After an ill-advised and unplanned trip to see The Amity Affliction up in London last December, a relatively unknown technical hardcore outfit under the moniker Stray From The Path became a massive part of my world. When you’ve seen a band like that demolish a stage as second support no less, you can be sure they’re something special. That special something was plastered all over 2015’s stellar Subliminal Criminals which in no time became my favourite album bar none for some time. Every track had something to it: the vocals ripped, the riffs destroyed and the drumming was absolutely next level, not to mention some fantastic guest slots from the likes of Sam Carter and Rou Reynolds. With Craig Reynolds debuting his drumming on a Stray From The Path record and a new vocal producer in Jesse Barnett, can these same things be said of their latest studio effort Only Death Is Real?
To kick it off on a positive note, the highs on this record are superb. The likes of “The Loudest In The Room”, “Goodnight Alt-right” and “The House Always Wins” are examples of pissed-off music at its absolute pinnacle. By and large however, Only Death Is Real, for better or for worse, is a lot less instantaneous than its predecessor.
It seems the hooks that tear at your flesh from the get-go that made Subliminal Criminals so brilliant are fewer and further between. What it does hold over the previous record however is the production job. This time around Stray From The Path have avoided producing the fuck out of the music as was my biggest “but…” with the last record. As a personal preference, I would still like to hear some more of the grit that this music begs for but this is an improvement nonetheless. On to the songs themselves though.
While it’s difficult to not contrast this to Subliminal Criminals, the review will be littered with comparisons. Initially it feels the record tears out the gates with “The Opening Move”, though at a mere minute and a half in length, it almost feels rushed unlike the glorious “The New Gods” from the past album. This gives way to “The Loudest In The Room”, possibly the best song on the album for its sheer ferocity. Stray are always on top form when vocalist Andrew Dijorio really stretches his voice as he does here.
Lead single “Goodnight Alt-right” follows, completing a one-two punch of face-rippers that’ll certainly be setlist material. As always, the band don’t shy from controversy in this narrative based on white supremacist Richard Spencer, or more specifically his ass-whooping on inauguration day. The vocal quip “If you preach hate then expect hate” drops with the capability to make any casual listener punch the nearest object in sight. “Let’s Make A Deal” is one of the aforementioned tracks, however, that’s noticeably weaker particularly after the last two ragers, though the vocal line “Money makes the world go round/ Money makes the world burn down” is front, centre and spits right in your face as does calling out “Daddy’s bitch”. “They Always Take The Guru” roars through at a feral speed equipped with blast beats and a tightness that is unmatched, perhaps in their entire discography. Again the lyrical narrative of “It’s nights like these that remind me that we’re all temporary” shows that this album is carried by brilliantly informed one-liners. This also shows excellently how the lyrical landscape has shifted focus from government corruption to more human issues as is illustrated further on the title track.
“Plead The Fifth” showcases a jarringly optimistic melody that hasn’t been heard from Stray From The Path quite like this before. Giving way to a riff that wouldn’t be out of place on a Royal Blood record. Again it pains me to say that this is another weaker track. While the mosh call “Welcome to the melting pot, motherfucker” is furious, it is cringey. There, I said it. “Strange Fiction” features a rousing guest slot from Keith Buckley of Every Time I Die fame and a ripping chorus while “All Day & A Night” champions the genuinely haunting wails from Knocked Loose’s Bryan Garris. Dijorio not only holds his own alongside these guests here but complements them too in a really interesting way that shines the spotlight on how brilliantly ingrained in the scene Stray are.
Closing the album is another fantastic coupling in “The House Always Wins” and the title track. The former has been in their set for the past year or so and was the highlight not only of their set from their support show with The Amity Affliction, it was the jewel of the whole night. Now it’s back, re-recorded with a guest verse from the appropriately politically charged American rapper Vinnie Paz. Spoiler – it still crushes like an absolute motherfucker. Again, this pushes Dijorio’s vocals to the breaking point and their energy is contagious. Finally, “Only Death Is Real” rounds off the album in a similar way that “These Things Have To Fall Apart” does with Subliminal Criminals. Eerily. Stylistically, book-ending the record with “Don’t hate the player/Hate the game” on “The Opening Move” and the closing title-track is a stroke of wit above their contemporaries and shows Stray are not fucking around. They know what they’re doing and on Only Death Is Real, they do it well.
So, when pitted against Subliminal Criminals it is a very different record. It’s darker, less immediate and largely tells a different story. On its own however, it’s a fantastic output from a tremendous technical hardcore group. Does it have some filler? Yes. Can it wane in quality between songs? On occasion. But there’s plenty of material on here for any self-respecting music fan to sink their teeth into and plenty of balls-to-the-wall moments to crush in a live setting. If you were a fan of Stray before, you’ll love this. If not, nothing’s changed and you’re missing out.
Only Death Is Real is out now on Sumerian Records