Music

Algiers: The Underside of Power

Photo: Joe Dilworth (Matador Records)

The Underside of Power dives headfirst into the political tumult of our times, wringing from it a set of powerful, genre-defying songs.


Algiers

The Underside of Power

Label: Matador
US Release Date: 2017-06-23
UK Release Date: 2017-06-23
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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.

8

From genre-busting electronic music to new highs in the ever-evolving R&B scene, from hip-hop and Americana to rock and pop, 2017's music scenes bestowed an embarrassment of riches upon us.


60. White Hills - Stop Mute Defeat (Thrill Jockey)

White Hills epic '80s callback Stop Mute Defeat is a determined march against encroaching imperial darkness; their eyes boring into the shadows for danger but they're aware that blinding lights can kill and distort truth. From "Overlord's" dark stomp casting nets for totalitarian warnings to "Attack Mode", which roars in with the tribal certainty that we can survive the madness if we keep our wits, the record is a true and timely win for Dave W. and Ego Sensation. Martin Bisi and the poster band's mysterious but relevant cool make a great team and deliver one of their least psych yet most mind destroying records to date. Much like the first time you heard Joy Division or early Pigface, for example, you'll experience being startled at first before becoming addicted to the band's unique microcosm of dystopia that is simultaneously corrupting and seducing your ears. - Morgan Y. Evans

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Music

The Best Dance Tracks of 2017

Photo: Murielle Victorine Scherre (Courtesy of Big Beat Press)

From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

In June of 2016, prolific producer Diplo lambasted the world of DJ's in an interview with Billboard, stating that EDM was dying. Coincidentally enough, the article's contents went viral and made their way into Vice Media's electronic music and culture channel Thump, which closed its doors after four years this summer amid company-wide layoffs. Months earlier, electronic music giant SFX Entertainment filed bankruptcy and reemerged as Lifestyle, Inc., shunning the term "EDM".

So here we are at the end of 2017, and the internet is still a flurry with articles declaring that Electronic Dance Music is rotting from the inside out and DJ culture is dying on the vine, devoured by corporate greed. That might all well be the case, but electronic music isn't disappearing into the night without a fight as witnessed by the endless parade of emerging artists on the scene, the rise of North America's first Electro Parade in Montréal, and the inaugural Electronic Music Awards in Los Angeles this past September.

For every insipid, automaton disc jockey-producer, there are innovative minds like Anna Lunoe, Four Tet, and the Black Madonna, whose eclectic, infectious sets display impeccable taste, a wealth of knowledge, and boundless creativity. Over the past few years, many underground artists have been thrust into the mainstream spotlight and lost the je ne sais quoi that made them unique. Regardless, there will always be new musicians, producers, singers, and visionaries to replace them, those who bring something novel to the table or tip a hat to their predecessors in a way that steps beyond homage and exhilarates as it did decades before.

As electronic music continues to evolve and its endless sub-genres continue to expand, so do fickle tastes, and preferences become more and more subjective with a seemingly endless list of artists to sift through. With so much music to digest, its no wonder that many artists remain under the radar. This list hopes to remedy that injustice and celebrate tracks both indie and mainstream. From the "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique to Stockholm Noir's brilliant string of darkly foreboding, electro-licked singles, here are ten selections that represent some of the more intriguing dance offerings of 2017.

10. Moullinex - “Work It Out (feat. Fritz Helder)”

Taken from Portuguese producer, DJ, and multi-instrumentalist Luis Clara Gomes' third album Hypersex, "Work It Out" like all of its surrounding companions is a self-proclaimed, "collective love letter to club culture, and a celebration of love, inclusion and difference." Dance music has always seemingly been a safe haven for "misfits" standing on the edge of the mainstream, and while EDM manufactured sheen might have taken the piss out of the scene, Hypersex still revels in that defiant, yet warm and inviting attitude.

Like a cheeky homage to Rick James and the late, great High Priest of Pop, Prince, this delectably filthy, sexually charged track with its nasty, funk-drenched bass line, couldn't have found a more flawless messenger than former Azari & III member Fritz Helder. As the radiant, gender-fluid artist sings, "you better work your shit out", this album highlight becomes an anthem for all those who refuse to bow down to BS. Without any accompanying visuals, the track is electro-funk perfection, but the video, with its ruby-red, penile glitter canon, kicks the whole thing up a notch.

