Apocalypse Songs: On the Music of Algiers
Algiers are, unmistakably, a band well-acquainted with late capitalism’s structure of feeling. Journalists who dubbed their sound “dystopian groove” summed them up accurately. Their distinct, post-punk mélange of electro, gospel, and old school R&B is wrapped in a kind of cavernous echo befitting the existential dread of overwork, poverty, climate catastrophe, and a creeping police state.
This is deliberate on their part. Algiers are a band with politics: sharply prescient politics at that. If you can imagine an intersection between the unflinching anti-colonialism of Frantz Fanon, the Marxist feminism of Selma James or Angela Davis, and the hauntologies of late leftist culture writer Mark Fisher, then you’ve arrived at a description of Algiers’s worldview. Because oppression and exploitation are everywhere, so too is the potential for liberation.
Over the past few months, I’ve returned time and time again to the group’s most recent album, There Is No Year: out of frustration, out of loneliness, but also out of the desire to sit with what Samuel R. Delany calls “the terrible and vivid ephemera of now.” Everything about the album spans the gap between abysmal alienation and the promise of resistance. Even the timing of the album’s release – January of 2020 – seems symbolic. It was just as the world was starting to get wise to coronavirus’s existence. Since then, we’ve been in freefall, much like the man falling through the air on the album’s cover, grasping for something to hold on to in an age of extremes.
Algiers are a band with politics: sharply prescient politics at that. If you can imagine an intersection between the unflinching anti-colonialism of Frantz Fanon, the Marxist feminism of Selma James or Angela Davis, and the hauntologies of late leftist culture writer Mark Fisher, then you’ve arrived at a description of Algiers’s worldview.
Musically, There Is No Year refines and sharpens Algiers’s most distinct attributes. Heard in order, the album takes the listener from explosive rage to paralytic fear and back again. Echoes are amplified in comparison to their previous work, as if the dissipated future has now fully evaporated. The first two tracks – “There Is No Year” and “Dispossession” – have moderate-to-fast tempos but draw us with equal intensity into a world swimming with existential threats. Both rail with a ferocity that threatens to untether at any moment against violent, unseen enemies. In “Hour of the Furnaces,” these fraught worlds burn to the ground entirely.
From this point on, most of the songs conjure images of smoldering wreckage, as if the fires have left no place for sorrow or happiness. Haunting and inhuman synths frequently fill the empty space. The intensity is dialed back only slightly, but the songs’ players and narrators are left to contemplate a profound powerlessness. From the odd, deconstructed avant-jazz of “Chaka” to the uneasy, almost trip-hop creep of “We Can’t Be Found,” these songs attempt to stare in the face of sudden oblivion.
“Void,” the closing track on the limited-edition Dinked release, is a final upsurge. It’s a raucous, fast-paced hardcore punk song filled with reverb and feedback. It presents its subject matter from the point of view of power itself, surrounded by layers of pomp and media and destructive capability, but it is all delivered with sneer and resentment. “Seeing my skin so nice and white,” wails singer Franklin James Fisher, “it bulges like a smile.” That this is a Black man singing these words conveys the elusiveness of any sense of security. This is the sound of deliberate downfall. What is impregnable one moment may be easily destroyed in the next.
Most contemporary experiences of music – or at least my own experiences – trade in the compartmentalization of emotion. When I feel happy and exhilarated, I listen to Polyphonic Spree. If I feel like giving into my own demons, I listen to Clipping. For the sentimental or mournful, Coltrane’s jazz standards or Nina Simone’s ballads fit. Puckish or introspective? Please give me Childish Gambino’s first album.
There Is No Year is exceptional in that it straddles moods in a nuanced, honest way. It also captures how emotions are mutable and changeable. At the beginning of quarantine, it was an album that helped reckon with directionless anger, fear, and isolation. It reminded that there was a different vision underneath the bleak pandemic. Three months later, as the country exploded in protest against an endless stream of police violence and racism, the album took on a new tone. In my own city of Los Angeles, tens of thousands of us flooded previously empty streets. Boarded-up shops became murals. The landscape of the city transformed. The contours of each song still resonated, but with different meaning. Melancholy became militancy, but it was possible to hear how the former had set the stage for the latter.
