Algiers is a political band in a political time

Zachary Lipez

ATLANTA (THE WASHINGTON POST) – On a cold weekend at the end of November, the four members of the punk band Algiers were holed up in an Atlanta warehouse that was repurposed as an art gallery, performing stripped-down versions of new songs in front of a wall of TVs featuring the message “BLACK POWER”. The band is attempting to avoid being boxed in as a purely political act, with vocalist Franklin Fisher saying, “I can only imagine some people who will not be happy that, you know, the new Algiers record isn’t titled ‘F Trump 2020.’ “

But even with a splendid collection of love and dread songs and a new insistence on being viewed as “entertainment,” Algiers exists in America in 2020. If the personal was ever free of the political, it sure isn’t these days. Still, you can’t blame a rock ‘n’ roll band, especially one with as many progressive dues paid, for trying.

Algiers (named after the 1966 film The Battle of Algiers) was formed in 2012 in Atlanta and by 2015 released their self-titled debut, which was rich in experimental groove and drenched, lyrically and aesthetically, in far-left signifiers, well before President Donald Trump’s election and well before other indie bands discovered that maybe America wasn’t all it was cracked up to be. By the time of 2017’s The Underside of Power, Algiers’ sound expanded to a cinematic smorgasbord of mutant disco, post-punk, and secular soul.

The band has always had a complicated relationship with its hometown. Three members – guitarist Lee Tesche, bassist Ryan Mahan and Fisher – were Atlanta churchgoers as boys, so the somewhat trite “gospel post-punk” descriptor sometimes assigned to them isn’t entirely unfair, but, at least initially, the influence of Washington, DC, punk heroes Fugazi far outweighed anything from Atlanta.

There is pride in the band’s birthplace (even a casual conversation with the members will contain references to local heroes like Goodie Mob and the Subsonics, along with elegies for the since transformed and gentrified neighbourhoods of their youth), mixed with the alienation required of a band whose art is based on disquietude. The idea of searching for a home that may never exist, coupled with a fully existential rejection of nationalistic homeland and empire, is readily apparent on There Is No Year. The album’s title is taken from the 2011 avant-horror novel by Blake Butler, an author who was a high school classmate of Mahan and Fisher.

Initially for Algiers, the influence of Washington, DC, punk heroes Fugazi far outweighed anything from their native Atlanta. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
Algiers (named after the 1966 film ‘The Battle of Algiers’) was formed in 2012 in Atlanta and by 2015 released their self-titled debut, which was rich in experimental groove and drenched, lyrically and aesthetically, in far-left signifiers

“Frank and I spent a long while talking about the feeling of ambient pain that surrounds the creation of both objects; personally struggling to find a centre in a whirlwind,” Butler said, “and seeing the same happen to our friends up close in a time where personal pain is always complemented by the public hell ride America has built itself into, especially lately”.

Fisher is willfully, if amiably, cagey about the album’s meaning. The lyrics, which the band has declined to include on the album or provide to critics, are drawn from the long-form poem Misophonia that Fisher had been journaling since the summer of 2018. Using Dylan’s It’s Alright, Ma (I’m Only Bleeding) as a point of departure, Fisher composed Misophonia as “little mental Polaroids of everything I was experiencing, whether it was international news or personal relationships or things I experienced on the road or things that my friends or family were going through.”

The lyrical result is an imagery-rich, haunted, occasionally bitter tapestry presented as autobiography. In its quality and content, the poem, inscribed on the album’s cover in lieu of a lyric sheet insert, begs for analysis that the band refuses. “I think too often, specifically with us, people expect things to be either autobiographical or very one-dimensional and myopic in terms of worldview or some sort of agenda that we’re pushing,” Fisher said. “I’m not a soapbox preacher, you know?”

Algiers isn’t shy about its embrace of high-minded modernism backed by the force of any and all of the music they love, be it ‘80s hardcore thuggery or the roller-rink romance sounds of Miami freestyle. There Is No Year, as purposefully produced by Randall Dunn and Ben Greenberg, is a far more streamlined affair than its previous outing, and it came from the band’s disavowal, in typical ornery fashion, of even their own preconceptions. Fisher recalls a band meeting toward the end of 2018 when Tesche asked his bandmates to envision their upcoming album. “’Got it? OK. Throw that out because it’s not gonna be that record,’ ” Fisher recalled him saying.

The final product proved to be divisive – with listeners and even within the band – but it shows a band whose primary interest is continuing its evolution and refusing to rest on its laurels. The soul claps are still there, synths and metal scrapes still creep in and out seemingly of their own volition, but the band has never sounded so cohesive or modern. They’ve even evolved in how they look onstage – whereas they used to dress as monochrome Maoists, now there are headbands and fake-fur jackets. They’ve gone from the Clash to, well, Big Audio Dynamite.

One element that remains at the heart of Algiers is a series of inherent contradictions that the band, like all the best philosophy-minded but reality-grounded artists, embrace. They all insist on calling Algiers “entertainment” while talking in full essays about postmodernism and state oppression. They all agreed that the album was going to showcase Fisher’s talent and voice, but that this needed to be done despite Fisher’s palpable contempt for the idea of a flashy rock ‘n’ roll frontman.

And where would the comfort needed to provide for the strength of his performance, this litany of end-time visions and heartache, come from? From the primal need for a place to call one’s own. Drummer Matt Tong, having made his bones touring the world with the indie band Bloc Party, is now an English expat happily living with his family in New York. Tesche is operating as a fixer of sorts within the Atlanta rock scene and is finally comfortable back where he came from. Mahan, arguably the most ambivalent and inward of the group and with a southern accent unsullied by years living and working in the UK, doesn’t claim any home at all.

And Fisher sees New York City as the place he’s meant to be. This acknowledgment was a pivotal feature in the recording of There Is No Year. He had been living in New York for years but with no apartment to call his own because of the demands of the band. In one of those unfortunate ironies of being a leftist artist trying to work in a gentrified city, he ended up landing in an Airbnb in Bed-Stuy. “I was in New York City. New York City is kind of a Mecca for black people. For hip-hop, for jazz, for poetry, like the Harlem Renaissance; everything came from New York, and the place I was staying was only a few blocks away from …” Fisher pauses. “There’s a YouTube video of Biggie Smalls when he was like 17, and he’s rapping outside of this bodega, and I was a few blocks away from that spot, you know what I’m saying? I didn’t feel displaced for the first time. I was home.”

It’s this inescapable brawl of ideas and ideals, needs and resentments that define Algiers. They want to make art; they want to entertain. They want to have homes just so they can leave them for months at a time. They are a racially mixed, mixed-nationality band, originally from the South. They are an openly leftist band in Trump’s America in 2020 who are tired of being forced to offer prescriptions for an entire history of oppression. So they’re writing love songs. Or they’re writing political songs couched in the language of love. Or they’re writing songs for the apocalypse, with a dash of liberation. And a little piano to make it all go down easier.