Latest release: Strange, Strange Days (with The Ugly Kings – Napalm), Godless (with Devil Electric – Independent)
While he’s had to face the same obstacles and hindrances as any other musician over the last two years, 2021 has been a productive time for Melbourne guitarist Christos Athanasias. Travel embargoes and the Victorian capital’s notorious lockdowns may have prevented him from getting up on a stage but he was able to see the latest albums from both his bands get released within months of each other. Strange, Strange Times by The Ugly Kings dropped in August. Devil Electric’s second album, Godless, appeared in November, almost two years after it was finished.
“It’s been quite a journey, actually, because we recorded [Godless] in 2019, then we went through the mixing phase and the proposed artwork… 2020 was going to be the Year of the Devil, right?” Athaniasias chuckles grimly. “It started off really well, we supported Truck Fighters here in Australia and plans were made to put out the single, and as those plans were made, as All My Friends… was landing in people’s ears, COVID was landing in many places!”
The single launch turned out to be the only show Devil Electric would play, with COVID wiping plans for a European tour. Like the godless heathens in Dante’s Inferno, the album waited in limbo.
“We held onto it for quite some time, to see how things would pan out,” the guitarist says. “We put out another single, The Cave, which is the last song on the album, and then just saw how things went.”
Very little changed, of course, and Devil Electric continued to hold off on the release of Godless.
The trajectory for The Ugly Kings, on the other hand, was quite different. In February they announced a signing to powerhouse Austrian rock and metal label Napalm, and before the ink was dry on the contract, Strange, Strange Times was making its presence felt.
“That was probably the quickest cycle from recording to release that I’ve ever experienced,” Athanasias says. “It was go, go, go! We recorded it from February to early March, and it was out and the singles started in June. So that took a lot of my time during the year. No sooner was it put to bed than it was out.”
By then, that band’s touring plans had to be thrown out as well. On the bright side, the album was making an impact.
“Back in March and April, things were looking up in Australia. Things were looking good, interstate borders were open and we had shows booked for the album, and then the most recent lockdowns happened. So there’s a lot of things that haven’t happened, but the album has happened! It’s been quite a journey, but it’s been really, really good to release new music.”
Unlike Godless, which had already been recorded when COVID hit, The Ugly Kings didn’t begin recording Strange, Strange Days until March 2021. It was a full year later than planned, but Athanasias suggests that the delay gave the band more time to perfect the material.
“Eventually what happened in that first phase of lockdowns is that it gave us a little more time to think the album through. A majority of the songs were there, in the ideas, but they morphed into something different and a couple of other songs were introduced. So when we were finally able to jam together, we were able to improve the songs. Technically, in hindsight I would say that was good!’ He laughs, then soberly adds, “I don’t like to say that, given the circumstances.”
He and the band were able to make the best of a bad situation, and create something that may have never been had the pandemic not intervened: “At any given point in a band’s history, you don’t know what will come about that will morph things into something different,” he philosophises. “You’ll never know what it could have been, because it wasn’t! You only kind of know what it has been, and you can take that as either a positive or a negative, and most times you want to take it as a positive, because otherwise you end up paranoid about the possibilities of what could have been!”
It’s a philosophy he has employed before in The Ugly Kings, when he suggested they cover Lazarus for a Bowie tribute night. Their moody downbeat rock version became something of a breakout for them.
“You can’t know how something will actually turn out until you actually go through with it,” he says. “When David Bowie passed away, we were offered to play four songs at a tribute show at the Northcote Social Club shortly thereafter and we selected the songs, and we played some classics, but I was like, ‘Why don’t we play Lazarus, and at least try and make it something of our own?’ And the guys were like, ‘That’s probably not going to go well, most people who go to a tribute show go to listen to Rebel Rebel, or something’, and no one else had done his most recent material. After we rehearsed it and transposed it into a rock version, we all had the same idea that we should record it. I’ve never been a big tribute guy, and there’s tribute shows going on all the time, but David Bowie was very close to [singer] Rusty’s heart. He loved David Bowie. I do too, but not as much as he does, so it was kind of a personal thing for him. Sometimes you have to go with your instinct and see how things work out.”
Playing in two bands concurrently allows Athanasias to explore different sides of his personality as a musician, a personality that finds its influence from three distinct guitar players.
“There are Black Sabbath elements in both bands,” he admits, “in addition to a ton of other shit. My main influences as a guitarist are Tony Iommi, Jack White and Tom Morello. All three of them push the envelope of what playing guitar is, for people in those periods. They share one thing in common: it is very clear. Clarity in playing, so you can clearly follow the riff or the music and understand what is happening. How these guitarists write music is so distinctive. I started listening to heavy music from my brother’s vinyl collection when I was eight years old, but it didn’t come until I listened to War Pigs when I was about 11 or 12 when my mind was blown. The second song that did that was Seven Nation Army by the White Stripes, and the third one was listening to Killing in the Name of. I will never forget those moments, right, because I had heard something similar, but vastly different. So you take those three guitarists, that’s where I draw my sound from.”
It’s definitely a sound that works for Christos Athanasias and the bands he is a part of. Both Devil Electric and The Ugly Kings are collecting plaudits for their unabashed vintage style. Each is distinctive from one another, but with the same guitarist weaving his magic for both.
“If you look at The Ugly Kings, there’s more of that heavy blues rock influence, despite the fact that we’re not a classic blues band. It’s not like we’re trying to play twelve bar blues or anything and we don’t sound like the Black Keys but it has that heavy White Stripes type of sound with the weird Tom Morello kind of guitar and some of the evil aspects of Tony Iommi. When you swing back to Devil Electric, it’s more sinister. The other aspects are still there, but it’s more of that heavy, retro, Black Sabbath influence. Especially with Pip’s voice, somehow it all works!”