Rage Against the “Television Coma”: Algiers Soundtrack the Postcolonial Struggle

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When you listen to Algiers’ self-titled debut, it’s easy to hear the sources of the band’s sound: The somber soul and call-and-response of gospel hymns, the gritty textures of noise, the brashness of punk… even the relentless rhythms of industrial. At times, the record is smooth and soulful, at others, driving and forceful. But it’s the lyrics that are the most confrontational, especially on record.

Franklin James Fisher’s lyrics often directly reflect the postcolonial struggle, and there’s an urgency to his expression. It’s possible to draw lines directly to current events; it’s impossible to extract oneself from the environment in which we live. Algiers is comprised of Lee Tesche (guitar), Ryan Mahan (bass, synths, samplers), Matt Tong (drums), and Fisher (lead vocals, guitar). Tesche, Mahan, and Fisher have known each other since childhood in the suburbs of Atlanta; Tong is a Brit who used to play in Bloc Party. But the themes stretch back for hundreds of years. They’re sending out signals into the ether, hoping to connect with people in the struggle, wherever they are.

“I don’t think that we are specifically talking about America, or that we necessarily make ostensibly American music,” Fisher says. “I do think you have to talk about what you know, but I don’t think that’s necessarily restrictive in terms of who you can be reaching out to or empathizing with. And that goes back to… having a sort of worldview as people that attempts to connect with other cultures, other experiences.”

The experience is the struggle, and “the struggle” is universal (consider that the Arabic word “jihad” literally means “struggle”). It’s rooted in the evils of white supremacy, and while the methods have changed and become less transparent, the result is the same: subjugation, exploitation, and in the face of rebellion, decimation. On Algiers, there are recurrent themes of pacification via media, of the white supremacy superstructure obfuscating its machinations with cultural sedatives. On “Remains,” Fisher belts, “But there’s a brand new show/ For you to watch today/ So all the Western eyes/ Can look the other way.” On “Blood,” Fisher laments the “television coma,” and the squandering of ancestral gifts, earned through suffering: “Four hundred years of torture/Four hundred years a slave/Dead just to watch you squander/Just what we tried to save/Now death is at your doorstep/And you’re still playing games/So drown in entertainment/Cause all our blood is in vain.”

Algiers’ Franklin James Fisher © Matthew Ismael Ruiz

The symbolism can be more difficult to parse at times — “The serpent sings in lamb’s wool/He says he’s come/Back for his people/He says he’s gonna fly them away/Forever in a dream” — but the mood is consistent. Their angst is spiritual, born from the weight of the suffering of millions, and the reconciliation of the role we play in it. They’ve talked about the influence of Frantz Fanon’s writings on postcolonialism, and it’s the global response to his work — revolutions across the globe rallying behind its message — that informs the concept behind Algiers.

While there’s plenty of discourse on the role of violence in Fanon’s philosophy, ultimately, Fanon was more anti-nonviolence than anything else. And the symbolic intervention of the oppressed represented in Algiers’ music is itself a violent act. “Symbolic violence is… it has the same psychological gratification [physical] violence may have for some people,” Fisher says. “That ultimately winds up being a constructive practice, without succumbing to lateral violence.”

Mahan, who wrote his thesis on the subject, elaborates further on Fanon’s influence:

For example, “The time for Europe is over, the time for Africa has just begun,” that might not immediately be reflected within the music itself, but it definitely represents the sort of violent overthrow or struggle that is inherent in that thought. The noise represents that, [recalling] history to actually engage differently. There are parts to play, and I think we are actually seeking to somehow reflect that history outside of [the West] in a musical sense. And I think in some ways it does happen.

As a young band, Algiers’ writing process is still evolving. Since the two halves of the band are separated by an ocean — Fisher and Tong live in New York, Mahan and Tesche live in the UK — they work on parts individually. On Algiers, Tesche wrote most of the music, then handed it to Mahan, who wrote melodies, before their work made its way to Fisher, who “made them really special,” Mahan says.

Mahan and Tesche have embraced their move to London. “[Fisher and Tong] will have a little bit of… a different perspective,” Tesche says. “I think it’s important to have that aspect of separation. I had to extract myself from Atlanta, from the US, to really look back on my life and my perspective growing up. It turned things around a bit.”

Mahan is meticulous by nature. His travel bag is expertly packed, with small organizer pouches and carefully folded clothes neatly arranged. When he changes clothes just before the band plays a set at Manhattan’s Mercury Lounge, his shirt is so crisp it’s as if he just picked it up from the dry cleaner. His resting state seems to be one of careful consideration.

Algiers in the booth at the Cutting Room studios in New York, recording a session for WXPN Philadelphia’s “World Cafe” program. © Matthew Ismael Ruiz

Yet just hours earlier, in a studio booth at The Cutting Room, even though he’s tucked in a corner where he’s difficult to see from the control room, Mahan dances and gyrates just as enthusiastically as he would later at the Mercury Lounge. He admits to not always being comfortable in the studio, so it helps keep him loose. “With the bass, you can’t miss any notes,” he explains. It’s easy to imagine his brain as a catalog of thought, the way he can casually offer discourse on the early work of David Cronenberg and the welfare philosophies of British post-punks, or explain how the philosophy of Frantz Fanon is reflected in their music. There’s nothing like a little rocking out to keep from overthinking.

Tesche is by far the quietest member of Algiers, at least when he’s not strangling the neck of his guitar on stage. For a band that tracks a decent amount of the music they play onstage, their sound is very much shaped by his guitar. Without the rough textures of his distorted notes — often made with a bow — Algiers may have run the risk of being too tight, too slick.

In their live show, however, the band runs no such risk. Sometime in February 2015, once Algiers was finished, they decided they needed a drummer to tour with. Their producer Tom Morris reached out to his friend Matt Tong, who had been involved in various projects since leaving Bloc Party in 2013. Having only heard the Blood 7-inch, Tong eagerly agreed to join them on tour. “I remember then thinking to myself, ‘This sounds pretty vital.’ I hadn’t heard anything like this for a very long time,” he says. “Plus, the record is so fully formed, and so well-realized, it’s been pretty easy for me. I’m just augmenting.” For the time being, Tong’s involvement is limited to the live show — the next batch of music the band is set to release has already been recorded, without Tong. But his place in Algiers is Wikipedia-official, so it should be interesting to see how the band continues to evolve with his contribution.

And as they evolve, it’s becoming clear that Algiers is a post-racial band born of a society that has yet to transcend race. Academic and emotional, informed by the history of humanity and all its rage and sorrow, Algiers represents the most enlightened parts of Western culture as it rails against its more odious elements. The more that people listen, the better off we’ll be.

Algiers’ new video for “And When You Fall,” from the self-titled debut, out now on Matador: