In 1937, school teacher and poet Abel Meeropol penned “Strange Fruit”. The poem was written as a reaction to the Southern states’ African American targeting lynch mobs. Two years later “Strange Fruit” was committed to record by Billie Holiday and eventually took on a life of its own. Soon the song became a protest anthem. In the ensuing decades it’s been covered countless times by musicians like Herbie Hancock, Annie Lenox, and sampled by Kanye West. In every sense of the term, “Strange Fruit” is a touchstone of American music. The stark composition and graphic depiction of strangled and mutilated African Americans serve as a grim reminder of the our country’s hateful and racist past.
Cut to Cleveland, Ohio seventy-seven years later. On November 22, 2014, twelve-year-old Tamir Rice was shot and killed in a playground by local police officers. Tamir wasn’t doing anything of any particular consequence. Just something that every young boy has always done and always will. He was playing with a toy gun. There have been countless acts of violent injustice carried out against African Americans before Tamir’s murder and since. But, that little boy’s slaying is one of the few that has burrowed its way into America’s collective conciseness. In solidarity and dedication, Algiers have responded with “Cleveland”.
Where “Strange Fruit” is subtle and restrained, “Cleveland” is an apocalyptic call to arms. Distorted gospel choirs and pained cries build around vocalist Franklin James Fisher as he croons the names of Sandra Bland, Andre Jones, Keith Warren, and more. All of whom were African Americans found dead in their prison cells. The mysterious circumstances surrounding the deaths were all conveniently ruled as suicides. Some by hanging.
Will “Cleveland” reach the same level of rightful ubiquity as “Strange Fruit”? I don’t know. What I do know is “Cleveland”, Algiers, and The Underside of Power have arrived at the exact right moment in history. Algiers use their sophomore album as a vehicle for putting those responsible for such atrocities on trial. The band’s manifesto is found in the chorus of “City of Martyrs” – “Despite the future crashing down and closing over me/ I’ve got power over all of my enemies”. With the incredible physicality and eloquence of The Underside of Power, Algiers are here to dismantle fascist oppression.
Musically, what’s immediately discernible about Algiers is Fisher can sing. Once Fisher’s vocals kick in on the DJ Shadow reminiscent album opener “Walk Like a Panther”, they sound like they’re just a great sample. It’s a jarring experience to have a frontman with such vigor carry an entire track of music like this without a lesser vocalist coming in and flatlining the verse. Punk and industrial have never really been awarded with frontmen of Fisher’s caliber – hell, even the current strand of r&b warblers could stand to take a few notes. Instead of snarling untrained abandonment, Algiers’ rage is delivered through a powerhouse performance of grizzled blues and soulful swagger. At times Fisher bellows in the haggard baritone of Chester Burnett. Other times he hits the higher registers with the finesse and grace of Ella Fitzgerald.
Fisher alone would help boost Algiers to the top of the very crowded punk heap. What makes them true masters of their genre is sheer ambition. These tracks are dense concoctions built around jagged guitars, racketing drums, dissonant electronics, and details that only reveal themselves after multiple listens. As if that wasn’t enough, Algiers are somehow able to filter their brand of post-punk through the lens of some of black America’s most coveted musical institutions. Over the course of The Underside of Power, we’re treated to tastes of Delta blues, Memphis soul, Detroit techno, and Atlanta trap – to name a few. The versatility is best exemplified on “Animals”. Fisher’s angered soul inflections and the rest of the bands ragged playing and sharp guitar leads create the exact midpoint between James Brown and Gang Of Four. Well, they do up until the track evolves into a synth trance worthy of a John Carpenter soundtrack.
The last two tracks find Algiers going into full jazz punk mode (a genre I made up just for this review). “Bury Me Standing” is a free-jazz ambient meditation that no doubt has Sun Ra beaming from whatever distant plane he’s currently occupying. “The Cycle/The Spiral: Time to Go Down Slowly” takes on a more jazz traditionalist approach. Fisher navigates the track’s sporadic energy with the kind of voice acrobatics found on the best vocal jazz records of the late 50s. All while the lead guitar takes on the role of a saxophone and pulls off its best Coltrane impression. A band that holds the likes of Etta James, Miles Davis, Mike-Will-Made-It, The Clash, and Suicide in the same regard isn’t anything special. I mean, why wouldn’t they like all of those artists? What makes them special is the ability to channel all of their seemingly obverse influences into a cohesive whole
Despite all of the aforementioned reference points, Algiers only sound like Algiers. We’ve heard the templates they’re working in, but the way they’re executed and blend together is revelatory. Algiers are certainly carving out their own lane, but there is one spiritual predecessor that constantly comes to mind. And that is none other than Nina Simone. Ms. Simone’s most well known and beloved work tends to fall under the the piano balladry and jazz standards of her early days. Her midpoint, however, was characterized by her leftist social conscience and an unapologetic embrace of blackness.
There’s a moment in the great documentary, What Happened Ms. Simone?, where Nina breaks down mid song, gently weeps, and muses to her audience about the murders of all of the prominent Civil Rights leaders. Nina had a tremendous amount of empathy for her subject matter. So do Algiers. Any asshole can look around and proclaim that things are shit. Algiers look around at what’s happening and never lose sight of the human factor. I feel that sadness underneath the anger of “Cleveland”. When they dedicate songs to Tamir Rice and other victims they aren’t doing it for any kind of cultural or political cachet. They do it because they’re just as scared and confused as the rest of us. The purpose of The Underside of Power is to unite and empower those who are feeling alienated or oppressed by the political climate we’re all occupying. And right now, more than anything, that’s what we need from art.