On the surface, punk and gospel might appear to be on different ends of the musical spectrum — one given to loud guitars, screams and nihilism, the other to solemnity, its sanctified voices professing the deepest of beliefs. One seeks to raze tradition, the other to embrace it. But as compilations like Goodbye, Babylon, the Rev. Charlie Jackson’s God’s Got It and Fire In My Bones have shown, gospel can be as raw and visceral as punk.
Algiers, which formed in Atlanta but now calls London and New York City home, has one foot in punk’s protest and the other in gospel’s resolve. Guitarist Lee Tesche and bassist Ryan Mahan were heavily into post-punk’s clamor when they connected with singer-guitarist Franklin James Fisher, who has deep roots in the Southern gospel tradition. Their self-titled debut couches its invective in feedback, guitar noise, bruising drum machines and Fisher’s guttural howls.
A martial drum tattoo, handclaps, a wordless hum and Fisher’s deep, resonant voice open “Remains,” sounding like the chant of a chain gang even as Fisher bellows, “And the chained man sang in a sigh, ‘I feel like going home.'” That and the lugged-metal percussion of “Blood” evoke the spare yet thundering sound of early Nick Cave & The Bad Seeds. “Claudette” picks up speed as layered coos and hollers accompany spark-spraying guitars; the result sounds like Einstürzende Neubauten covering The Four Tops’ raspy-voiced plea “Bernadette.”
The juxtaposition of noise and soul is invigorating in its own right, but it’s in Algiers’ lyrics that a more potent agitprop message is conveyed. An 808 beat — seemingly lifted from Afrika Bambaataa and Soulsonic Force’s “Looking For The Perfect Beat” — powers “Irony. Utility. Pretext.” But the words unpack the United Nations’ Development Program and white listeners’ appreciation of “Afro-pop in a decolonized context,” later adding a line about “correcting primitive cracks into straight lines.” It’s the type of scabrous protest song that also indicts its audience; it might give you pause before you shout along.