Stoke-on-Trent. Home of Josiah Wedgewood, long ball football and a monkey forest... Genuinely that's as exciting as Stoke gets. As a Staffordshire native I'm allowed to say this about the sleepy Midlands city; it's certainly not somewhere one would instantly think of as a hotbed of punk rock. Challenging this view is the debut album by Only Strangers which is most likely to breathe more life into the city than the old pottery towers of its industrial heyday.
Currently the UK punk scene is experiencing something of a gruff punk renaissance. Last year’s self-titled album by the Run-Up was easily a personal highlight and this first album by Only Strangers is already kicking 2018 off in the way 2017 finished. Despite its short run time, each and every song has something to really enjoy, from the excellent vocal deliveries of Declan O'Reilly and Adam Gater; wearing their influences on their sleeves it's easy to suggest one opts for a Chuck Ragan howl and the other a more melodic approach akin to Chris Wollard. Perhaps not as technical as the Gainesville heavyweights on their own debut, Only Strangers offer up an excellent take on the genre; in addition to the aforementioned The Run Up, if you are a fan of Iron Chic, The Menzingers, Worship This! or Red City Radio you'll instantly be at home.
Kicking things off is "The Last Time", wasting little time with an introduction hits home like Joe DiMaggio and is a clear statement of what to expect across the next 30 minutes. Given this is a debut, the maturity and skill with which this opener is composed is truly astounding and shows a brilliant level of confidence (and competence) to pull off, with excellently layered vocals, guitar work and drumming. It's an easy song to get sucked into and sets up the album perfectly. The second track only serves to up the ante; slightly slower and reliant on a more melodic vocal style "So Long, Etruria" shows a more refrained approach than the opener, relying on the melody as opposed to aggression to put a smile on your face.
In fact this style serves the band well, the middle third in particular is well balanced with more melodic and slower songs (Never Wanted This, with its notable Leatherface influences, Counter Attack and Fare Thee Well in particular shine) bookended by the more frantic ends of the album.
If the opening tracks serve to welcome you to the band the final three will make you hope they never leave. All three are stunning examples of what can be achieved within the genre. Whilst not necessarily ground breaking, they are delivered with aplomb. "Anyway, We Delivered The Bomb" is characterised by machine gun guitars and great sing-a-long lyrics, destined to get fists in the air. Following track "Creatures" will no doubt evoke memories of the finest moments of The Lawrence Arms and makes best use of the dual vocalists – it's a relentless, breathtaking song that doesn't let up.
Closing such a good album can be tricky, to be done properly it needs either an absolute banger or a slower acoustic number to help provide context. Opting for the former, Only Strangers see out their debut with a monstrous guitar driven epic that serves to pick the best elements of the previous nine tracks and build something greater than the sum of its parts. It is safe to assume “Hardest Thing” is a real fan favourite in the making; the little guitar flourishes reminiscent of Iron Chic, whilst the drumming in the bridge also provides a stand-out moment. There is so much to love about this song, you'll be replaying it over and over without realising it.
Overall this is a brilliant debut and, like most great albums, everyone who listens to it will have a different personal favourite so picking highlights is really difficult. Only Strangers they may be but within a few short months expect them to have many new friends up and down the country.
Stream and download Only Strangers here: https://onlystrangers.bandcamp.com/album/only-strangers-s-t
Like Only Strangers here: https://www.facebook.com/onlystrangersuk/
This review was written by Richard Mair.