Melbourne, Australia may not be known as a hot bed for rock and roll, but hard rocking quartet The Ugly Kings, comprising of Russell Clark (vocals), Christos Anthanasias (Guitars), Nicolas Dumont (Bass) and Joel Martin (Drums), are here to prove that they can go toe to toe with the next band. Following up their 2015 debut EP Of Sins with their first full length album Darkness Is My Home in 2018, they caught the attention of luminaries such as Classic Rock and Loud Mag with their brand of heavy blues and alt rock boogie.
After another EP and a live album, they’ve landed on the Napalm Records roster and are back with their second album, Strange, Strange Times alongside the mission statement of making pure, pretension free music that sucks you in, makes you want to party and forget all the bullshit modern life is throwing at the world.
Musically the nearest touchstone would probably be old school Queens of the Stoneage, but rather than simply try to ape Josh Homme’s post Kyuss chart toppers, The Ugly Kings have smashed that juggernaut into The Doors, punk sensibility, dark gothic Danzig like power and even the swagger of Jack White to create a collection of ten tracks that drip with tenacity humour and sexuality.
Opening with the title track, it seems like Strange, Strange Times is going to be a cut and dried affair with the punk laced attitude of the previously mentioned QOTSA vibes, but the band switch it up to a Sabbath style as Clark intones menacingly over the top. So far so doom, but then the chorus opens up and the whole track becomes playful and catchy, with an almost 5 to 1 era The Doors blend of muscular rock and clever lyricism, elevating them beyond the next band on the block.
This continues with Technodrone as the fast-paced rocker has a vampy, gothic element that recalls Davey Vain’s The Damned or Dave Wyndorf at his most bombastic. The whole thing erupts as a great sing-along and repeated listens again highlight the clever word play employed. The band themselves are perfectly in step and play off each other to great effect. The low chugging bass and drum breakdown perfectly set up the platform for Anthanasias to set off on a melodic solo run, and on the stop start hooks of Do You Feel Like You’re Paranoid they’re tight and unfussy when they need to be, giving each other the space to exhibit the flair they clearly have in spades.
It’s clear from the first four tracks that the Aussie’s are dripping with talent. In The Shadows is a delicious gothic creep that almost borrows from Sheryl Crow’s All I Wanna Do to create an insanely danceable moment as Clark leads you expertly like a ringmaster, his voice crooning, commanding and coaxing. As someone who long ago tired of Josh Homme’s musical output, Strange, Strange Times reignited my love for this kind of music.
Over the course of the ten tracks, you’re never far away from a danceable groove, a huge hook or a memorable chorus…
The Ugly Kings inevitably bring the party down with the moody Lawman employing a Robby Krieger steel guitar tone that gives off the stripped-down parts of People Are Strange and grows in the consciousness the more listens it receives. My initial thoughts were that I liked the idea better than the execution, but something draws you back again and again, and the delicious instrumental and solo leading to the final fatalism of the ending raises the hairs on your arms.
This pause for breath is short lived though as Electric Lady (My Kryptonite) and The Devil Came With A Smile up the intensity with the accustomed swagger and humour, the former with female backing vocals and more hooks than an automatic sewing machine. The latter featuring hand claps and a snaking bassline, weaves a tale accented with bright and jangly guitar and yet another highly singable chorus, before they bring back the harder rocking edge to close.
Strange, Strange Times comes to a close with the atmospheric Another Fucking Day, a sombre, downbeat affair that feels like a call back to Monster Magnet/Atomic Bitchwax type stoner meets stadium rock. The world-weary track is a powerful and understated musical triumph that plays it coy and on the surface seems to give way for Clark to steal the show, but in fact it’s full of nice little moments that build as the track reaches its crescendo.
Sadly for the band, they don’t quite manage to make a perfect album for me, there are a few moments that drop below the standards they’ve set themselves, feeling a bit like filler that they could have done without. Last Man Left Alive is saved from being non-essential by a great solo, and Mr Hyde just felt like they took the humour into cheesy territory and left me cold no matter how many times I tried. These however are minor blips on an album that is a hell of a lot of fun.
The Ugly Kings have a lot going for them with Strange, Strange Times. It feels like an album you could put on just about anywhere and someone is going to find something from it. Over the course of the ten tracks, you’re never far away from a danceable groove, a huge hook or a memorable chorus and is an album guaranteed to put a smile on your face. Good time rock and roll for strange (strange) times.
Scribed by: Mark Hunt-Bryden