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Algiers – Underside of Power (album review)

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German poet Bertolt Brecht once claimed that, “art is not a mirror to hold up to society, but a hammer with which to shape it.” Thankfully, nobody told Algiers about this. The outfit’s newest album, The Underside of Power, takes a different approach: it hammers the mirror into society’s face so it can take a closer look.

It’s extraordinarily rare to come across a band that is as much a product of the times as Algiers is. In a time when music tends to be formulaic and meanings are largely inoffensive, the band offers up a breath of fresh, albeit unclean, air.

The Underside Of Power, is not your typical release. Every track on the album is enjoyably uneasy listening that steers clear of escapism to instead take – or rather, drag – listeners on a journey showcasing the gritty, contentious reality of modern life. Think racial divisions, social injustices and corruption – it’s all laid bare by Algiers here.

Of course, the political charge is nothing new for Algiers. In fact, it’s been one of the band’s most defining characteristics since their first release in 2012. What makes it different on The Underside of Power, however, is that it is delivered with renewed vigour, strength and intensity.

The title track itself is the most straightforward example of this. Building from a subdued, snarled vocal at the start to a soaring soul-esque singalong by the time the chorus rolls around, the track is designed to rouse audiences with its growing urgency and almost-cathartic vocal deliveries. This is all atop the wall of distorted and industrial sound that chugs along in the background, gradually gathering steam until it almost feels like an aural runaway train.

Through this distortion and intense industrialism, the magic of each song on this album is that there is a sense of rhythm and a groove. While these may seem uneasy partners with the intense sounds at play and the serious subject matters, Algiers makes it work.

Opening track Walk like a panther, for example, begins with a catastrophically distorted melody and samples of Fred Hampton – a murdered former lead of the Black Panthers – delivering a speech. It sounds dark and serious, sure, but the frantic rattle of the drums and the almost Willy Moon-esque electronic stabs turns the track into an apocalyptic dance.

Walk like a panther is no isolated incident either. Throughout the album, the band’s sound is a surprisingly digestible amalgamate of industrial sounds, doom-laden rock, soulful jazz and even trap-leaning electronics. Each track has a different balance of each sound, but generally speaking they are all present.

There are occasional moments of respite, such as the end-of-days trap progressions of Plague Years, but the album itself is a brutally bleak and frankly apocalyptic journey from start to finish. Even when the band surrenders the intensity for the sake of engagement, with the sermon-like vocals of Cleveland and the aptly-titled Hymn of an Average Man, the tone is still uncomfortably tense.

Algiers has never shied away from holding the mirror to society’s bad side, but The Underside of Power sees the band intelligently re-evaluate its stance and hammer its statements and social critiques into a new shape. These well-timed and timeless values, now delivered as enjoyably bitter pills to swallow, are precisely what the world needs now.

Change comes from within and, with a release this powerful, Algiers may just be the band to help society dance away from Midnight.