Algiers – The Underside of Power Review

algiers the underside of power

Rage Against the Machine for grown-ups.
Matador Records, 2017
Purchase: Matador Records / Amazon

8.5 / 10

I remember where I was when I first heard a Rage Against the Machine song. Not so much because it was a good song, but because it was something that felt new and vital. “Killing In The Name” felt like a new, undiscovered genre. The stuff that Zach de la Rocha was shouting about…well, if you’re a teenager, was irresistible. None of it felt like a calculation. It was just political turmoil made manifest in tight 4-minute rock songs. But it was passionate, funky, and heavy! And it held authority in contempt!

However, if you go back and listen to many of Rage’s songs, one thing is incredibly clear: these guys didn’t do nuance. And maybe that was the point. However, the end result was that the lyrics were often simplistic. They were even juvenile in their condemnation of society, politics, and the government.

Let me be condescending here. Rage Against the Machine is low-brow rock-n-roll. It has a lot of swagger, but when it comes down to the ideology, to the lyrics, to the point, the band leaves a lot of substance to be desired.

And this is my roundabout way of introducing Algiers‘ second album, The Underside of Power. This record is political but wickedly intelligent. It’s nuanced but will rock the doors off the club. For chrissakes, just compare the names of these two bands: “Rage Against The Machine” is a great title, but so universal that it means nearly nothing. “Algiers”, on the other hand, signifies one of the most important moments of guerilla warfare in modern(ish) history. It’s a name that signals uprising, upheaval and fighting back on oppression. Want to take a guess what the themes of The Underside of Power are?

One could spend an entire review focusing on the lyrics to The Underside of Power. It takes the point of view of a young man’s push against “the system” (interpersonal, political, existential). But all of that is secondary to the music and melody. Algiers’ big contribution here is probably not even their lyrics. Rather, it’s the fusion of genres. This is Wilson Pickett fronting a modern-day protest band. This is MC5 running for city hall.

While these comparators may suggest a Detroit background for Algiers, they’re from Atlanta. Atlanta; the city where the wealthy ignore the homeless just a block away. The city that can’t decide if it wants to be a “coastal elite” or a seat for “real America”. A place that is still struggling to find its identity, from its weirdo-punk-rock scene (Deerhunter, Black Lips) to its fat-beat southern hip-hop (Killa Mike, Outkast). Algiers rises up out of Atlanta a mixture of all of these things: a contradiction of Mo-Town swagger and futuristic rock and electronica. And maybe even a little bit of jazz, because why not?

Algiers may be more like Massive Attack rather than Rage Against the Machine. UK’s Bristol, like Atlanta, is a city whose identity is a complicated portrait of wealth and race. From that restless mixture, trip-hop came to life. The Underside of Power even has the same sense of immediacy and urgency of Blue Lines. At times it feels less like Algiers wrote and recorded this album. Rather, it just came into existence as a result of the current political climate.

Key Tracks:
“The Underside of Power”
“Walk Like a Panther”
“A Hymn for an Average Man”