Only once in a blue moon are entirely new genres conceived, rather the development of popular music is largely centred around meeting complementary elements from pre-existing genres as a means of deriving new ideas and sounds from these stylistic sources. With there existing so many genres and subgenres nowadays, there are almost countless possibilities when it comes to experimenting with fusions of potentially reciprocal ideas from across the stylistic spectrum, but there are always certain pairings that simply seem too naturally fitting to not be combined. With their heavy emphasis on atmosphere, it’s no surprise that, for instance, black metal and shoegazing have come together as blackgaze and garnered a substantial amount of attention outside of each genre’s respective niche, just as the politically-charged aggression of both punk and hip hop is too clearly a point of mutuality for these genres to not come together in some capacity. This being said, there will occasionally come an artist who intermixes two or more styles to such spectacular results that one can be left wondering why no one had previously thought to pursue such an amalgamation of genres. Two years ago, the self-titled debut album from Algiers most definitely elicited such a reaction in myself, and undoubtedly from many others. Algiers was unequivocally quite the eclectic endeavour, but the Georgian four-piece’s primary sources of stylistic inspiration came from post-punk and gospel music, particularly the traditional black and Southern derivatives of this Christian music genre. With the dark, industrial grit of post-punk paralleling the overbearing influence of Southern Gothic literature and its themes of crime, poverty, violence and the Other on black gospel music, primarily resulting from the close connection between Southern gospel and Appalachian music, the corresponding concepts of these two genres were conveyed so clearly and cogently by Algiers on their debut record that it really did raise questions concerning why such a stylistic synthesis had not been attempted previously. Personally, despite retaining some significant reservations for Algiers with regards to the group’s occasionally lacking compositional chops, Algiers’ ambitious undertaking simply sounded too good on paper for me not to hotly anticipate any future releases from the outfit, in the hope that they would subsequently manage to tighten up their songwriting style. On their newest effort, The Underside of Power, it seems that my willingness to maintain faith in Algiers payed off. The band’s sophomore record undoubtedly sees a substantial strengthening of their songwriting skills, whilst they are also successful in doubling down on their eclectic stylings, with even more ideas being worked into the fold this time around, whilst post-punk and gospel nevertheless remain framed as Algiers’ salient sources of stylistic inspiration. With recent political developments in the United States providing abundant ammunition for further forays from frontman Franklin James Fisher into reflections on racial tensions, tied up in dystopian themes and Southern Gothic allusions, all the stars seem to have aligned for The Underside of Power, and the result is an album that is as vigorous as it is vicious.
Given the current sociopolitical landscape of the US, which goes on to fuel some of Fisher’s most confrontational and damning tirades in Algiers’ discography thus far, it’s only fitting that The Underside of Power marks a move towards a more abrasive, aggressive and generally chaotic sound for the group, with this slight tone shift being established firmly and forcibly by the hefty trio of songs that kicks the album off. The first of these mighty songs is the hip hop-inspired Walk Like a Panther, whose frenetic rattles of pounding percussion reach levels of distorted intensity associated with industrial hip hop acts like Death Grips. Fisher’s fiery vocals are delivered with an even heightened degree of uncontrolled soulfulness to that which he boasted on Algiers’ debut, with the bluesy repetition of his bellicose bellows balancing out the wildness of his performance with a consistency in execution that allows his frenzied freak-outs to nevertheless keep the song on track. Rather appropriately, the distorted quality of Fisher’s vocal recording reinforces the powerful gospel attitude to his performance, with the splutters of the singer’s emphasis on plosives sounding as if he is delivering his pro-black power harangue through a megaphone. Likewise, the pairing of Fisher’s fuzzy roars against the touches of trap-tinged piano, nocturnal keys and searing guitar lines anchors the band’s headfirst foray into an aesthetic evocative of industrial hip hop in an approach that is nevertheless well-textured and just as dependent on melody as it is the pounding rhythms brandished throughout the cut. Comparatively speaking, Cry of the Martyrs, the second song in the tracklisting, is significantly less noisy than its predecessor, but still employs many similar techniques with regards to the cascades of booming sub-bass and the buzzing synth that assumes the role that a horn section would typically