Noted Southern gothic author Flannery O’Connor once wrote: ‘Later he saw Jesus move from tree to tree in the back of his mind, a wild ragged figure motioning him to turn around and come off into the dark.’ It seems that this spectre has haunted Bambara, a three-piece who’ve moved from Georgia to Brooklyn in an effort to rouse themselves from the Peach State’s heavy-lidded ways.
Appropriately, singer Reid Bateh – his sibling Blaze plays the drums whilst William Brookshire plays bass – has laid out Stray as if it were some darkly ritualistic novel, the contents each served up like chapters. Augmented by a cabal of friends picking up extra homework on trumpet, strings and backing vocals, it’s a record inspired by O’Connor but created by Reid’s obsessive narrative weaving, the source of inspiration being a collection of stranger’s photographs bought at a thrift store.
This is and is not the trio who made 2018’s Shadow On Everything, their third album and a sinuous leap forward. While that was based around a single thread, when the time for new came calling they short-circuited their process, working constantly in a windowless basement apartment, the pressure of expectation changing habits and goals.
That tension has resulted in a dark beast of a record. On Heat Lightning the goth-punk brew throws off showers of sparks like a downed electric cable in a storm; Reid drawls like a ruined gentleman in an Athens flop house, toking on a bottle wrapped in brown paper like it was oxygen. On opener Miracle the trumpets sound like they’re being played by broken angels whilst the rhythm section rumbles like an earthquake looking for some ground to split and people to swallow.
Bateh’s deified shadow man – perhaps the one who snatched away Robert Johnson’s soul – dives in and out of these tales, rarely in the foreground, lurking amongst the screeching fog of Sweat, running his fingers down the nape of your neck on Stay Cruel’s doomed spaghetti Western incantations.
In amongst the human debris the band create a tear in our fabric that recalls early Horrors, fellow Brooklynites Jonathan Fire Eater and in places the doomy power of Glenn Danzig: using these tools Ben & Lily explores the psychological trauma of a married couple who were chemically sterilized in their home state, the music a rockin’ train at the gallop.
All the six-feet-deep tales come home to roost however with Serafina, a pounding hell ride that follows a Thelma & Louise-esque story of two doomed lovers on an arson spree, the trio animated and bug-eyed, the words written up letters aglow that can be seen from miles away.
Killers, sinners and the damned; those characters which populate Strays are both hunters and prey, sometimes both. They inhabit a record so full of death that life bursts from every note and Bambara have, in creating it, moved into a spotlight that might hurt their eyes but not their future.