The seeds of King Stingray were sown long before either of the group’s core songwriters – singer Yirrŋa Yunupiŋu and guitarist Roy Kellaway – were born. With records like 1991’s ‘Tribal Voice’ and 1993’s ‘Freedom’, Yothu Yindi pioneered the mainstream collision of traditional Yolŋu artistry and contemporary rock and pop. Yirrŋa is the nephew of Yothu Yindi’s late, great frontman Dr. M., and Roy is son of founding bassist Stuart Kellaway. Both spent their formative years wreaking havoc backstage at their shows, and were bashing away on instruments even before they could even stand.
It wasn’t until the week of Bluesfest 2019 that King Stingray came together – camped out at Kellaway’s family farm in Tintenbar, the duo demoed debut single ‘Hey Wanhaka’ on a whim – but Yunupiŋu and Kellaway had spent the bulk of their lives jamming and writing songs together. One of the standouts from their youth is ‘Raypirri’, a rip-roaring proto-punk belter about the importance of keeping sensible, which Yunupiŋu and Kellaway spent countless lunchtimes playing for their schoolmates. Both songs appear on King Stingray’s eponymous debut album, which across all 10 of its coltish and colourful tunes, paints a vivid picture of the band’s youthful origins.
The album’s sonic palette is diverse, anchored in soaring and soulful surf rock with fiery hooks and ultra-catchy choruses. The contrasting flavours mixed into it make for a kaleidoscopic listen: ‘Milkumana’ comes out of left field as a fun and funky disco tune, while the punkish energy of ‘Raypirri’ returns in ‘Malk Mirri Wayin’. There, a slinking bassline and propulsive yidaki rhythm swerve into a huge, riff-driven crescendo replete with chanted backing vocals and thrashing cymbals.
Perhaps the most unpredictable thing about ‘King Stingray’ is that it ends on a classic indie rock trope with the cruisy acoustic ballad ‘Life Goes On’. They shake it up with a banjo, which however polarising at first, gels perfectly with Yunupiŋu’s emotive singing. And although it truly is an ensemble affair, where every member of King Stingray has their time in the spotlight, Yunupiŋu’s vocals are easily the star of the record. Singing occasionally in Yolŋu Matha (entirely so on the two aforementioned punk cuts and the explosive opener ‘Lupa’), Yunupiŋu – a Gumatj clan songman – injects every performance with character and intent.
Equally compelling is how the band interpolate elements of traditional Yolŋu musicality. The yidaki and bilma feature prominently across the record, adding colour to the more contemporary rock riffs – take album highlight ‘Let’s Go’, where the sharp clack of the bilma and low rumbling of the yidaki make the twangy, wah-flourished bridge feel 10 times as intoxicating. On the vocal side, the interpolation of Gumatj Manikay on the climactic refrain of ‘Get Me Out’ deepens its themes of homesickness, while the sampling of a timeless Bawaka songline on ‘Malk Mirri Wayin’ (introduced by guitarist Dimathaya Burarrwaŋa, a Bawaka man who sought permission from Elders to include it) makes it notably personal.
Home lies at the core of ‘King Stingray’, both musically and thematically. ‘Sweet Arnhem Land’ is a heartfelt ode to the Country where most of the band was born and raised, and the spiritual connection they share with its land (“Nature got me feeling this way / nature in my heart every day”). ‘Let’s Go’ pays tribute to the outback road that links it to the rest of Australia (“Central Arnhem Highway on my mind / When I think of you, I leave my troubles far behind”), while ‘Get Me Out’ speaks to the yearning felt when the band spend too much time away from it.
King Stingray also lean into their cheeky and frenetic sides with songs like ‘Camp Dog’, which is dedicated to its literal namesake: the dogs that roam – and might as well own – the streets in outback communities (in King Stingray’s case, Yirrkala). It’s also the best song on the record, bar none, with its playful grooves and brisk, bustling rhythm – not to mention the infectious refrain, “King of the street / Camp dog, please don’t bite me!”
Nevertheless, ‘King Stingray’ doesn’t sacrifice liveliness for poignancy, or vice versa. Cut live to tape, it’s driven by the band’s DIY spirit and youthful energy, with tight performances and sharp songwriting. It destroys the idea that a fun album can’t also feel powerful, and we can’t wait to see how King Stingray continue to build on what they establish with it in the years to come.
- Release date: August 5
- Record label: Cooking Vinyl Australia