'Optimise' Review: Songhoy Blues' fourth album is fearless and reflective, showcases some of the best rock music
For the uninitiated, Songhoy Blues are an Africa-blues-rock quartet from the North of Mali who have received critical acclaim ever since the release of their 2015 debut album 'Music In Exile' (produced by Nick Zinner of Yeah Yeah Yeahs). If there ever was an album title so completely apt, it has to be 'Music in Exile' because Songhoy Blues – which comprises of Garba, Aliou & Oumar Touré, and Nathanael Dembélé – was formed a decade ago after being exiled from their homeland by jihadist group Ansar Dine which banned music. Forced to head South following a series of tumultuous events, Songhoy Blues have, since then, created a signature sound by blending Malian cross-rhythms with strong rock and punk influences.
On their third studio album, 'Optimisme' (French for optimism), the Malian band seamlessly carry forward their distinctive virtuosic guitar style while being the driving force in Africa's burgeoning rock music scene. Consisting of 11 tracks, 'Optimisme' opens with 'Badala' (translates to 'I Don’t Give a S**t') – a song written in the voice of a woman freed from the oppression of men. 'Badala' begins with intense machine-gun drumming that, at once, transcends into a funky & headstrong number with delicious guitar licks. Infused with the sound of bluesy rock 'n roll, 'Badala' gives 'Optimisme' an energetic start that takes metal back to its roots. The next song, titled 'Assadja' (translates to 'Warrior'), is written as an ode to working-class people. It blends mathcore-esque riffs with traditional African melodies that run through the entire track. Short, sweet and effective, 'Assadja' brings out the technical chops of the band even further.
The third track on the record, titled 'Fey Fey' (translates to 'Division'), addresses Mali's politics and sounds as if the Dillinger Escape Plan fused their music with the country's local music. 'Fey Fey' keeps the overall feel of the record intact as the instruments march on twisting and turning with brilliant efficacy. On 'Fey Fey', just like the previous two tracks, the swirling guitars are a delight to listen to. The bass-line here is delectable and powerful, and provides the perfect foundation for the rest of the song to stand on. 'Gabi' (translates to 'Forced'), the next track, deals with the topic of women being forced to marry someone they do not love. With its bluesy riff and the progressive metal feels, 'Gabi' makes you wish you were witnessing the quartet live because you know they'd be a tightly-packed unit setting the stage on fire.
The song 'Barre' (translates to 'Change'), calls on the youth to fight the government's corruption. The bluesiest track on the record, 'Barre' has a feel-good vibe to it that carries 'Optimisme' into its second half at a steady, stellar pace. Similarly, 'Pour Toi' (translates to 'For You'), the sixth song, is about losing love and the haunting nostalgia that follows. A song crafted to near-perfection, it's slower in pace than the rest of the album and, midway through the track, transitions into a playful, eclectic section that displays the band's true prowess. With rousing instrumentals and measured drumming that doesn't overpower, 'Pour Toi' is, one could say, the best track on 'Optimisme'.
The seventh track 'Bon Bon' (translates to 'Candy'), starts off with country-tinged acoustic guitar before turning into an impressive vocal section that goes both high and low at a second's notice. 'Worry', Songhoy Blues' first-ever English song, is unusually, and beautifully, uplifting. With honest and simple lyrics, it's a song about optimism, hope and strength during times of grave adversity, 'Worry' – with its swirling solos that flow effortlessly – is reminiscent of good ol' classic rock songs.
The last three songs on 'Optimisme' are 'Korfo' (translates to 'Chains'), 'Dournia' ('Life'), and 'Kouma' ('Speech'). While 'Korfo' employs distorted guitar feedback noises and an instrumental outro, 'Dournia', with its catchy hook and chunky rock sound, carves a unique place on the record. 'Kouma', the final track on the record, starts off calm and relaxed before escalating with the rumbling bass-drum kicks. It features some of the best guitar work on an album already overflowing with impressive solos and licks. A perfect winding-down closer track to a high-intensity album, 'Kouma' ends with soft acoustic notes that fade out slowly.
Produced by Matt Sweeney (Stephen Malkmus, Run the Jewels, Chavez, Bonnie 'Prince' Billy), 'Optimise' proves that the best rock music is coming from outside the US. It's a fearless record that reflects current situations taking place in North Mali where sharia law has been imposed. It balances the political and the human in a way that captivates, especially due to their undeniable abilities to electrify listeners through their almost flawless instrumentals.
'Optimise' is now available worldwide via Fat Possum Records.