Hailing from Athens, Georgia, BAMBARA tell tales of misfits and rejects, those living on the precipices at the edge of society, where morals begin to crumble and some very twisted characters indeed can be found. Stray is an album comprised of vignettes, glimpses of lives half-lived, all painted with a palette of only the rawest post-punk. Conversely enough though, this is by far their most varied work yet. It’s almost orchestral compared to previous outings, the addition of backing vocals providing a levity not before seen in their work. These softer moments of clarity work to make the entire record even darker by their presence here. A darkness swirls through these tracks, parting for a second, reforming and then parting again. At its darkest, the album is frankly oppressive; at its lightest, it is life affirming, nearly transcendental. Frontman Reid Bateh is a younger Nick Cave, already harrowed by the world, one who actually grew up in the Southern Gothic landscape that Cave so fantasised about. His easy, almost conversational style of lyricism works so well set against such a dark backdrop- like a smooth whiskey, it’s just so easy to swallow.
And what tales he tells, too. Lead single Serafina details the life of a pyromaniac runaway, and her twisted vision of love as seen through the prism of nihilism. Every single track here is possessed of a narrative that twists and turns with such impressive dexterity. At the risk of pushing the Nick Cave comparison to its limit, I feel reminded of Murder Ballads- Stagger Lee could quite easily turn up in this oeuvre. I can’t help but quote a few couplets that stood out: the first track, 'Miracle', is a perfect example. "The name Miracle has followed her around all her life / born to sterilised parents who vanished one night". Or take 'Stay Cruel', "I hadn’t dreamed in years, my nights had become lonely jump cuts to the morning / and then I saw Miracle dance". This is another dimension of the record, too, the constant self-reference present in these lyrics. Bateh works tirelessly to create a coherent world, characters resurface, and Death is present throughout it all. As a character, as a concept, he is the thread that ties the album together. In 'Heat Lightning' he’s driving at night in a copper Pinto, in 'Death Croons' he’s picking up an unsuspecting woman in a bar, and in the penultimate track 'Sweat' he’s present throughout, culminating in a succinct summary of Stray in the line "Death is what you make it".
The production is noticeable by its conspicuous absence; to achieve these levels of gloom but retain such definition requires a very light touch indeed. Often, the guitars just accent the record, lifting the whole thing in the process. Bateh is front and centre, but happy to sink back into the mix when required. This is an album of and about Death, and for BAMBARA it represents a monumental leap forwards.