King Stingray: Yolngu surf-rock kings

It would be an understatement to bestow the cliche “long-awaited” upon King Stingray’s self-titled debut album. The Yirrkala band from north-east Arnhem Land have already teased us with five singles. The first of them, Hey Wanhaka – which means “what’s happening?” – was released in late 2020; Get Me Out, Milkumana, Camp Dog and Let’s Go have all followed.

Adding to the considerable hype are the band’s bloodlines: the singer, Yirrnga Yunupingu, is the nephew of the Yothu Yindi leader, Dr M Yunupingu, while the guitarist, Roy Kellaway, is the son of the same band’s bass player, Stuart. Both also play in Yothu Yindi themselves.

The five aforementioned singles make up a full half of this album’s 10 tracks, with Get Me Out and Milkumana both nominated for APRA awards as song of the year. They have been all over the airwaves – and deservedly so. The fact that their self-described Yolngu surf-rock will already be familiar to many listeners in no way detracts from this sparkling record.

Indeed, it’s great to have them together in one place, fleshed out by five more songs that sit well alongside one another. 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 adopted kinship, have known each other since childhood and play like it. They make everything sound easy – listening to the instantly appealing hook of Lupa, the opening track, and it’s hard to believe it hasn’t been a single, too. (It was a B-side to the limited seven-inch of Hey Wanhaka.)

The emphasis is on Yolngu pride and uptempo, joyful celebration. Get Me Out, a song about getting back to country, has an irresistible driving momentum. Where the Warumpi Band’s My Island Home ached with 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 construct a perfect dance groove – Milkumana, which contains the nimblest of funk bass runs, could have appeared on Tribal Voice – and like the Warumpi Band, they can rock hard when they want to: Raypirri verges on heavy metal, but the energy is all positive, lifted up by Yunupingu’s ecstatic vocals.

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

Regardless of their family connections, the one thing King Stingray don’t sound like is a throwback. This is not a revival act. Everything here sounds contemporary, by a band living their own dream, radiating with happiness and infectious enthusiasm. It’s happening.

First published in the Guardian, 7 August 2022

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