Art and Politics Go Hand in Hand on Algiers' 'There Is No Year'
Algiers are what would result if Verso Books turned into an art rock band. This is a very good thing.
There Is No Year
17 January 2019
The mid-January release of Algiers' third studio album There Is No Year is perfectly timed. With just a few weeks before the first votes in the Democratic primary will be cast in Iowa, new music from Algiers serves as a reminder of America's dire political moment. The USA has been infected by a "crypto-fascist contagion", as frontman Frankin James Fisher names it on "Death March", a standout cut from Algiers' 2017 sophomore LP The Underside of Power. A couple of years later, the contagion's reach has only continued to spread, and There Is No Year prophesies what will happen if that contagion were to go unchecked. "Run around, run away from your America / While it burns in the streets," Fisher sings on "Dispossession". Though he provides some reassurance in his command to "run and tell it to everybody underground / Freedom is coming soon", the chorus sends a warning of the threats on the horizon: "Dispossession / Is coming for you."
Algiers are what would result if Verso Books turned into an art-rock band. Politically tenacious and musically genre-free, Algiers have with their three studio records – Algiers (2015), The Underside of Power, and now There Is No Year – made a name for themselves as leading innovators in political music. The band's arrival in the acceleration of late capitalism couldn't have come at a better time. Like BBU's bell hooks, one of the 2010s' most slept-on masterpieces, Algiers' music is as fun as it is engaged politically. Art and politics word hand-in-hand for Algiers, with one never totally overtaking the other. There Is No Year, even more so than the two albums that precede it, does feel suffused with dread, what with its ominous opening image: "Now it's two minutes to midnight, and they're building houses of cards." But the climax that follows on the first and title track is headbangingly danceable, and one of the highlights of There is No Year.
The hits keep coming from there. "Dispossession" and "Hours of the Furnace" build to haunting chanted refrains, which function like Greek choruses to Fisher's booming vocals. On these songs and throughout There is No Year, Algiers use spare piano chords and notes to contrast with gritty electronic textures, with the former serving as a foil to the latter's harshness. This volleying between gentle and abrasive, between mellifluousness and dissonance, is the main sonic quality of the record. Just when you think a song is going to give the listener a breather, the noise kicks back in; even the reflective piano ballad "Losing Is Ours" concludes with a squall. ("Nothing Bloomed" reprises this trick later by ending with a Sunn 0)))-esque guitar drone.) "Unoccupied" seems like it's going to be a spartan gospel song until it busies itself with guitar distortion and clanging electronic noise.
The album loses some steam after "Chaka", a paranoid little rocker that boasts a wailing saxophone solo. That has something to do with the production by Randall Dunn and Ben Greenberg, which shines in the first half of the record but then begins to sound more-of-the-same in late album cuts like "Repeating Night" and "We Can't Be Found". Algiers' strategy of controlled chaos also produces diminishing returns as the record wraps up. Although this band excels at turning a song from a respite to a riot, given the high energy level of There Is No Year, a little more of the former is needed.
But There Is No Year does end with its most propulsive tune, the punk jam "Void". There, Fisher repeats in the chorus: "Got to find a way / Got to find a way / Got to find a way / To get out of it, out of it." The lyrics to "Void" don't specify what specifically that "it" refers to, but suffice it to say that in 2020 the feeling of wanting so intensely to get out of something – Fisher's sonorous shouting really hits home – is near-universal. Algiers don't peddle in "resistance" platitudes, nor do they pull our attention away from the glum realities we face. Still, they don't forgo hope, as bassist Ryan Mahan told The Guardian recently: "If you're hopeful without pessimism it's quite naïve, and if you're just pessimistic, it's fucking cynical." Sitting right at the cross-section between optimism and pessimism, There Is No Year is an enlivening experience, and a mostly successful artistic rendering of a world on fire.
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