9. Touch Sensitive - “Veronica”

The neon-streaked days of roller rinks and turtlenecks, leg warmers and popped polo collars have come and gone, but you wouldn't think so listening to Michael "Touch Sensitive" Di Francesco's dazzling debut Visions. The Sydney-based DJ/producer's long-awaited LP and its lead single "Lay Down", which shot to the top of the Hype Machine charts, are as retro-gazing as they are distinctly modern, with nods to everything from nu disco to slo-mo house.

Featuring a sample lifted from 90s DJ and producer Paul Johnson's "So Much (So Much Mix)," the New Jack-kissed "Veronica" owns the dance floor. While the conversational interplay between the sexed-up couple is anything but profound, there is no denying its charms, however laughably awkward. While not everything on Visions is as instantly arresting, it is a testament to Di Francesco's talents that everything old sounds so damn fresh again.

8. Gourmet - “Delicious”

Neither Gourmet's defiantly eccentric, nine-track debut Cashmere, nor its subsequent singles, "There You Go" or "Yellow" gave any indication that the South African purveyor of "spaghetti pop" would drop one of the year's sassiest club tracks, but there you have it. The Cape Town-based artist, part of oil-slick, independent label 1991's diminutive roster, flagrantly disregards expectation on his latest outing, channeling the Scissor Sisters at their most gloriously bitchy best, Ratchet-era Shamir, and the shimmering dance-pop of UK singer-producer Joe Flory, aka Amateur Best.

With an amusingly detached delivery that rivals Ben Stein's droning roll call in Ferris Bueller's Day Off , he sings "I just want to dance, and fuck, and fly, and try, and fail, and try again…hold up," against a squelchy bass line and stabbing synths. When the percussive noise of what sounds like a triangle dinner bell appears within the mix, one can't help but think that Gourmet is simply winking at his audience, as if to say, "dinner is served."

7. Pouvoir Magique - “Chalawan”

Like a psychoactive ayahuasca brew, the intoxicating "shamanic techno" of Parisian duo Pouvoir Magique's LP Disparition, is an exhilarating trip into unfamiliar territory. Formed in November of 2011, "Magic Power" is the musical project of Clément Vincent and Bertrand Cerruti, who over the years, have cleverly merged several millennia of songs from around the world with 21st-century beats and widescreen electro textures. Lest ye be worried, this is anything but Deep Forest.

In the spring of 2013, Pouvoir Magique co-founded the "Mawimbi" collective, a project designed to unite African musical heritage with contemporary soundscapes, and released two EPs. Within days of launching their label Musiques de Sphères, the duo's studio was burglarized and a hard drive with six years of painstakingly curated material had vanished. After tracking down demos they shared with friends before their final stages of completion, Clément and Bertrand reconstructed an album of 12 tracks.

Unfinished though they might be, each song is a marvelous thing to behold. Their stunning 2016 single "Eclipse," with its cinematic video, might have been one of the most immediate songs on the record, but it's the pulsing "Chalawan," with its guttural howls, fluttering flute-like passages, and driving, hypnotic beats that truly mesmerizes.

6. Purple Disco Machine - “Body Funk” & “Devil In Me” (TIE)

Whenever a bevy of guest artists appears on a debut record, it's often best to approach the project with caution. 85% of the time, the collaborative partners either overshadow the proceedings or detract from the vision of the musician whose name is emblazoned across the top of the LP. There are, however, pleasant exceptions to the rule and Tino Piontek's Soulmatic is one of the year's most delightfully cohesive offerings. The Dresden-born Deep Funk innovator, aka Purple Disco Machine, has risen to international status since 2009, releasing one spectacular track and remix after another. It should go without saying that this long-awaited collection, featuring everyone from Kool Keith to Faithless and Boris D'lugosch, is ripe with memorable highlights.

The saucy, soaring "Mistress" shines a spotlight on the stellar pipes of "UK soul hurricane" Hannah Williams. While it might be a crowning moment within the set, its the strutting discofied "Body Funk", and the album's first single, "Devil In Me", that linger long after the record has stopped spinning. The former track with its camptastic fusion of '80s Sylvester gone 1940s military march, and the latter anthem, a soulful stunner that samples the 1968 Stax hit "Private Number", and features the vocal talents of Duane Harden and Joe Killington, feels like an unearthed classic. Without a doubt, the German DJ's debut is one of the best dance records of the year.

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