Noise and darkness are natural aesthetic partners, though such a pairing is far from an exclusive one. Some of the most gut-punchingly bleak records in history are those that whisper rather than scream, be it the devastating folk dirges of Leonard Cohen’s Songs of Love and Hate or in choice moments throughout Low’s catalog. And alternately, some of the most ecstatic music is sometimes the most chaotic—what are the Boredoms or Lightning Bolt’s greatest moments if not intensely loud expressions of pure joy? The rule and its exceptions are in the eyes and ears of the beholder, but at the end of the day, there’s something attractive and alluring about what happens when sinister feelings explode into menacing screeches of cacophony.
Brooklyn’s Bambara, originally hailing from Athens, Georgia, displayed a particular attraction to murk and menace on their debut Dog Ear Days, their aesthetic putting them alongside contemporary ear-shredders like A Place to Bury Strangers while nodding to post-punk heroes such as Big Black and Killing Joke. In the six years since that release, they’ve refined their approach in shaping that cacophony into something more structurally interesting, if no less texturally intense. Bambara’s audio shrapnel isn’t any more forgiving or approachable than it’s ever been, so it’s remarkable how much more accessible Swarm seems in spite of its inherent nastiness.
The tension that builds in opening track “Clearing Out the Weeds” is visceral, a harbinger of either explosive thrills or impending doom. It turns out to be a little bit of both, straddling the line between hardcore punk and death rock, with metallic guitars shimmering against a bassline that hits with bruising ferocity in a tone that most closely resembles that of The Birthday Party’s Tracy Pew. In this song, Bambara offer only a slight window into their capabilities, but the hint of danger and massive dose of catharsis therein nicely summarizes what’s so appealing about their caterwauling grooves. It only gets more exciting from there, the band shifting their focus toward a feedback-laden post-punk rhumba on “Her Sister, Touya,” adopting the eerie charm of the Bad Seeds on “An Ill Son” complete with grotesque lyrical imagery (“your skull made all of the skin on your face shine“), and juxtaposing their most aggressive rhythms with their biggest hooks on “Black.”
For Bambara, subtlety is a tool best used sparingly. And though it’s not their primary tactic, it’s not a foreign concept to them, as heard in the brooding surf-goth strut “I Don’t Mind,” vocalist Reid Bateh no less unsettling in his tone despite trading an unhinged screech for a nice paranoid moan. With the volume knob dialed back just a little bit, they still manage to express a level of tension and terror on par with their more unforgivingly heavy tracks. But it’s also a welcome break, however brief, before the cowpunk deathride of “Filled Up With Night.” Breathing room is a luxury in Bambara’s music, and one that doesn’t come so generously. It’s best to take those scant few minutes to appreciate it. The last thing you’d want is to run out of steam while they’re still charging at full strength.
Jeff Terich is the founder and editor of Treble. He's been writing about music for 20 years and has been published at American Songwriter, Bandcamp Daily, Reverb, Spin, Stereogum, uDiscoverMusic, VinylMePlease and some others that he's forgetting right now. He's still not tired of it.