling to move? Algiers connects past and present for the sake of the future.
Publicity photo courtesy of Matador Records  
cover art

Algiers

The Underside of Power

(Matador Records)
US: 23 Jun 2017

Review [27.Jun.2017]

I. Prologue

On a Friday night in March, 1921, a white mob marched toward the Levee, one of the larger black parts of town in Springfield, Ohio, looking for a man whose name they didn’t even know. Four days prior, a white 11-year-old girl named Marge Ferneau claimed she was assaulted by a black man asking for directions. On Wednesday night the mob had approached the city jail, driven by rumors that the sheriff had locked up a suspect, and ready, no doubt, to lynch the man. But there was no suspect inside. The sheriff even allowed a few men to check the jail themselves. By Friday night, the mob was ready for war, but what it found waiting on the promenade of the Levee must have been surprising.

As Darnell Edward Carter, now a lawyer in Springfield, writes in his Master’s thesis  on the subject, “That evening, the Center Street YMCA basketball team was playing the team from the black Wabash Street YMCA in Chicago.” Alerted of trouble, the players stopped the game and “poured into” the Metropolitan hotel, a black-owned business on Washington Street, to load up with baseball bats, pool sticks, anything they could find on short notice. That group was soon reinforced by “fifty men carrying Springfield rifles.” Some of these black men were probably veterans of what was then just called the World War.

Why were they so prepared? Carter writes that one community leader, Chatman M. Patterson, a mortician, had taken note of the increased racial tensions across the country, particularly in the summer of 1919 during which race riots broke out in Chicago, Washington D.C., and smaller cities, including Longview, Texas. “From June through December 1919,” writes Carter, “seventy-six blacks were lynched and there were twenty-five riots. Among those lynched were ten black soldiers, some still wearing their uniforms.”

There was also local precedent. In 1904, whites in Springfield lynched a black man, Richard Dixon, who’d shot a police officer after shooting his former lover, Mamie Corbin. Corbin survived; the officer, Charles Collis, did not. After forcibly removing Dixon from his cell, a white crowd shot him, hanged him, and shot him again. “After the body was stripped for souvenirs,” writes Carter, “the crowd gradually dispersed.” The following night, fueled by rumors of an uprising by blacks, a white mob burned the Levee. It was burned against in 1906.

Fifteen years later, another white mob approached the Levee. This time, black men lined Fountain Avenue, Center Street, Washington Avenue, and Pleasant Street, determined to defend their businesses, their neighbors, and themselves.

II. Noise

History can seem like distant noise; small, localized events like this one can seem silent. I try and fail to imagine the sounds of that night: scuffling shoes on the roads, the shouting, the low-toned instructions, doors slamming against their frames, the rural drawl in the voices as they negotiated with each other, and later that night, when the police tried to disperse the black men, the crack of gunfire that responded. None of that sounds right, though. Too expected. Too dramatic.

Nonetheless, there’s always some residual noise, and taken together, events of the past can form an overwhelming clamor—which is the starting point of “Walk Like a Panther”, the first song on Algiers’ new album The Underside of Power. A piano plays a simple, sinister arpeggio. Distortion so crunchy it just seems like static with a rhythm. Underneath it, a recording of the Black Panther leader Fred Hampton, but you can’t really make out his words. It’s a speech. There’s echo. And then there’s a martial beat, close to drill 00 the Chicago-born offspring of trap—and lead singer Franklin Fisher’s enormous voice, a gospel shout:

OHHHHHHHHHHHH-OH-OH-OHHHH. The lyrics Fisher sings are also distorted and washed in echo, enough so that only phrases pop out at you: “slaughter… self-genocide… down in the valley… final execution….”

