Part of the reason people move to big cities is that parts get forgotten. The simple fact of throwing millions of people and thousands of buildings into a few square miles means there are pockets where malice is allowed to thrive, where drippy mysteries rot in forgotten corners, where stinking underbellys are allowed to fester in the depths of undermaintained infrastructure. While most of us are content to avert our gaze, there’s a whole legacy of music—dating back at least to post-punk and likely even further—of seedy misfits who stare straight into these voids and make music that reflects this lonely grime.
Even before they moved from Athens, Georgia to Brooklyn, the noise-rock trio Bambara has always had an eye toward this gloomy tradition. They wrote chaotic songs held together with formless washes of noise and anxious vocal drones, crafting pallid but vibrant pieces that thrashed with the mutant energy of the Birthday Party, or like, a ratking. Anyway, over the years, they’ve continued to evoke real danger, even as they’ve stripped away the layers of noise and embraced more traditional songwriting. This week, they’re releasing Shadow on Everything on the New York label Wharf Cat—themselves dedicated documenters of the scummy underground—in which they emerge more fully from the fog than they ever have before.
It’s a less claustrophobic record than they’ve ever made—maybe more like strolling through a park after dark than a narrow alley—which allows them the space to try expansive pieces like “Dark Circles,” the doomy ballad that opens the record. It, and many of the threateningly low-key songs that follow, play sorta like anthems for Twin Peaks’ Roadhouse, were it located in some downtown basement rather than small-town Washington state. They're foreboding, mysterious, high-drama, and slightly out of place and time.
The band’s Blaze and Reid Bateh say this newfound openness was at least part by design. “I do think we showed more restraint with noise experimentation on this record since we were using so many other instruments,” Reid said via email. “And it was a nice change of pace creatively.”
“With all of our records, we like to create a constant mood or world for everything to exist within sonically,” Blaze wrote via email. “We usually achieve this by weaving noise through our songs. Sometimes it’s more in the forefront, other times its barely audible. It is definitely a challenging thing to balance, but finding that balance is probably my favorite part of the whole process. Meticulously finding ways to maintain a mood with textures without taking away from the song.”
Consequently, Reid’s lyrics are given a little more space to shine than they ever have been. He says that there have been loose characters and narratives to previous records too, but they were buried under the fuzz. This time around, he creates a series of prosodic vignettes between a pair of characters whose lives coincidentally happen to intertwine.
“I just finished writing a book that I’d been working on for last handful of years and I think being in that sort of headspace along with the desire to have a cohesive sense of place and mood on this record is what drove me to approach the lyrics this way,” he says. "The record starts with the main narrator meeting up with a young woman at a bar and talking to her about her little hometown out west. The rest of the songs are either vignettes from her hometown (side A) or scenes of the main narrator and the woman’s dissolving relationship in the city by the beach where they both live, as she is being slowly pulled back home by an unseen force (side B).”
There’s power in corrosive sounds alone, but this focus gives a lot more weight to the darkness—there are stakes here when a character gets swallowed up by static and guitar solos. Actual narrative events remain foggy, as much as I try to hang on Reid’s every word, I’m just as drawn to interludes like the staticky drones like “Night’s Changing,” which lets a strange sadness hang over it. Some vocals end up still getting swallowed eaten by the shaggy arrangements, a suggestion that ultimately every character and story fades into the chaos of the city itself, reclaimed by the noise of a million other tales and perspectives from a million other people. It’s lonely, but that’s good, because in the end we're all alone.
So yeah, you’re going to want to listen to it right here in advance of its release this Friday April 6 on Wharf Cat. Do that now.
Bambara tour dates:
April 13th - Brooklyn, NY - Alphaville (Record Release)
April 19th - Princeton, NY - Terrace Club
May 17th - Brooklyn, NY - Brooklyn Bazaar
May 18th - Pittsburgh, PA - Rock Room
May 19th - Louisville, KY - TBA
May 20th - Nashville, TN - The 5 Spot
May 21st - Birmingham, AL - The Firehouse
May 23rd - Atlanta, GA - The 529
May 25th - Harrisonburg, VA - The Golden Pony
May 31st - Brooklyn, NY - Secret Project Robot
June 21st - Cleveland, OH - Lucky Dog
June 22nd - Bloomington, IN - Blockhouse Bar
June 23rd - St. Louis, MO - The Sinkhole
June 26th - Chicago, IL - The Empty Bottle
June 27th - Detroit, MI - Outer Limits Lounge
June 29th - Toronto, ON - The Baby G