The greatest protest music finds its power not through words but by trafficking in emotions — often a burst of energy that mirrors the struggle transpiring everyday outside the song. Algiers, a four-piece rock band from Atlanta, write protest music that speaks long and often. Scan the track listing of their newest LP, The Underside of Power, and it reads with the diction of the oppressed: panthers, power, martyrs, death, blood, plague. Algiers wedge as many words into their gloomy post-industrial blues as humanly possible, spitting more and more stories like seeds they hope will settle and grow.
The shotgun approach doesn’t always hit its targets (and this problem likely bleeds into Algiers’ issues with sounding the same across many ostensibly different songs), but for words of protest to work, it takes only a phrase. On Monday night in Oakland during “Cry of the Martyrs,” the band dropped the pounding beat and gave lead singer Franklin James Fisher the stage (with only the buzzing of guitar amps behind him) to sing the final stanza:
They’ll say our whole life is a locust
Disturbing their fractious peace
But it is they who mangle our horizons
Of our defeat at Calvary
It’s these nuggets of phrase that keep me engaged with Algiers when I can’t follow all the words in their cacophonous songs. And after their 100-minute set at Starline Social Club, you’d be excused too for failing to follow along. So we turn to the emotion of the songs which wrench styles and influences from across the musical spectrum — for protest songs, a coalition of influences — to put music to words: trap, hip-hop, blues, soul, industrial. To unite the songs, Algiers lean towards brooding, minor-key repetition varying the pace with the insistence of Fisher’s singing. Truly the soul of the band, Fisher voice is plaintive, nurturing, and howling. He holds a consistency across songs that I don’t quite know how to describe — perhaps it is the confidence of a poet tucked into the throat of a singer.
When Algiers explode with energy and passion, they possess a unique power and drive. Tracks like “Black Eunuch,” “The Underside of Power,” “Walk Like a Panther,” and “Death March” impel the band to wring as much emotion from their musical amalgamation as possible. It’s these moments, in which Algiers congeal passion to power, that it is easy to envision their music as a pre-recorded soundtrack to the next uprising. It’s up to us to pick which phrase we run with.