Photo courtesy of Shore Fire Media
Cat's Cradle Back Room, Carrboro
Saturday, June 6, 2015
Among members of the press, there seems to be general agreement that Algiers—an Atlanta-born, New York-based three-piece inevitably described as post-punk-meets-gospel—is something special. The raves have been notably effusive. “If I had to pick one new band that you should absolutely listen to, it’s Algiers,” from NPR
, typifies the tone. But judging from the anemic attendance at Saturday night’s performance at the Cat’s Cradle Back Room, the message has been slow to translate to tours.
As he took in the debut performance of Muffled, an endearingly ragged Charlotte trio, two members of which had just graduated high school, Algiers lead singer Franklin James Fisher smiled approvingly toward the near-empty room and said, “I hope it stays just like this.”
Fisher, who goes by Frankie, more or less got his wish. Attendance topped out somewhere in the mid-40s, but it didn’t seem to affect the level of energy or commitment from Algiers. Fisher is a gripping frontman, a passionate soul shouter one minute who verges on punk the next. His performance style is beholden to no era; he likes to execute a smooth 360-degree spin on the way to grabbing the mic, a nod to vintage R&B purveyors; for the next song, he’ll be on his knees, adjusting knobs on a bank of effects pedals. At one point, he joined the audience, such as it was, where he took a verse and busted out a few dance moves before returning to his original spot at center stage. He also plays guitar, notably the aggressively funky chords that tear through the band’s remarkable first single, “Black Eunuch.”
As dominating a presence as Fisher is, multi-instrumentalist Ryan Mahan is as good as a second front man, with ninja dance moves, emphatic overhead handclaps and expressions of ecstasy suggesting he’s signing Fisher’s words to an unseen presence in a language based on body movement. Guitarist Lee Tesche (also a multi-instrumentalist) provides essential counterweight to what at times seems like dueling leaders. Wearing a Bikini Kill T-shirt, he added an essential vocabulary of colors and textures: flurries of jittery 16th notes, stabbing single-note fills, long distorted tones courtesy of a violin bow, and spine-tingling noise eruptions. While drum machines play a key role—all three members add percussion and programmed elements—the presence of a live drummer, Matt Tong of Bloc Party
, supplied an urgency to match the band’s mode.
Post-punk-meets-gospel is a pretty good signifier, but it only goes so far for Algiers. Before the show, Fisher talked about the influence of Radiohead, a band that belongs to neither of those genres but whose experimental tendency and unsettling vibe Algiers share. Beyond that, Fisher said, he and his bandmates have a similar dynamic as Yorke and Jonny Greenwood in that one member can’t take over.
Recalling at various points PIL’s dub-style expansions, Afrobeat, industrial, no wave, free jazz, Suicide, the XTC of “Travels in Nihilon,”
Nick Cave’s fire and brimstone, musique concrète
, Algiers depletes adjectives and genre types, and maybe that’s the point. Labels and signifiers are not where they’re coming from.
The political sensibility and confrontational nature of songs like “Black Eunuch” and “Blood”
have garnered attention and gotten Algiers pegged as a “protest band” in The New York Times
. In a live setting, though, some of the lyrical nuances get lost. When I asked Fisher about the band’s resolutely political stance, he downplayed the decision to wade into those waters, saying that it came down to life in a working band: “If I’m going to play a song hundreds of times, I want the words to mean something.”
Right now, though, they’re enjoying performing songs they haven’t played hundreds of times. The fun is still there, whether in a big, full room or a small one before a handful.