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In October 2009, Stray From The Path released their fourth record, ‘Make Your Own History.’ Their second release on Sumerian Records, ‘Make Your Own History‘ felt like a much-needed breath of fresh air in the hardcore at the time. Whilst a consistent, similar-sounding LP that adhered to a singular songwriting formula – one that Stray has firmly held onto with dear life ever since – it pulled zero punches. It was just so fucking angry! It’s a short, snappy, pissed-off hardcore album that had something to say. Whether it was about capitalism and materialism (‘The Things You Own End Up Owning You‘), people’s deluded self-importance and selfishness (‘Negative & Violent‘), the hypocrisy and toxicity of organized religion (‘Damien,’ my introduction to Stray, actually), or even Nigerian scammers profiting off the greedy or ignorant (‘Nigeria‘, which has a meaty guest vocal from Jonathan Vigil), it dealt with many issues. And it had some wicked tracks to boot; opener ‘Lucid Dreaming‘ is one of the loudest, bounciest songs the band has to their name.
I bring this now ten-year-old album up because on their ninth record, ‘Internal Atomics‘ (which is out now), Stray re-captures the rage that they so effortlessly wielded on MYOH; a factor that they lost a little bit after 2011’s killer LP, ‘Rising Sun.’ Here, SFTP learns well from 2017’s ‘Only Death Is Real‘ and once again tighten up their riffy, aggro bulwark. As such, their latest effort is a better album than its predecessor from two years ago and is also a solid new contender for one of their top-three releases. It’s classic, on-brand Stray From The Path in many ways – that’s as well-produced as ever – and that charm, energy, and power in their sound haven’t dwindled either. There’s still impactful mileage left in their gas tank. It obviously won’t redefine what people think of Stray or their music overall, but it happily, confidently, brings some big new heavy-hitters to the band’s surprisingly large catalog.
What I love about their newest record is that it’s also just not anger for the sheer sake of it. There’s a real sense of motivation behind it, a proper feeling of inspiration that it’s trying to offer. There’s passion here, folks. It’s a rallying call to take the internal anger held inside of yourself, the kind that’s bred from such a shit show of a world like the one we all share nowadays, and manifest it into some form of positive, tangible action. In terms of what you think and say, in small acts of solidarity with those struggling elsewhere, or in tiny day-to-day actions that can make one of your fellow citizens’ day all the brighter. It’s all an endearing intent and message, and one that shouldn’t be overlooked simply because of this band’s aggressive-charged style of vehement, riff-driven metallic hardcore.
The chunky, riffy mid-album rager of ‘Second Death‘ is a ‘fuck you’ towards the pedophiles that the church protects and hides. ‘Something In The Water‘ sees one of the best musical iterations of Stray’s jagged hardcore songwriting formula, embued with a brutal sense of fury that’s as vexed as ever, all with a grim little bridge section that sees Stray drift into their tonally darkest realm with some deliciously tight in-the-pocket beats too. ‘Holding Cells For The Living Hell‘ tackles the greyest depths of mental health, focusing on Drew York’s mother and her battles with her own inner demons, how he tries to help her, and his undying love for his mum as well. It sees Stray run at a fast, wild serrated pace, and is the closest they’ve ever come to sounding like Dillinger Escape Plan. And that lurching, harrowing outro which sees Drew repeat “stop shaking” over and over is incredibly moving, too.
‘Double Down‘ is a fine example of how to do a good guest vocal spot, as Kublai Khan’s Matt Honeycutt lends his indomitable voice to the track, nicely complimenting Drew’s higher-pitched screams. Without Matt’s featured part, this would be a bit of a nothing track, but his vocals in the intro and outro give it more weight than it otherwise would’ve had. ‘Actions Not Words‘ sees Stray hit hard with the bending, off-kilter riffs guitarist Tom Williams has loved and over-utilized since ‘Make Your Own History,’ with stampeding drumming and hefty grooves. Yet the message of this closer, even with the dark mood, large breakdowns, and heavy instrumentals, is a positive one: “the choice is yours, change the world.” It’s a war-cry to put your money where your mouth is and do your part to hopefully leave this world in a better manner than how you first found it. Truly, that’s ‘Internal Atomics‘ in a nutshell.
What helps elevate this record up are the moments of ornamentation injected into these ten new songs. For instance, drummer Craig Reynolds takes the rhythmic lead with his propulsive snare and ride cymbal work during the razor-sharp tale of decade-spanning revolution in ‘Fortune Teller.’ Elsewhere, bassist Anthony Altamura overpowers ‘Kickback‘ with some seriously thick low-end that nicely accents the song’s huge choruses. (That closing breakdown is fuckin’ nightmarish and I love it.) With a cleaner-strummed guitar intro, chord progressions remiss of their ‘Back To School‘ cover, and even a short guitar solo, ‘Beneath The Surface‘ follows a single mother stuck in a minimum-wage job and a gay woman dealing with rejection from her parents; a song expressing how people’s lives are more than the cover; that they run deeper than the curated aspects of their lives they want the world to see.
However, these musical additions also don’t really further develop the tried-and-true Stray From The Path template we’ve received for literal years now. I’m glad they’re there, but let’s not kid ourselves: they ain’t uniquely different. From the usual angular riffs, the emphasis on grooves, and the choruses that find Drew repeating a short sentence over and over, this is Stray to a T. And don’t get me wrong, I like that shit, I really do. I just wish there was something more substantive in these moments of variation. Placing a lo-fi guitar intro on ‘Beneath The Surface‘ or starting the album with ‘Ring Leader‘ and its brief spoken word part – “thinking like everyone else is not really thinking” – are minute changes that aren’t quite enough to shake this LP’s overbearing sense of familiarity at times.
For me, the holy trifecta for Stray From The Path is: ‘Subliminal Criminals,’ ‘Rising Sun,’ and ‘Make Your Own History.’ Yet ‘Internal Atomics’ comes in close behind that esteemed trio. At ten songs, and outside of ‘The First Will Be Last,’ this is a well-curated listen that never overstays its welcome, displays great performances, some hectic hardcore passages, and its political theme of manifesting positivity from our deepest pits of anger is a refreshing take to hear from a hardcore band. However, what holds this ninth LP back somewhat is how the band stick obsessively close to the ticked check-list that many of the previous Stray albums have also adhered to. On a singular song, like ‘Something In The Water,’ it works well, but on a full-length record, it does lose some of its luster. There are moments of performative musical ornamentation that see Stray sound volatile and relevant (‘Fortune Teller,’ ‘Kickback,’ ‘Beneath The Surface’), yet these definitely could’ve been stretched further.
Stray has been so prolific over the last ten years, and they’ve honed and cultivated their own sound in that time-frame. Fan or not, you can instantly recognize Drew’s voice and you’ll know a STFP song when you hear it. Excluding Counterparts, if there’s one band in hardcore right now that could expand well beyond the walls of their own style, and pull it off, it’s these guys. Perhaps LP #10 come 2021 will showcase that to a better degree. So as it currently stands, ‘Internal Atomics’ is a solid if overly familiar album from a band who knows precisely what they can do. Just don’t expect anything else.
- Ring Leader
- The Fist Will Be Last
- Fortune Teller
- Second Death
- Beneath The Surface
- Something in the Water
- Holding Cells for the Living Hell
- Double Down
- Actions Not Words
‘Internal Atomics’ is out now: