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One thing you won’t be able to avoid on Bambara’s 'Stray' is death. It’s everywhere and inescapable, the key to the whole record. That though won’t be the first thing that strikes you about their fourth – and greatest – album to date. That will be its pulverising soundscape; by turns, vast, atmospheric, cool, broiling and at times – on stand out tracks like “Sing Me To The Street” and “Serafina” – simply overwhelming. This NYC-via-Georgia trio (the Bateh brothers, Reid and Blaze, singer and drummer respectively, and bassist William Brookshire) have been evolving their midnight-black noise rock into something more subtle and expansive ever since the release of their 2013 debut 'Dreamviolence.' That process greatly accelerated on 2018’s 'Shadow On Everything,' their first on New York’s Wharf Cat label and a huge stride forward for the band both lyrically and sonically.
A rapturously-received concept album (NPR called it a “mesmerising…western, gothic opus”), it elevated the band’s status on both sides of the Atlantic (capturing the attention of, among other people, the UK band IDLES – who invited them to tour with them – and influential British 6Music DJ Steve Lamacq, who dubbed them the best band of 2019’s SXSW). The question was, though: how to follow it? The band knew that they wanted to push further: experiment with instrumentation and not limit their songwriting in terms of what they could or could not reproduce live. They also wanted to showcase a wider range of influences. Their Georgia upbringings means that Southern Gothic is in their DNA (the likes of Flannery O’Connor and Harry Crews) but there’s more to them than that and this time they wanted to show that, offering up touchstones as diverse as Laurie Anderson and Sade as well as classic French noirs like L’Ascenseur Pour L’Echafraud as key influencers on their thinking.
The record was written in an airless Brooklyn basement in the first half of 2019, the songs being continually reworked over many months. Once they felt cohesive, they travelled back to their hometown of Athens, GA to record the building blocks with their friend Drew Vandenberg. After that, a period of experimentation and enriching began: additional instrumentation was added, (violins courtesy of Adam Markiewicz, trumpets via Sean Smith), as well as a crucial and leavening layer of female vocals (thanks to Public Practice’s Drew Citron and Palberta’s Anina Ivry-Block). Finally, in a remote cabin in the woods in rural Georgia, Reid laid down his vocals.
Now, while the music itself is evocative and propulsive, a fever dream all of its own, the lyrical content pushes the record even further into its own darkly thrilling realm. If the songs on 'Shadow On Everything' were like chapters in a novel, then this time they’re short stories. Stories that are connected by death, both abstract and personified, and that deal with how that affects the characters in contact with it. “Death is what you make it” runs a lyric in “Sweat” and in a way that’s the key line on the whole record. It would be wrong to characterize 'Stray' as simply the sound of the graveyard though. Light frequently streams through and love and longing are present too (particularly on “Made For Me”). It’s a record that avoids simple characterization but one thing that is certain about it is that it represents another monumental leap forward for the band. Sometimes groups need time to grow. Here Bambara finally sound like they’ve locked into what they were always destined to achieve. It’s electrifying!
Sing Me To The Street
Ben & Lily
Made For Me