June 2015

Arts & Letters

Raised voices

By Anwen Crawford
Punk and gospel influences combine to make the personal political on Algiers’ self-titled debut

Late in April, as protests grew in Baltimore over the death of an African-American man, Freddie Gray, who died after sustaining a severe spinal injury while in police custody, a young black Baltimore resident named Kwame Rose confronted Fox News reporter Geraldo Rivera over the media’s coverage of events. Rivera tried to walk away from Rose, refusing to even make eye contact until Rose’s persistence forced him to engage. “A black man can raise his voice and you don’t have to be intimidated,” said Rose, after Rivera accused Rose of “screaming” at him. Rose pointed out that Fox News had come to Baltimore only for the riots and not to report on Gray’s death or to investigate the endemic poverty of black residents in Baltimore. Television media and phone-wielding bystanders were gathered in a scrum around the two men, but Rose insisted, “This is not for YouTube. This is serious. I want the cameras off.” Nobody obeyed him, and, inevitably, the footage went viral. Throughout the encounter, Rivera wore the rictus grin of a media celebrity (for 11 years he was a talk-show host) who hopes that unrehearsed confrontation will slide off them like residue from a non-stick pan.

Raised voices, state violence, and the near impossibility of interrupting a media spectacle with any gesture that cannot be immediately consumed (“I want the cameras off,” repeated Kwame Rose): these concerns are central to the work of Algiers, a rising American band whose self-titled debut album is released this month. Franklin James Fisher (lead vocals and guitar), Ryan Mahan (bass) and Lee Tesche (guitar) are all from Atlanta, though none of them still live there. Fisher was raised with the musical traditions of the black church, and Algiers joins the confrontational energy of punk to the spiritual fervour that animates African-American gospel. The American south is the musical and historical starting point of the group’s songs, songs that move outwards, with ambition and urgency, to survey the current state of the world.

Punk and gospel may seem, at least on paper, like strange bedfellows, but what these genres share is the impulse to gather, making of performers and listeners something greater than a collection of individuals. This gathering may be motivated to destroy, as much as to create. Algiers responds to the intermittent nihilism of punk as did the post-punk bands of the late 1970s: after punk so furiously wiped the musical slate clean, the way forward was sideways, to literature, film and political philosophy. Algiers’ official website presents a bricolage of references from Malcolm X to Nina Simone to Karl Marx to Einstürzende Neubauten, a German experimental group whose thundering sound is clearly an influence; the band’s name invokes one of the 20th century’s bloodiest postcolonial struggles; and in their intellectual sweep, Algiers resurrect a historical promise that popular music can, with enough will, be made more than entertainment, more than a mere consumable. Like Kwame Rose in his argument with Fox News, the motivation of Algiers is partly pedagogical: it is to teach us that social conflict does not erupt out of nowhere, for no reason.

It helps that the music is mostly electrifying. Algiers contains two of the best songs I’ve heard all year – a greater strike rate than most albums. The first of these, ‘Blood’, was released in 2012 as a 7-inch single, and has been rerecorded for the album. Handclaps, tambourine and a droning, one-note bassline tow the song onwards at a stately pace. Other elements are added, one by one: a humming choral melody that cannot but evoke the church; drums; skeins of abrasive guitar. Each sound reverberates, as if the song had been recorded inside a cathedral, or a nuclear bunker. “Television coma / All my blood’s in vain,” sings Fisher. An accompanying video presents a rapid-cut collection of images from social-justice movements of the 20th century, and, though the song is three years old, it sounds entirely of the present moment: a reminder, if any was needed, that the violent deaths of African-American citizens – young men in particular – is a nightmare that has been repeating for centuries, not months.

‘Blood’ is the album’s most unhurried, musically restrained song, but, for the most part, Algiers is a record that sounds like a race against time. The album’s other highlight, ‘In Parallax’, has the brimstone atmosphere of a sermon delivered during the Last Days. “He’s my master / He’s my friend,” sings Fisher, over and over. “He’s my spirit / And my conscience.” Fisher is backed up by what sounds like a full choir, but is just as likely to be multi-tracking – one of Algiers’ most effective sonic tricks is to seem like a crowd when they’re only a trio. “Parallax” refers to the way in which an object seems to change position depending on point of view: perhaps, in this song, “master” does mean Christ (“I always joke that so many of my white friends are atheists because the music they had in church was so bad,” quipped Fisher, in a recent interview with The Quietus), but perhaps not. It is a provocative word, to say the least, for a band from the American south to use.

Across the album, Fisher’s singing has a declamatory power reminiscent of Levi Stubbs, the lead vocalist of Motown group The Four Tops, while the band’s reliance on percussive effects like handclaps, foot stomping and tambourine recalls the Motown style more generally, which, throughout the 1960s at least, was built on a heavy backbeat. Motown has often been dismissed – in comparison to the grittier soul style of artists like Otis Redding and James Brown – as the acceptable, conciliatory face of black popular music, but this is reductive. The political potential of music lives as much in sound as in words: rhythm makes you get up and move. Their collectively generated rhythms send Algiers hurtling through the history of popular music, all the way back to “the rhythmic cry of the slave”, as the African-American activist W E B Du Bois described the field hollers and spirituals of the American south in his 1903 essay ‘Of the Sorrow Songs’. In Algiers’ blending of genres, the past holds the future: on ‘Old Girl’, Fisher sings, “The darkest hour’s coming,” an hour when accounts both spiritual and material will have to be settled.

Algiers arrives at a moment of crisis in American race relations, a moment that American musicians are responding to. There is a role in black protest music for the songwriter who is both a prophet and a pamphleteer, delivering news as it happens: Gil Scott-Heron was once this figure, as was Nina Simone, and others. In recent months, D’Angelo’s Black Messiah, Kendrick Lamar’s To Pimp a Butterfly, and tracks by artists like Prince (‘Baltimore’) and Chicago rapper Tink (‘Tell the Children’) have built upon this tradition. “Through all the sorrow of the Sorrow Songs there breathes a hope – a faith in the ultimate justice of things,” wrote Du Bois, and Algiers share a sliver of this hope, buried deep inside their cacophonous despair. The nasty, metallic guitar tone that coats this album, in counterpoint to the songs’ simple, open structures, is deliberately difficult. Dissonance is dissent.

Anwen Crawford

Anwen Crawford is The Monthly’s music critic.

© Alex de Mora

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