Algiers’ The Underside of Power is quite possibly the most unique album I heard in all of 2017. It’s a strange but brilliant blend of punk, soul and industrial music, without a huge amount of precedent. It’s sinister, funky and very political – a dense listen, but a rewarding one.
The album feels dark and mechanical in the way that the best industrial music does, but at its core this is very human music. Frontman Franklin James Fisher has an old-school funk howl a bit like James Brown, but a James Brown that only sings about plagues, dictators, and fascism. His voice brings fiery emotion to the record, and provides a sharp contrast to its moody soundscapes.
Political music was a bit of a running theme in 2017 what with Trump’s election to office, but I’m willing to bet The Underside of Power will have more staying power than almost all of it. It’s not an album that gets bogged down in specifics which will be forgotten ten, twenty years from now – it’s an album that tackles big ideas and themes head on.
‘Death March’ could be a song about Trump’s great Mexican Wall, or about North Korea, or about Nazis. But what it’s really about is hate and prejudice, wherever those things are found: over a militant stomp of drums and sliding bass, Fisher sings: ‘This is how / The hate keeps passin’ on’. Then there’s the furious punk thrash of ‘Animals’, which describes the rise of right-wing populism in simple but vicious terms: ‘Don’t feed the animals’.
‘Animals’ and the album’s title track stand out among the tracklist as short but intense bursts of righteous anger. Many other songs on the record, though, are conducted in slow-motion swathes of dark synthesizers and warping keyboards. Some are so thick with reverb and gloom they feel almost inescapable, like ‘Cleveland’ and ‘Plague Years’.
All of this makes The Underside of Power a difficult listen, yes, and it certainly took me some time to appreciate the record. But once it gets its claws in you, it doesn’t let go. Algiers have put together a completely unique record with their second album, as thick and consuming as an oil spillage. Only you can choose whether to submit to its power or fight for your freedom.