Challenging, smart, fresh, and insanely adventurous are all terms that apply to the self-titled debut disc from Algiers, but perhaps it’s better to go with something simpler. To put it in the most basic way, Algiers somehow sounds important. Not only is it one of the best records of the year, but it seems like one of those groundbreakers that will be remembered as the start of something big.
Getting bassist Ryan Mahan to agree with that is, however, not easy. Asked if he feels that Algiers—which includes singer Franklin James Fisher and guitarist Lee Tesche—is onto something, the bassist laughs and then responds: “I’m not trying to skirt the question, but it’s very hard to say when you’re kind of in it and, I guess, a little bit older and kind of detached from things. I do know that it felt absolutely amazing to be able to make the record that we did, and it feels crazy and really exciting for us to be able to perform and play shows. But to talk about being on the cusp of something, it’s really difficult to put that into words.”
Funnily, putting things into words doesn’t seem hard for Mahan or Tesche. Both spend 45 minutes on the phone with the Georgia Straight when they’re reached in Montreal, covering everything from the importance of Throbbing Gristle to modern society’s collective obsession with the collapse of capitalism.
Basically, both come across as smart guys who are obsessed with music, but not to the point where they can’t talk intelligently about other things. This well-roundedness is backed up by Algiers’s thoughtfully curated website. Click on the home page and you’ll find quotes from civil-rights revolutionaries such as Kwame Ture spotlighted beside retro shots of Bad Brains and essays like the New Yorker’s “The World Needs Female Rock Critics”.
That interest in anything and everything colours Algiers, a record where cold-hearted postpunk is heavily infused with the life-affirming gospel music that the band’s members were exposed to growing up in the American South.
The overwhelming message here is that rules are made to be broken, with “Remains” starting out as a menacing exercise in field-holler blues and ending up flooded with soaring gothic synths. Algiers dips into industrial dub with the banging “Claudette”, conducts Sunday Mass in the Church of the Bad Seeds with the moaning “Blood”, and spikes classic soul with churning live-wire guitars on “Old Girl”. Through it all, Fisher sounds like a preacher who bows to no god but his own.
Early interviews the band has done for the record have implied that all three members couldn’t wait to escape Atlanta, which seems to be famous as a onetime hotbed of crunk and not much else. In some ways, that’s true, which helps explain why Tesche and Mahan now live in London, England, and Fisher is based in New York. Algiers’s guitarist, however, suggests that the real reason the band’s members hauled up stakes was that they were looking for something new and inspiring.
“I was a really heavy participant in Atlanta art, and really doing whatever I could to push it forward,” Tesche explains. “But at a certain point I realized I was working in an office park for this clothing company, maybe a mile from the house that I grew up in. Even my parents had left and moved to Florida. It seemed like 10 years had gone by really quickly, so I decided that I was going to take the leap, sell everything, and start anew in London. And once I finally did, it was a really liberating thing.”
Long-time friends and veterans of countless go-nowhere indie bands, the three musicians decided to take another kick at things as Algiers. The roots of the band can be traced back to Atlanta, where Fisher and Mahan were working on songs as far back as 2010. Tesche coming aboard after moving to London accelerated the creative process, leading to initial singles that caught the attention of heavyweight American indie label Matador.
“Part of the reason this seems so exciting is that we didn’t think we would actually have the opportunity to make a record,” Mahan says. “We’d planned to make singles and then just persist in putting them out there.”
What’s fascinating about the full-length is that it appears to be a glorious blaze of contradictions. The first lyrics on the album are “And the chained man sang in a sigh,” which sets the tone for songs that do everything from questioning the idea of faith to exploring the whitewashing of African culture. Heavy as this is, it doesn’t stop Algiers from ripping it up musically; Google the frenetic “Black Eunuch” and watch Fisher inspire even as he belts out lyrics like “We bury ourselves in our bottles/We bury ourselves in our bibles.”
Mahan and Tesche are able to provide eloquent assessment of the album Algiers has made. They start with the fact that moving to a new place isn’t always easy, partly because one’s social circle has to be rebuilt.
“I know that I’ve read reviews where some people say the record maybe sounds oppressive or lacks a sense of affirmation,” Mahan offers. “But for me, the music that we were making, while living in separate cities, often provided a sense of solace. It helped create a vernacular to help understand and make sense of our feelings and emotions.”
Tesche elaborates: “An important thing that you’ve touched upon is the aspect of upliftingness within. I don’t think it was our intention to do something that was extremely bleak—we wanted to at least point to some aspect of hope, or some alternative to darkness.”
Algiers has achieved that, and something more. We’re witnessing the arrival of a band that seems bound for greatness. Consider yourself lucky to have found them early on.
Algiers plays the Biltmore Cabaret on Saturday (June 20).