In the face of the turbulence that characterizes today’s political landscape, The Underside of Power paints a bleak and apocalyptic picture of modern America. Embodying a militant revolutionary spirit, Atlanta-based post-punk band Algiers foretells the social and economic upheaval by those who have existed in the shadow of history, the eponymous underside of power.
The quartet seamlessly blends gospel, blues, soul, hip-hop, post-punk, and noise rock in this project, and comfortably switches between electronic and conventional instrumentals. This album can very much be viewed as a love letter to black music (all the aforementioned genres have roots in the African diaspora), as well as the musical equivalent of a Malcolm X speech, which is evident in the central themes of resistance and reckoning.
It all kicks off with “Walk Like a Panther,” a hip-hop-style banger that has the color and tone of an industrial rock track. The song’s dark existential lyrics promise vengeance for those wronged by the powerful are backed by a hard-hitting instrumental, composed of a bass-boosted kick drum, machine gun hi-hats, and booming 808s, all of which reflect heavy trap influence.
From this track alone, it is made clear that vocalist Franklin James Fisher is an exceptional vocalist. His distorted, feral screams in “Walk Like a Panther” are captivating just as they are near-terrifying. In contrast, his soulful baritone vocal work in songs like “Mme Rieux” presents a more vulnerable persona, exuding a weariness and sorrow that is palpable.
Title track, “The Underside of Power,” is easily one of the best written and performed songs of the year. Fisher’s prophetic lyrics are accompanied by a groovy blues-inspired bassline, punk-inspired drumming, and backing vocalists that are reminiscent of a full-fledged church choir. From the tension-building verses to the utterly infectious hook, this song perfectly captures the band’s overall musical prowess.
“Animals” is one of the heaviest cuts on the track listing, featuring tremolo-picked guitar, heavily distorted bass, and frantic electric and acoustic drums. Written with U.S. President Donald Trump in mind, the lyrics describe how the rich and powerful continue to build structures of abuse and a culture of impunity: “Once they send out the skeletons to go out and round up / All the prophets and the powerless to put them on trial / Before they’re shot down.”
There is a deep sense of dread that pervades the entire album. The lyrics of the “Hymn for an Average Man” illustrate how the dead come back to haunt the “average men” who allowed injustice to perpetuate itself: “Listen to them calling out and come to you in silence / For the mess that you have made […] Ignore the screaming. You got away with it.” The ominous piano and string section instrumental, the somber wails scattered throughout the runtime, and the swelling drone near the end of the song all drive the message home.
The bass-driven slow-burner “Death March” explores the socioeconomic conditions in America that allow the spread of animosity and suffering, which is likened to a virus: “Constant fear of explosion / Crypto-fascist contagion […] This is how the hate keeps passing on.”
This sentiment is later reiterated in the album’s closing track “The Cycle/The Spiral: Time to Go Down Slowly,” where Fisher discusses the cycle of violence that can be observed in American history. The lyrics, clearly inspired by the Gothic and absurdist literature, illustrate an unending process death and rebirth just to die again, suggesting we are all doomed to a futile existence in a world devoid of meaning: “Until the second it’s over / That’s twice you died and you’ll die some more.”
If there is one takeaway from the listening experience this album offers, it is that its music is inseparable from its subject matter. It is a deeply political artwork, the sensibility of which encapsulates the mainstream and underground resistance movements it speaks on behalf of. Many will dispute the politics that underlie the album’s music, just as many will treat the album as an anthem for a modern revolution.
All of this being said, one cannot dispute the uniqueness, ambition, and sheer talent being displayed in this album. The Underside of Power stands out as a truly great piece of protest music, and firmly establishes Algiers’ place in a long and decorated tradition.