fulfil. Nonetheless, Cry of the Martyrs captures a surprisingly organic sound, even through the tangles of electronic noise, largely courtesy of Fisher’s impassioned performance, which is made all the more impactful by the song’s prime hand-clapping tempo and the incorporation of a choir. The inclusion of a choral group to provide backing support to Fisher’s vocals is undoubtedly to be expected from Algiers, but the fact that the choir should be used to their best effect on this song specifically is exceptionally felicitous, with whiffs of the frontman’s vocal melody hitting motifs reminiscent of traditional gospel blues call and response songs like John the Revelator. Lastly in this tremendous trio is the title track, which touches upon a striking number of Algiers’ stylistic touchstones within its four-minute runtime. The straight sears of synths and electronic percussion that introduce the song suggest that perhaps touring with Depeche Mode has subconsciously influenced Algiers, although it takes no time at all for the cut’s soulful, intertwining vocal melodies, buoyant bass groove and crunchy guitar stabs to guide the piece towards what is unequivocally the most infectious — and uncharacteristically conventional — refrain the group has ever penned. It’s difficult to imagine it being any coincidence that The Underside of Power is introduced by a trio of songs that perfectly encapsulate not only everything that made Algiers such an enthralling outfit on their debut, but also the new elements that will be incorporated into their pre-established stylings across the course of the record. Instead, these three songs show that Algiers know exactly what they’re doing when it comes to carving out the definitive musical identity that they want for themselves.
Indeed, as Algiers trek further into the tracklisting of The Underside of Power, the focus seems to be on reinforcing the muscular motifs established in the succinct but rigid framework of the album’s opening trio. Death March, for example, interlocks the left-field, post-punk drum work of former Bloc Party drummer Matt Tong with strands of post-punk instrumentation that lean rather closely to the more dance-orientated artists of the genre, with the bouncing bass and shimmering synth leads alluding to the likes of New Order. The appropriately combative timbre of Cleveland fortifies the song as one of the central statements of The Underside of Power, with Fisher’s denunciation of the institutional murder of black people by the US police force being so forthright and blunt as to see the singer list the names of young African-Americans who were alleged to have committed suicide in police custody, but on the grounds of shaky evidence that led to many people disputing these suicide claims. In a similar fashion, it’s appropriate that Animals is the most straightforward, uncompromising punk song in the tracklisting, given that it directly derides President Donald Trump and his cronies, making the frantic stutters of blazing guitar and relentless, pummelling percussion all the more potent. This being said, there are minor quibbles to be had with the record’s pacing, specifically concerning the fact that so many of the album’s hard-hitting bangers are placed towards the front of the tracklisting, whereas the backend features two instrumental pieces and a few slowburners. The issue here pertains not to the quality of these tracks as stand-alone compositions, as many of them are very strong, rather it simply seems as if a more even structural arrangement of the tracklisting could have maintained the fiery intensity of the album’s highs across the course of the entire record, with the instrumentals and tamer tracks offering a sense of respite from the unyielding causticity of Algiers’ vitriol when they are at their most acrimonious. Outside of this, however, the band’s ability to neatly tie up the musical themes of The Underside of Power, in spite of the album’s tumultuous peaks, makes for a release that is cohesive in its chaos, with Algiers’ biting criticisms being translated with an appropriate level of potency as a result.
One of the greatest challenges with being the first to pioneer an esoteric amalgam of various genres is striking all the necessary balances in order to make a coherent, controlled and unified project, and Algiers’ effort on The Underside of Power is one of the most successful examples of this from 2017 thus far. With the group shining a new light on the parallels between post-punk and Southern gospel music through a selection of finely-executed fusions of these styles, the concerns raised by their self-titled debut have been almost entirely stamped out on their newest release. With the outfit’s already-expansive stylistic palette being substantially broadened on The Underside of Power, one can only begin to imagine where Algiers will take their sound next. Regardless of where they may end up, however, with their dexterity when it comes to handpicking the most applicable and complementary stylistic motifs for uniting genres, it’s likely that any path Algiers decide to take will be paved by their versatility and flexibility as a group.
The Vinyl Verdict: 8/10