The rollout of this album should not have been as controversial as it was. When Goodnight Alt-Right was released, the response was more than a little shocking, especially since, a) Stray From The Path have made no secret about their social justice leanings in the past, and b) you wouldn’t think it’s wrong to hate literal Nazis. And yet, for daring to stand up for what’s right, the song received a merciless berating that spanned all manner of forums by edgelords and 4chan troglodytes who think they’re “anti-establishment” by subscribing to such backward beliefs (because showing any form of compassion for another living thing automatically makes you a cuck, right?). And that’s not to say that Goodnight Alt-Right is a perfect song by any means – the paradox of tolerance is problematic enough without a “solving violence with violence” rhetoric – but for getting their loud, blunt message across, Stray From The Path have found a vehicle that works, or at least gets people talking.
Only Death Is Real takes a similar route as a whole, removing much of the barbed edges from the band’s hardcore / rap metal hybrid in favour of a series of brusque strikes that are a lot broader but still pack a considerable punch. Yet, that quickly becomes the primary issue with Only Death Is Real, namely because for the incisive criticism on modern life in the US that it clearly wants to be, any real details that would properly ground it in its context are missing, and there’s a generalisation to the whole thing that should have been avoided. On tracks like Loudest In The Room and Let’s Make A Deal, it’s possible to eke out exactly what shots at the Trump administration Stray From The Path are taking, but they’re context clues at best, hidden behind language that holds no specificity and could be applied to virtually any political situation. There’s clearly a vision to do something a bit more adventurous here – the notion of the US government resembling a chessboard with the common citizens being pawns forced against each other on The Opening Move and the title track is an interesting concept that could’ve been explored further, and the named reference to white supremacist Richard Spencer being punched on camera on Goodnight Alt-Right and an actual sample of one of Trump’s speeches on The House Always Wins may only be passing, but they’re much-needed pieces of detail. But compare those to a track like D.I.E.P.I.G from 2015’s Subliminal Criminals and the extent that went to with its rage, and Only Death Is Real feels as though it’s holding back, and that it could do a lot more with its fury than shouting into the wind.
The approach of that fury is definitely better to what’s actually beneath it, as Stray From The Path once again couple the clinical crush of metallic hardcore with a nu-metal bounce to lay waste to the surrounding vicinity. Drew York’s rapping mightn’t be the most layered or acrobatic in the world, but it certainly manages to land a hit with his vein-bulging shrieks on a track like Plead The Fifth. What really heats up Stray From The Path’s assault, though, is the guest vocalists; Every Time I Die’s Keith Buckley may fall in line with York’s style on Strange Fiction, but the shredding cry of a strangled animal courtesy of Knocked Loose’s Bryan Garris on All Day & A Night brings some uncomfortable, raw violence to the fold, and Vinnie Paz’s slicker, easier-flowing rapping on The House Always Wins offers a more dexterous alternative, as well as pairing itself with this instrumentation remarkably well.
That said, Thomas Williams’ guitar work has always been one of the most consistently praiseworthy elements about Stray From The Path’s sound, and on Only Death Is Real, nothing’s really changed. Low-slung grooves abound on Loudest In The Room and Strange Fiction, and with Craig Reynolds’ drumming that, on a track like Goodnight Alt-Right, plays with a methodical, hip-hop-style influence, the propulsion this album undergoes makes its already spare half-hour runtime feel even quicker.
At the very least, Only Death Is Real underlines Stray From The Path’s position as one of metallic hardcore’s most instrumentally adept bands, but this is far from their best work overall. The execution may stay above water, but the political message they’re trying to get out feels distinctly neutered of what could’ve potentially been some truly incendiary content. It’s enough to hold the interest, but that’s only really the case when looked at as a whole package; Stray From The Path could easily have pushed harder and further to make this a great album instead of only a decent one. It’s still worth a look, but it may lack the longevity that has made this band’s best work such a force to be reckoned with.
For fans of: Rage Against The Machine, letlive., Stick To Your Guns
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Only Death Is Real’ by Stray From The Path is released on 8th September on Sumerian Records.