One of the problems with our now-primary method of consuming music is the reliance on algorithms which, under the guise of suggesting music we 'might like,' in fact narrow our scope of selection.
Music, says iconic composer and conductor Daniel Barenboim, quickens time. Our experience of music comes almost entirely from our concept of time. The emotional and sensory impact of a note or beat comes from its relationship to the notes and beats that surround it. Popular music, as we understand it, consolidates this. It came out of the crashes and convergences of capitalism and imperialism, signifying new rearrangements of life. Theodor Adorno heard grim domination in this. For him, the marks of the assembly line and commodity weren’t just in the manufacture and marketing of a song but in the actual arrangements of its notes and beats. Listening to pop music was, to Adorno, to content yourself with the rhythms of exploitation in your leisure time. More recently, Mark Abel, in his exhaustive work on groove music, hears not just subjugation but also the possibility of liberation. The anticipations of a song stand in for the potential of a moment to give way to something unexpected – rupture within continuity.
In this regard, music becomes a battleground, no less important in the struggle for ideas than the ideas themselves. The problem, however, is that right now the wrong side (the side Adorno warned us about) has the upper hand. One of the problems with our now-primary method of consuming music is the reliance on algorithms which, under the guise of suggesting music we “might like,” in fact narrow our scope of selection. Already, artists are changing the kinds of songs they write so that they might be more likely to pop up in our queue. As social life shut down at the beginning of the pandemic, making us even more reliant on streaming services for leisure, this trend arguably became even more influential in our daily lives. These kinds of narrowed horizons do not bode well for our ability to imagine a different future, and a different future is sorely needed.
This is not music that relishes the end of the world. Rather, in the romantic, revolutionary sense, it reveals the wreckage hidden in plain sight and, with it, something radically new that can be built from the rubble.
In the late 1970s Britain, the Rock Against Racism campaign argued for what they called “crisis music,” an apt description for the punk and reggae sounds responding to economic recession and a wave of violent racism. It is a useful term for understanding how pop music can be turned against the system that shaped it, pivoting from one moment to the next, both staring an unstable reality in the face and positing a new one. But considering the endless array of individual crises that emerge today – a global pandemic, thriving police states, a depression on par with the 1930s, and wholesale ecological collapse – “crisis music” comes off as almost quaint.
We need music capable of the same gesture but reaching so much further: not “crisis music” but apocalypse music. This is not music that relishes the end of the world. Rather, in the romantic, revolutionary sense, it reveals the wreckage hidden in plain sight and, with it, something radically new that can be built from the rubble. It knocks down the aesthetic and ideological walls that keep us content with manufactured melancholy and allows our minds to map a way toward the radically different.
Algiers have shown themselves capable of just that kind of music. The point here is not to say that they are necessarily exceptional; rather, they may play a role in reviving music as quickened time, helping our imaginations catch up with the accelerated collapse of life as we know it. It is a terrifying oblivion we now face, as merciless as some of the quietest moments of There Is No Year. It can also, as the album reminds us, be shoved aside, transformed into something resembling a future worth living – however slight the chances may be. If we’re looking for inspiration, for places that can teach us how to imagine the act of shoving aside, then we could do worse than to start here.
Alexander Billet is an artist, writer, and cultural critic based in Los Angeles. His work encompasses topics concerning artistic expression, radical geography, and historical memory. He is a member of the Locust Arts & Letters Collective and an editor at its publication, Locust Review. He also regularly contributes articles on music to Jacobin and has appeared in Chicago Review, In These Times, and other outlets. His blog is To Whom It May Concern…
Mianta McKnight is a Bay Area native and self-taught artist spreading her art as a healing practice like the wings of bird. Sharing through her lens, she engages in various mediums and forms of creativity. McKnight is also a professional dancer who finds freedom through movement. Creative expression such as drawing, murals, producing logo designs, designing websites and making artwork has allowed her to capture creativity and produce new forms of communication when words are insufficient. Join her art journey and see the world through the eyes of iam4muze by checking out more of her artwork on www.noprints.biz or on social media at @iam4muze on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
About the Artwork:
Vibr8tions | Graphite on Paper | 2019 | 8.5 X 11 inches
Vibr8tion is relevant especially now dealing with police brutality, exploitation of Black and other people of color. Our voices need to be heard and we are taking measures to raise our Vibr8tion despite adversity.