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Combining Post-Punk & Gospel Traditions to Craft Socially-Conscious Anthems
Algiers recently released their self-titled debut and their timing is impeccable. Their post-punk, gospel hymns are politically charged and have a hauntingly beautiful power. There is no denying that being from Atlanta played a role in determining Algiers’ place in the cultural and racial debate in today’s society. While “Atlanta proper has always been somewhat of a beacon for progressivism in the South… we all come from the suburbs of Atlanta… which is a world-away from the urban center of cultural exchange and progressive ideas,” says Franklin James Fisher, the band’s lead singer.
He goes on to note that growing up in such an alienating environment, “the city of Atlanta served as a concrete representation of the psychological and political resistance with which we’d come up.” To gain a better perspective of the environment they grew up in, all three band members left Atlanta to pursue graduate degrees overseas; studying art, literature, and politics gave them insight into themselves and where they came of age. Guitarist Lee Tesche notes that “having life experiences and an opportunity for growth and seeing the world had a tremendous impact on the music we make today. I don’t think I would have been able to write or be involved in something like this when I was a teenager or in my early twenties.”
It is obvious that Tesche, Fisher and bassist Ryan Mahan have a deep-rooted interest in history and their knowledge has been transformed through their music. Mahan expresses that he has always been interested in the history of struggle, “from anti-slavery insurrections in the United States and Haiti to the major anti-colonial movements in mid-20th Century Africa.” The word Algiers alludes to the struggle against colonialism in North Africa, and it’s no coincidence that is also the band’s name. Mahan expresses significant interest in the Algerian revolution and even quotes Frantz Fanon: “The time for Europe is over.” With regards to the band’s name, Mahan notes, “We wanted a name to represent this concept, the idea of pushing toward the new, referencing the past while breaking with the miserable inheritance of capitalism, racism and colonialism.” The idea of political conversation is engrained in their music, which confronts the idea of commercialized art and culture.
While the band is certainly influenced and inspired by history, for Tesche, the biggest influences (both musically and politically) are the people he surrounds himself with. Tesche has worked with Mahan for close to 15 years and discloses, “I would be lying to myself if I didn’t admit that he has had a profound influence on me, same with Fisher.”
It is evident that the band draws inspiration from each other. The songs on the album are packaged in such a way that their individual strengths are all highlighted, resulting in perfectly melded anthems. Combining post-punk and gospel traditions comes very naturally to the Algiers because they are the elements they grew up with. While the two sounds are distinctive, they share political and musical commonalities.
Tesche sheds light on their unique sound, “[Post-punk and gospel] both give voices to dispossessed populations. Both can be emancipative, energetic, and communal. An important thing to keep in mind is that rock and roll was birthed from gospel and blues music, and re-associating the two after generations of disassociation shouldn’t be an odd thing.” By taking ideas, both musical and political, and pushing the boundaries, they are able to find an equilibrium. The songs are so solid that the instrumentals and lyrics can stand- lone and still embody all that Algiers represent.
“Remains” reminds one of historic religious songs where drums were used to spread messages in a rhythmic language. The reverb in the beginning of the song, in combination with the humming, mimics how people toughen themselves psychologically. The beating drum and clapping mimics foot stomping and handclapping, which represents hardships. The first forty-three seconds of the song have no lyrics, but it sets the tone for the entire track to come. The raw emotion is tied together as the last line echoes and fades: “We’re your careless mistakes/We’re the spirits you raised/We are what remains.”
The track “Irony. Utility. Pretext.” embraces more of the post-punk sound with techno-like drums, reverb and an upbeat dance tempo. The heavy downbeat gives the song roots and helps ground it lyrically. The balance between the two sounds is found when the song fades into an a cappella gospel hymn.
It is arguable that there is no perfect formula for writing songs. Sometimes the melody forms first, and other times a lyrical idea leads to a musical structure. Before recording this collection, the band sifted through previous songs, demos, and sketches and picked pieces of each to craft their debut. A great deal of the writing for the record was done while the band was split between Atlanta, London, and a hamlet in France. Having had this process since their inception, they have figured out how to make the physical space between them work to their advantage. Taking the time to mull over ideas before reconvening and building has made their sound and messages that much stronger. Interestingly enough, the most notable element of their recording process was being in close proximity with each other. “We never thought we would ever have the opportunity to be together in the same place making a full-length record, and it was a very exciting time,” says Tesche.
The album reflects on issues of the past and present, such as religion, race, economics and morality. For Algiers, music allows them to figure out the world as they experience it; it’s “a therapeutic exercise in catharsis,” says Fisher. He further articulates that Algiers is a progressive experiment, starting with “promoting a dialogue with whomever is interested in engaging with us.”
While the entire band is introspective and awakened by shedding light on complex issues in our society, Mahan conveyed that postmodernism and consumer culture “have told us that seeking justice is dangerous, that working toward an egalitarian society is impossible, that the ideas of solidarity are outmoded in this era of self indulgence.” Their music is comprised of things that society has taught us not to talk about, but Algiers approaches them with class, affirmation and the promise of future action.
Photography by Alex De Mora
Follow on Twitter @AlgiersMusic
Standout Track: “Blood”
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