by Matt J. Popham
At a time when so much popular music amounts to little more than premeditated, palliative product, Algiers seems to have sprung fully formed from the head of blind necessity. Though, in fact, the result of eight years of intense labor, the punk/gospel/industrial trio’s dramatic debut delivers an impassioned, incendiary, and irresistible indictment of our current cultural complacency with an arresting immediacy. “We’re the spirits you raised,” vocalist Franklin James Fisher intones on the album’s gripping opening track, “Remains,” and dammit if they don’t sound like Caesar’s ghost heralding our collective demise…
Eschewing gospel’s exultant ecstasies in favor of apocalyptic augury, for all Algiers’ hand-claps and call-and-response choruses, the album’s overall tone is dark, elemental, and austere. Building from a sinister thrum and slash of ambient electronica – so ominous, at times, it recalls a minimalist horror film score – spawning rolling basslines, slicing guitars, haunting keyboards, stings and stabs of post-punk feedback, and thumping, insistent percussion, each song rises up like a looming tidal wave and crests with Fisher’s soulful wails, which sound less like fervent zeal than the anguished pleas of a man caught in the undertow as the music seeps and swells around him.
Evincing an astonishing command of craft, the entire album delivers a slow, deliberate escalation of seething menace. Frontloaded with the band’s slower, more quietly threatening tracks, the first third culminates in the embittered lament “Blood,” which sounds like a chain-gang at a CIA black site, before accelerating into the fiery condemnations of “Old Girl,” “Irony. Utility. Pretext.,” and “But She Was Not Flying.” But even at their most furious and fast-paced, Algiers keeps things rivetingly controlled and contained. With each song, the tide swells but never breaks, often ebbing at the point of highest tension, leaving us stunned, suspended, stretched taut. After the tribal chants and garage rock attack of “Black Eunuch,” the album follows suit, quickly receding into “Games,” a strikingly beautiful dirge which evokes Al Green being haunted by Queens of the Stone Age, followed by the Pentecostal invocations of “In Parallax,” and, finally, the looping instrumental outro, “Untitled,” which cuts out abruptly, leaving only a ghostly echo in its wake.
The whole thing can feel like the musical equivalent of edge-play, but maybe that’s the point. “Death is at your doorstep and you’re still playing games,” Fisher admonishes in “Blood.” Algiers is not offering release or escapism. This is protest music, its punk/gospel fusion consciously freighted with all the historical, political, and cultural baggage of both genres. It might be too heavy to dance to, but – all deference to Emma Goldman – it’s less revolution than revelation. If Algiers leaves us at the brink, it’s because that’s where we’re already standing – culturally, environmentally, economically. And after opening our eyes and ears to our circumstances, our collective complacency, and what awaits us if we allow ourselves to be led over the edge, the next move has to be ours.
It might be unfashionable, these days, to describe a band as “important.” But if Algiers’ debut accomplishes anything, it reminds us that music is supposed to be. Algiers demands – and deserves – attention, not only for their passionate sociopolitical exhortations, or their intensely charged layering of diverse musical sensibilities, but the breathtakingly effective way in which they fold all these elements together, honing them into a powerful, precise, and poignant sonic attack. While a quick survey of the largely banal and barren pop music landscape reveals that, more often than not, we tend to get the bands we deserve, in Algiers, we may have gotten the band that we need.