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When it comes to American politics and protest music from the United States, perhaps no other era (well, other than Reagan’s administration) has provided listeners around the world with as many great albums as the George W. Bush period did. Especially for punk rock.
During that administration’s eight years in office, we saw stellar punk releases like: NOFX’s ‘The War On Errorism‘, Bad Religion’s ‘The Empire Strikes First‘, the last truly great Green Day album, ‘American Idiot‘, Propagandhi’s ‘Today’s Empires, Tomorrow’s Ashes‘, Rise Against’s two best records, ‘Siren Song Of The Counter Culture‘ and ‘Sufferer & The Witness‘, as well as Anti-Flag’s career standout, ‘For Blood And Empire‘. Then from that small group, the list continues on and on, and it grows notably so outside of the boundaries of punk rock, with Radiohead’s ‘Hail To The Theif‘, System Of A Down’s ‘Mezmerize‘, Public Enemy’s ‘Revolution‘, and even R.E.M.’s ‘Around The Sun‘. (Okay, I’m aware that that last album is a really contentious pick, but I personally liked it, so whatever – deal with it).
With Trump’s shocking presidential win last year and with his administration now in full swing, I’ve seen plenty of comments online saying something to the extent of “Well, at least we’ll get some really good punk rock music over the next four years“. First off, punk rock really has produced some damn solid records during Obama’s administration, ages before Trump came to park his gross old ass in White Houses’ oval office, you nerds. Secondly, I feel that we now have the first key record – one that comes from a far heavier breed of hardcore than punk rock, admittedly – that takes an accurate snapshot of the stranger-than-fiction, uneasy, and divisive times that face the current U.S. political landscape and gives it a fitting musical form; ‘Only Death Is Real‘, the latest full-length from Stray From The Path. And I’ll also say this right now just to get it out of the way: no, ‘Only Death Is Real‘ is not the group’s best effort but it is a solid addition to their already consistent-as-fuck discography.
Musically and lyrically, ‘Only Death Is Real‘ (which is also the name of a book about 1980’s Hellhammer and early Celtic Frost), is one of Stray From The Path’s heaviest, angriest and most scathing releases to date, with maybe the exception of 2011’s often overlooked ‘Rising Sun‘ and what remains as the band’s best work, 2009’s ‘Make Your Own History‘. ‘Only Death Is Real‘, at its core, takes the tight grooves, bouncy riffs and effective songwriting cues of last year’s killer ‘Subliminal Criminals‘ and matches it up with the sheer anger, clean but jagged guitar work, punch and darker tone of the previously mentioned ‘Rising Sun‘; making Stray’s sixth LP a familiar yet still solid and poignant listen.
What makes this record a very current, moment-in-time release are due to the lyrical topics that it deals with, all coming back around to the recurring theme of death. Whether it’s the steep cliff that blind, overbearing nationalistic pride can lead to (‘Loudest In The Room‘); the untimely deaths of those that are actually working towards a better world (‘They Always Take The Guru‘), how money and greed shape our world far more than we’d ever really like them to (‘Let’s Make A Deal‘), or the flawed American justice and money-hungry prison system (‘All Day & A Night‘, which also features Bryan Garris of Knocked Loose); Stray do not bite their tongues here, that’s for fucking sure.
Similarly, the controversial, alt-right criticising and Dead Kennedy’s-referecning ‘Goodnight Alt-Right‘ also makes its impactful presence known on the record early. (Even if a handful of its lyrics are kinda poor – current year argument, anyone?) However, Richard Spencer’s favourite band also takes aim at both the Democrat and the Republican party’s, as well as the insane election season with ‘The House Always Wins‘; a song that’s not only one of the most Stray-sounding songs of the whole lot, but is also an anthem of political loathing and gritted dissent for the every man (the pawn metaphor from the cover) who will most certainly lose out. No matter which kings, queens, bishops, knights and/or castles are in power of the worldly figurative and literal political chess board at any given time.
Regarding the instrumentation and performances here, guitarist Tom Williams has produced some his heaviest and hardest-hitting riffs in years. For instance, see the intro section of opener ‘The Opening Move‘ and the song’s first breakdown/verse. As per usual, vocalist Drew York delivers the one and only vocal style that he’s got to his name but here he’s pushed said style to its most real, vehement breaking point, like during the intense choruses of ‘They Always Take The Guru‘. Bassist Anthony Altamura offers his go-to four-string tricks with that crisp AF bass tone, and the band’s newish drummer Craig Reynolds – who has very suitably replaced the powerhouse Dan Bourke – pumps out some of tightest percussive moments you’ll find in this band’s catalogue (see the punchy start of the title track). Of course, every ounce of this is delivered via Stray’s usual aggro hardcore flair and of course, all with that polished Will Putney-built sonic framework bolstering the music.
What will help ensure this record remains relevant and a key focal point for Stray moving forward is the political time that it was released within. That being said, ‘Only Death Is Real‘ is ultimately just another Stray From The Path record. Well, except for the end of this LP’s title track, which sees the four-piece break free from the chains of their typical hardcore sound and have it fade away into bluesy vocal hymns (that also creep in and hum away in the song’s chorus), and are underpinned by field chants and percussive floor stomps that bookend the track very nicely.
Hopefully, moving forward, Stray find creative ways to interject such non-heavy music moments into their hardcore sound to diversify it further, because while I have a lot of love for this band and their music, I can only take the so many similar sounding albums, so many times.
Honestly, there are no songs on ‘Only Death Is Real’ that are up to the high caliber that ‘Death Beds’, ‘Damien’, and ‘Eavesdropper’ were before them. Very few songs are, admittedly. However, that is not for a lack of trying, as Stray From The Path once more offer hardcore kids (and hardcore grown ups) the world over another solid batch of pissed-off, riff-laden, and bouncy tunes; this time dripping in political rage. Excusing the lack of quality songs on Rise Against’s ‘Wolves’, with Prophets Of Rage falling well short of the mark yet again on their debut album, and with Propagandhi’s ‘Victory Lap’ still not out until September 29th, ‘Only Death Is Real’ is just the right kind of record to offer a bleak, heavy reflection of the awfully maddening American politics of the now.
1. The Opening Move
2. Loudest In The Room
3. Goodnight Alt-Right
4. Let’s Make A Deal
5. They Always Take The Guru
6. Plead The Fifth
7. Strange Fiction (Feat. Keith Buckley)
8. All Day & A Night (Feat. Bryan Garris)
9. The House Always Wins (Feat. Vinnie Paz)
10. Only Death is Real
‘Only Death Is Real’ is out now via Sumerian Records.