A band with big ideas and the songs to match.
In the two years since its release, Algiers’ searing, powerful debut album has only become more relevant. In that sense, following it up is only more of a difficult task for the band not because the band aren’t capable, but because it’s hard to make such statements a second time. But The Underside of Power is less of a replica and more of an intensification of the themes and styles that the band played with before. There’s greater depth and variety to the arrangement of the band’s songs here, and more crucially, the lyrics have far more righteous anger than before. If Algiers’ debut asked why persistent, systemic, racist oppression in America was happening, The Underside of Power fervently demands to know why so little is being done to stop it.
Art doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and Algiers openly face the turbulence of the current world head on rather than try to avoid or recontextualize them. The Underside of Power can be a shockingly uncomfortable listen at times in the way that the band confront these issues. The foreboding, impending doom that always seemed to be lurking in the background on their debut is now a very real, very horrifying state of affairs, and the music on The Underside of Power is very much a lash out against that. The fact that the album opens with Franklin James Fisher seemingly howling in pain over a chaotic mix of stuttering beats and sampled speeches makes it quite clear that anger about the state of the world isn’t the subtext of The Underside of Power; it’s the text, printed in bold and typed in all caps.
As Algiers expand the scope of their message, their music has expanded in scope to match. Fisher’s voice, a powerful instrument that conjures images of Levi Stubbs leading the revolution, is a constant throughout, but the band feel empowered to try just about anything musically. The propulsive title track is nothing short of a minor miracle, presenting a recontextualized take on Northern soul as the propulsive soundtrack to the resistance. “Cry of the Martyrs” and “Cleveland” both find the band indulging in an automated twist on gospel, but Fisher’s words aren’t so much a plea for salvation as they are a scathing condemnation of America’s sinful past and present. Meanwhile, “Death March” appears as straightforward post-punk as an expression of fear that this cycle of hatred and oppression will last forever. All of these parts may appear to be musically incongruous on the surface, yet The Underside of Power still feels like a unified work rather than a grab bag of unrelated songs. There’s a thematic throughline to what Algiers are doing here, even as they follow different paths to express the same points.
Crucially, The Underside of Power avoids cynicism in its expression of dismay with the world. When writing about politics or current events, it can be very easy to become discouraged to the point of apathy. After all, nothing really changes, so why bother trying? Algiers don’t do things the easy way, though, and they realize that inaction is tantamount to death more often than not. There are elements of hope present on The Underside of Power, but they function as a call to arms rather than a pat on the back. There’s little comfort to be found here, yet Fisher’s lyrics manage to avoid becoming extended sermons. There’s a personal, inclusive element to the songs here that emphasizes the idea that the power for change is in the hands of the listener.
I don’t want to say that The Underside of Power is an example of great art coming out of hard times, even though it is great art. For one, that sentiment reeks of a gross, morbid outlook on how art is created, but it also does Algiers a disservice. This is a band with big ideas and the songs to match; they weren’t willed into existence by the times that they live in. They just found the perfect way to interact with those times. Great protest art rarely remains tied to the era that produced it, and it’s likely that The Underside of Power will still have a lasting impact on listeners long after the man in the White House is a faded, distant memory.