Bambara Stray album cover

Bambara: Stray, Songs for Sexy Southern Vampires

For those of you who watched True Blood, remember when “Sookeh!” first saw Bill, when he walked into Bellefleur’s Bar and Grill, sat down in a booth and the pair locked eyes? Everything went dark behind him and she felt like it was just the two of them in the room, mesmerised by his dark eyes, pale skin and Southern goth swagger. She knew danger had come to Bon Temps, and it was sexy as hell. Well, that’s exactly how I felt when I first heard Bambara’s new album, Stray.

Bambara aren’t a newly formed band; I am very late to the party. Stray is their fourth studio album, and I will admit that I am yet to listen to the previous three, but I definitely will be doing so post haste. Bambara is composed of songwriter/guitarist Reid Bateh, his twin brother Blaze Bateh on drums, and bassist William Brookshire. Their brand of violent and dreamy rockabilly with Lynchian guitars has been carefully moulded since 2013. The band’s roots in their hometown of Athens, Georgia have inspired the gothic themes that run through each song on the album.

While they now reside in Brooklyn, they did return home to write the album out in the wilderness of Georgia in isolation, in an old cabin. “Obsessive” is how you might describe the creation of Stray, with all three members of the band working feverishly for eight hours a day, for seven months, away from all other distractions. These are my kinda guys. I admire a band with that much dedication to making something sound precisely how they want it to.

Stray flourishes with dreamlike backing vocals from Drew Citron (Public Practice) and Anina Ivry-Block (Palberta). Fused with Reid’s smoky and at times, sinister low-tone (think Bill from True Blood again, with more than a hint of Nick Cave) it is truly mesmerising. The band also recruited Adam Markiewicz (The Dreebs) and Sean Smith (Klavenauts) adding brass and strings to complement pieces like grandiose opener “Miracle”, bringing elevated impact to the moments that really count.

It is a dark and furious record, full of snarling guitars, thundering drums, humming bass and feral vocals. When the band is not trying to break your neck with sonic speed (“Serafina”, “Heat Lightning”), they will slow down to what can only be described as a crawl through a dark alley in the dead of night. Bambara paints their blackest pictures with the use of the instruments at their disposal and eerie backing vocals, reminiscent of a ghostly gospel choir.

Bambara performing
Bambara performing at SXSW on March 14, 2019. Photograph by Paul Hudson.

Reid’s lyrics were inspired by thrift-store photographs that he came across. Some of the characters featured in the songs take their names from the people in these photographs, with other elements of them taken from people Reid and family knew while growing up. All of their stories are connected by the common thread of death.

Opening with the destitute “Miracle”, Reid describes a young girl once oppressed by the world around her outgrowing her trauma. In the opening verse, we hear his vividly descriptive lyricism in full effect: “The name Miracle has followed her around her whole life, born to sterilised parents who vanished one night. Got a tattoo, says ‘Meanness’ inside her lower lip, she pulls it down in the mirror so she can read it. Framed by her blonde wig in the bright white glow, yeah, spit crawls down her wrist and she lets her lip go”. With lyrics like that it is impossible not to visualise. Reid Bateh is also a fiction writer, so I am eager to read his work now. The man clearly has a talent for bringing horrors to life.

The band immediately turns up the tempo and brings on the insanity on the following three tracks, which happen to be the three singles leading up to Stray’s release: “Heat Lightning”, “Sing Me To The Street” and “Serafina”. We hear some of the band’s most potent moments here, both musically and lyrically. “Sing Me To The Street” tells the story of a man overwhelmed by his past and the demons he faces. The protagonist of this story interacts with a man he despises: He says, “You know Cole was murdered just about one year back, well, Claire had their baby, tonight, she drowned it in the bath; saying, Death will find us all”.

*WARNING: Strobe Lighting used in this video*

“The album Stray has many reoccurring characters but the most prominent, by far, is Death. For the most part Death is doing his work in the background, or even between, other people’s stories but there are a few songs where I wanted to give him the spotlight. ‘Heat Lighting’ is the first of these songs on the record. It’s an introduction to Death in his element, barreling down the highway listening to news of destruction on the radio while stuffing his face with candy. It’s a solitary moment with Death where he can be seen as he is: the kind of guy who laughs wholeheartedly and stupid jokes and yells at the weatherman when he predicts rain. Death isn’t in the mood for rain unless it is the beginning of a mythical flood.”  – Reid Bateh

The first single released, “Serafina”, opens with an explosive riff that carries the same energy throughout the track, telling the tale of a young couple whose passion burns only as hard as the fire and destruction they create in their wake. Describing the couple rubbing soot on each other’s skin until it turns grey, posing like dying lovers in Pompeii and expressing a desire to buy an old house in a big town, start a life, only to burn it all to the ground, stand as some of the most thought-provoking lyrics I have heard in recent years.

Death, both abstract and manifest, is inevitable for the characters that come into contact with it across Stray’s 10 tracks. Their stories take place across days, months, even years. The emotions and desires of these characters are laid bare as they journey through an apocalyptic vision of America. This is not a beautiful death; it is violent and sadistic at times. The tension is high, the soundscape cinematic and no one makes it out alive.

Needless to say, I am somewhat enamoured with Bambara. I want David Lynch to make a new movie. I want David Lynch to make a new movie so that Bambara can provide the soundtrack. You just know that it would be grotesque, absurd, sexy and majestic, perfect partners in death.

Bambara Stray was released on February 14 on Wharf Cat Records, and it’s been my bloody valentine ever since.