Standing back, you can hear “Walk Like a Panther” as a letter to black revolutionaries who’ve left the revolution behind in favor of “the tower up on the hill"m the riches and distance afforded by wealth. The generational story grounds the song’s rhetoric of uprising. Fisher sings:

It should be murder for murder/
for what you did to the cause
It should be straight retribution/
but we’re your flesh and your blood
We’re your fate and your fortune/
the promise you couldn’t keep

The next song, “Cry of the Martyrs”, is what reminded me of that night in Springfield almost a century ago. Under drummer Matt Tong’s steady beat ring the eerie atmospherics of guitarist Lee Tesche. Now Fisher’s voice is up front, a classic but original-sounding gospel cry, sometimes dipping into a low throaty tone. Bassist Ryan Mahan told NPR, “Initially, I had wanted to write something that evokes the last days of Che Guevara, holed up in a cell in Bolivia, awaiting his execution,” but with these lines—-

I see the light and I see the sea/
The sun is going down/but it won’t ease the burning
I’ve seen it written on the other side of history/
Listen to the martyrs cry for me

—you can hear the thoughts of those black men in Springfield, their fear and anger and resolution. They weren’t self-proclaimed revolutionaries at all, but their action, in some way, as one stream in the great river of resistance, might have contributed to the change in what folklorists and sociologists call “folkways”, the customs and social norms. Burning down a black part of town had been, for whites, a custom to which they assumed privilege.

“Cry of the Martyrs” slips right into the album’s title track, a propulsive blend of soul swagger and the band Suicide’s drones until the chorus bursts into a beautiful pop melody. It’s Algiers’ version of pop: a catchy hook fighting against backing vocals so delayed they sound like ghosts trying to drag the song back, an alluring but harsh noise from the past. “The Underside of Power” sounds like “Ain’t No Mountain High Enough” covered by a post-punk band unconcerned with irony or cultural capital and instead trying to find some truth hidden in the song all these years. After a very Motown-like post-chorus breakdown, the song comes apart for a few seconds of noise, just total reverberation, cymbals clanging, people screaming, God knows what else—and then the chorus kicks in again.

Anyway, those are the first three songs.

There’s a trace in Algiers of what the French music theorist (and, later, economic adviser) Jacques Attali meant by “noise” in the context of late capitalism and what he called the “composition” stage of music—basically (dumbing it down for myself, you understand), D.I.Y. culture. Music is a kind of noise. In the late ‘70s, Attali saw how it might disrupt the structures of power that made passive listeners of us all. “A network can be destroyed by noises that attack and transform it,” he writes in Noise: The Political Economy of Music, “if the codes in place are unable to normalize and repress them.” While Attali emphasized the individualism of that noise, certainly bands since then have put that noise to use for the purposes of social protest—the best of which understands that protest needs to touch the individual enough to spur action. Otherwise, protest itself becomes a kind of normalization.

Attali goes on:

Although the new order is not contained in the structure of the old, it is nonetheless not a product of chance. It is created by the substitution of new differences for the old differences. Noise is the source of these mutations in the structuring codes.

And as Attali quickly points out, this isn’t entirely a new idea: Plato was worried about it. (Cast out those poets, those musicians!)

For Algiers, the noise that might mutate the codes emerges from a density of history, a cacophony of disparate sounds: gospel, punk, post-punk, soul, touches of EDM and rap, the horror film scores of the Italian prog band Goblin, which may have influenced early ‘80s synthwave, but had a more playful carnivalesque sound (and live drums, and huge pipe organs). Speaking to NPR, Mahan said, “I think what we wanted to reflect in our music—not even necessarily through the lyrics, but through the music itself—is this idea of time and memory collapsing upon one another.” It often feels as though the sheer weight of Algiers’ recombination will be too heavy for any existing “structure of the old” or its differences, which here, on The Underside of Power, are undoubtedly the differences enforced by structural racism and caste.

