The Underside of Power echoes apocalyptically. The whole album, the second by the Atlanta outfit Algiers (so named for the anticolonial film The Battle of Algiers), sounds as if it were recorded in a vast desert where once a civilization stood. The plodding tom hits by drummer Matt Tong on “Death March”, the lumbering piano chords on “A Hymn for the Average Man”, the gospel holler of frontman Franklin James Fisher on “Cry of the Martyrs”: all of these contribute to an unnerving, tense sonic environment. It’s as if Mad Max: Fury Road got a producer credit. In many ways, this style is continuous with Algiers’ self-titled 2015 debut, which opens with a similarly ominous hum-and-stop number called “Remains”. Even then, Algiers’ music functioned as a warning sign. These are dark times, the band’s music says.
One of the clichés that spread across social media almost immediately after the election of Donald Trump, a foolish rationalization born of the immediate need for comfort, goes something like this: “Well, now that he’s elected, punk is back again.” Putting aside the questionability of that premise—shouldn’t art challenge its own social and political environments, even when things don’t seem like they’re coming to an end?—the trope did at least raise a valid question: how were artists going to respond to the dangers posed by Trump? Thus far, the results have been mixed, ranging from base attention-grabbing to banal, vacuous platitudes to the perplexing. Whether or not punk is “back” amidst this wide range of artistic responses remains an open question, but if what the world needs right now is confrontational, unapologetic art, then The Underside of Power rises to the challenge and succeeds.
Rarely a moment passes where the listener of The Underside of Power isn’t reminded of the crises of the world. “Cleveland” puts the microscope on police brutality, citing the cases of Tamir Rice and Sandra Bland. “Cry of the Martyrs” and “Animals” call out the rise of fascistic language and practice in the Western world. Fisher, who is as likely to name-drop Walter Benjamin as he does classic gospel musicians, described “A Hymn for the Average Man” to NPR as “free, indirect discourse, describing the recurring nightmare of a fascist”. The Underside of Power can be called a thinking person’s rock band, particularly for Fisher’s lyrics and perspective, but Algiers’ intellectual bonafides don’t come at the cost of viscerally powerful music. The bass/drum interplay on “Death March” is highly danceable, even in the face of the foreboding song title. The groove toward the end of “A Hymn for the Average Man” sounds like a would-be James Bond theme, that is if Jean-Luc Godard ever decided to helm a Bond flick. Fisher’s commanding voice is the center of gravity for The Underside of Power, but drummer Tong and bassist Ryan Mahan take up plenty of heavy lifting.
For all of the doom and gloom laced throughout The Underside of Power, Algiers doesn’t instill the idea that defeat is certain. When on “Cry of the Martyrs” Fisher sings, “They’ll say our whole life is a locust / Disturbing their fascist peace / But it is they who mangle our horizons / Of our defeat at Calvary”, he bellows with the confidence of one who knows that for every mangled horizon, there’s going to be pushback. Even on the harrowing “Cleveland”, which seeks to find redemption in the scourge that is police brutality, Fisher sings, “But innocence is alive, and it’s coming back one day,” adding, “Satan laughs, but I swear / I can hear all the saints on their way down.” Gospel doesn’t just inform The Underside of Power aesthetically; it also infuses the lyrics with a sense that not all is lost.
At the end of David Fincher’s Se7en, the detective William Somerset, played by Morgan Freeman, narrates over the film, “Ernest Hemingway once wrote, ‘The world is a fine place and worth fighting for.’ I agree with the second part.” Incredibly, even in these times of trial, Algiers affirms both parts of Hemingway’s quotation. Musically adventurous and spiritually redemptive: this is what the music of our time should sound like.