It’s tempting to cast Algiers in the role of the firebrand. But this music is much more nuanced, in fact, much more cerebral, than its inferred anger. If anything, they’re going to defy a lot of preconceptions (and, they hope, start a lot of conversations).
Algiers conjure a darker, more brooding mold of minimalist rock music, noticeably stung with overtly political overtones in their lyrics; as an aggressive sounding hybrid of post-punk, gospel and minimalist techno rock, the trio creates an undeniably energized sound that is also undeniably indignant.
But Algiers’ aim isn’t to enrage, but, rather, to rouse … and maybe even enlighten. These Atlanta-bred musicians are much more interested in achieving a dialogue with you, the listener.
“It’s obviously politicized,” bassist Ryan Mahan said, acknowledging both the music’s roots in agit-punk and the lyrics’ indictment of an apathy and exploitation of inequality and oppression. “But, we don’t want to profess or assume that we’re speaking on behalf of anyone or anything.”
Still, he admits that singer Franklin James Fisher’s lyrics are certainly engaged in a discourse on politics, spanning racism, class warfare, domestic violence and many other issues. But, Algiers music is also a discourse on pop music itself. “Because we are embedded in that sphere, now,” Mahan said.
Through songwriting and musical performance, Mahan said, “we can communicate (with an audience) on some other level outside of our own reality.” And one of the first things that resonate with a listener is that Algiers insists on invoking a sense unity by singing “We” or “You” in their verses much more often “I…” or “My…”
“For me, the narrators of the songs come from a place,” said Fisher, “of either indicting or accusing against an enemy or an oppressor … or from the foregone conclusion that the people are with it already and know where you’re coming from. This collective rallying was a lot of the inspiration for the lyrics; this idea of this silent minority that’s being marginalized and not being able to vocalize that frustration on a daily basis … and that can turn from days into weeks, months, years, lifetimes, generations.”
The cathartic shreds of Lee Tesche’s gracefully mangled guitar tones form a fleet, fierce and almost poetic dissonance, weaving between the enlivening, soulful balladry and growled croons of Fisher’s charged delivery. As a rhythmic bedrock, with Mahan’s agile bass grooves, there’s a give and take between the caustic clasp of sequenced beats and more organic smack of hurried hand-claps and foot stomps.
Channeling a feeling of indignation into your art is one thing, but Algiers is defying the role of merely raging against a machine. They’re well aware that anger is a challenging emotion to express without, as Mahan puts it, slipping into “blind rage or fury or violence.” And if you go too far down that road in a song or during a performance then it can become, as Fisher puts it, “just pure testosterone-driven angry music … You risk losing a lot of what differentiates actual indignation from teenage angst.”
“Whenever you have something that’s quite dark or abrasive,” said Fisher, “it needs to be balanced out with the right amount of sweetness or harmony.”
The group wrote and recorded Algiers over the course of several years, eventually working with producer Tom Morris (Big Pink, Woman’s Hour).
“It’s never an all or nothing thing,” Fisher continued. “And, those few moments where you might find something that hints at the sublime or at a sweetened harmonic resolve in the album, all of those things mean something as well and we hope people understand those parts while also painting the possibility or the hope for redemption. You have to do that if you engage in anything that’s political art, otherwise you just fall in the abyss of nihilism and that’s not who we are.”
Tesche and Mahan are now based in London, while Fisher lives in New York. The trio met at Georgia State University back in the mid 2000’s, having each grown up around the suburbs of Atlanta. Fischer had been in prior bands while Tesche and Mahan were already working together in another band when they started forming what would become Algiers in 2007.
“We’ve known each other for quite a long time, in our lives,” said Mahan. “We came together, sort of on the outskirts, coming from the suburbs and being influenced by the kind of exciting things that were happening (in Atlanta), from the history of Black Power politics to its rich musical history. We convened over the shared influences of politics and music.”
Mahan and Fisher were particularly inspired by their time studying in an exchange program that sent them to New Castle, England, where they read brilliant texts and essays on deconstructing concepts of nationhood and national identity. As they started applying those concepts to music, they began appreciating the elemental energy of dissonance, the sparking energy of rhythms and vocals and the dramatic impact of measured minimalism.
The experience of listening to Algiers strikes some very primal chords, beyond the predominantly kinetic (and even danceable) rhythms. A gnarl of wailing guitars interlaces a potent thrum of choir-like vocals, with multi-layered harmonic moans and wordless, guttural exertions. Natural rhythms, as pure as the fervent handclaps and pounding snares, insert a crucial human touch upon the songs’ more electronic aural elements, while other atmospheric choices like the echoing tolls of bell tower chimes evoke something ominous and yet sanctimonious, catching a sense of doom that still suggests hope.
“The concept of Algiers reflects the notion of possibility, impossibility and limitation. So, the percussive element particularly speaks to that, as we were writing these songs in separate spaces and each still learning how to program arrangements and find the easiest way to lay down a rhythm or a beat was to use stomps, claps or the vocals.”
“Natural rhythms,” said Fisher, “is something that appears in a lot of the music that we’re into, and not just gospel music. It was a very practical way to realize these songs in their early incarnations, using what was most immediately available.”
“One word that comes up often,” Fisher said, “is crosspollination. It’s an important word because not only is it responsible for what has been an organic growth of our sound and what it is that we do in this exploration that we’re in, regarding music that’s meant for politics and everything else, but it’s also responsible for every interesting music, interesting artist or band that’s come before.”
Just as Algiers enter the waters of popular music, they’ll inevitably encounter vessels, such as a music journalists, who will want to categorize their music. Although the beauty and excitement of Algiers music sparks from how indefinable it is, we’ve nonetheless tried harpooning it with a few catchy genre categories that spark certain expectations, or suggest certain sounds and attitudes.
“People get caught up on genre,” said Fischer. “I find that political boundaries that are constructed through genre or are reinforced by genre can be so arbitrary. It’s a bit unnerving how that dictates not only how people listen to music, but how it’s produced. Choosing to disregard music genres and the boundaries they entail is very much a political exercise and that’s just one of the things that we do.”
“I guess the concept of the band,” said Mahan, “was reasserting solidarity globally and a world view that’s outside of the particularity of our own region. We were attempting to do that through music. Living apart and being apart while we were making Algiers and feeling disempowered to engage politically or engage musically played into that, as well as us getting older. (Tesche) is also very engaged in visual art and he does a lot of our artwork and videos, so we wanted to use these mediums, like music, to construct a way of making sense of our current predicament or even making sense of the global situation, this very violent global situation … ”
Fischer puts it perfectly when he describes Tesche’s guitar work on the song “Blood” as expressing an abstraction of frustration. It’s one thing to be moved by frustration, it’s quite another to channel it into something as soulful and as startling as Algiers have with this record.
“It’s easy to say that noise … or harsh-sounding music is always repressive or violent,” Mahan said. “But not necessarily (with “Blood”). Not always. This noise can put these universal feelings, universal experiences out of context or communicate them in a different way.”
Algiers, the self-titled LP, is out now on Matador Records.