Throughout the album, Algiers collides and dismantles the concepts of “natural” and “technological” and their attendant meanings: old vs. new, tradition vs. progress, authentic vs. artificial, and so on. In “Cleveland”, another standout track, the use of Rev. James Cleveland’s performance of “Peace Be Still” is juxtaposed against a dragging beat and Fisher’s antistrophe for Tamir Rice, killed in Cleveland, Ohio by police on November 22, 2014. Soon another martial beat breaks out as the police appear. The gospel inflections convey the idea Fisher sings: “But innocence is alive and it’s coming back one day.”

The technology is the machinations of the state and its agents, but there’s also a sense that the half-time beat of the chorus is the rhythm that will pull the resistance forward, and that beat is just as artificial (a drum machine) as it is in the rest of the song. When the song breaks down into a listing of other black victims of institutionalized racism, a funk beat underscores the gospel call and response. In other words, “natural” and “technological” are just aesthetics which can be put to use for any purpose—and that purpose, Algiers argues, should be justice.

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This is music that can’t be normalized. I cannot imagine it being used, for instance, in a shoe commercial. (Who knows, though.) “Animals” is all technology, a furious techno-punk cry against the emerging authoritarianism and those who “feed the animals”. From that point on, The Underside of Power becomes a soundtrack for an early ‘80s dystopian film. “Plague Years”, an instrumental, pits soft atmospherics against seemingly random drum crashes; eventually a synthwave groove sneaks in. “Hymn for an Average Man” is built on a two-note piano part, like a record skipping. Meditative and marked by jazzy figures and ominous orchestrations, it’s an important move forward for the band, I think, though again, who knows for sure. It opens up empty space—a return to Algiers’ self-titled 2015 debut—but feels more robust, more musical. “Bury Me Standing” feels like a missed opportunity in comparison, but the album’s closer, “The Cycle/The Spiral: Time to Go Down Slowly”, finds some balance between space, Fisher’s voice, an earnest jazz piano, a screeching guitar by Tesche, and layers of noise.

III. Epilogue

This deep musical fusion should not, by any account, make me think of an event that happened in a small town in 1921. That, by itself, seems almost revolutionary. In “Hymn for an Average Man” I hear the aftermath of that volley of gunfire: one police officer struck in the abdomen and jaw, according to Carter. He lived. The black teenager who shot him came forward and was sent to jail, quickly, possibly to avoid a lynching. Ohio National Guardsmen were called in. Local veterans, white and black, together called for peace. Marge Ferneau survived. Her assailant, if he even existed, was never found. The Levee wasn’t burned. It was never burned again.

In 2017, we’re rightly suspicious of music that claims to be revolutionary. The normalizing forces of commerce, the spectacle, cultural institutions, and government as they relate to popular music are powerful, so I don’t blame you if you’re skeptical. But the possibility still exists. Small actions may play their role in the structure of noise—the voices of the oppressed and their allies, the voices of people who are just sick and fucking tired of being run over, shot, suppressed, arrested, buried, abandoned—a structure which might replace the old with a new order.

As Attali writes in Noise: The Political Economy of Music (Manchester University Press, 1985), a truly new structure isn’t contained in the old, but neither does it emerge from nowhere. It emerges from the gaps in that old structure, in the existing structure; it emerges from the potential ignored by those in power and unheard by the official story but which is nonetheless heard and embraced by others. It’s a possibility that wasn’t thought possible, like, as Carter writes in conclusion, a community of black men “that turned back the forces of white mob violence by employing an organized armed front.”

It seems to me that revolutionary music today has to draw connections between the past and the present in order to point to the future. In this way we sense a history that otherwise is forgotten to us; we understand ourselves as historical creatures capable of replacing one structure of noise with another. Of the potential noises, sound hits our bodies first. How can there be a movement if we’re unwilling to move?

Can sound alone make us pay attention to the political, force us to hear a subject like racialized violence, or sway us into seeing the atrocities of the past and the present? Can it really rewrite the codes?

Algiers seem determined to find out, which is one reason why they’ve quickly become so important.

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