Review of King Stingray – irresistibly happy debut album from the kings of surf-rock Yolngu | australian music

IIt would be an understatement to give the “long-awaited” cliché to King Stingray’s self-titled debut album. North East Arnhem Land band Yirrkala teased us with five singles. The first of them, Hey Wanhaka – which means “what’s going on?” – was released at the end of 2020; Get Me Out, Milkumana, Camp Dog and Let’s Go all followed.

Adding to the considerable hype are the band’s lineages: vocalist, Yirrnga Yunupingu, is the nephew of leader Yothu Yindi, Dr. M Yunupingu, while guitarist, Roy Kellaway, is the son of the bassist of the same group, Stuart. The two also star in Yothu Yindi themselves.

The aforementioned five singles make up half of the album’s 10 tracks, with Get Me Out and Milkumana both being nominated for Apra Awards as Song of the Year. They’ve been all over the air – and rightly so. The fact that their self-proclaimed Yolngu surf-rock is already familiar to many listeners doesn’t take anything away from this sparkling record.

Indeed, it’s great to have them together in one place, fleshed out by five other songs that complement each other well. Most bands would be proud to have a collection like this on a greatest hits album. But there’s no loss of continuity or context, with a natural ebb and flow reflecting this band’s relatively short existence.

It also highlights their deep roots. Yunupingu and Kellaway, brothers by adoptive relationship, have known each other since childhood and play like that. They make it all easy – listening to Lupa’s immediately appealing hook, the opening track, and it’s hard to believe it’s not a single too. (It was a B-side of Hey Wanhaka’s Limited Seven Inches.)

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The focus is on Yolngu pride and uptempo, joyous celebration. Get Me Out, a song about getting out of town and back home, has an irresistible momentum. Where Warumpi’s My Island Home suffered from homesickness, Get Me Out captures the moment of “feeling the cool breeze on your face again” and the warm embrace of family.

Like Yothu Yindi, they can build a perfect dance groove – Milkumana, which contains the most nimble funk bass tracks, could have appeared on Tribal Voice – and like the Warumpi Band, they can rock hard whenever they want: Raypirri grazes heavy metal but the energy is entirely positive, carried by the ecstatic voice of Yunupingu.

Another highlight is Sweet Arnhem Land, one of the new tracks here. It’s a perfect fusion of rock and manikay (traditional song), Dimathaya Burarrawanga’s shivering yidaki adding weight to a basic four-on-the-floor rhythm. Life Goes On is an acoustic gem with beautiful choral harmonies, closer to Elcho Island’s brilliant Saltwater Band than Yothu Yindi.

Regardless of their family ties, the one thing King Stingray doesn’t look like is a throwback. It is not an act of revival. Everything here sounds contemporary, by a band living their own dream, radiating happiness and contagious enthusiasm. That happens.