Review: Sundara Karma – Ulfilas’ Alphabet

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Sundara Karma‘s debut album – 2017’s Youth is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect – confirmed for many what the band had been showcasing with ease in the years before it hit the shelves: that they have an undeniable ear for a hook and an uncanny knack for heart-pounding, emotionally resonant indie-pop. But having spent much of the last five years supporting the likes of Bastille and Two Door Cinema Club, and having embarked on their first UK headline tour barely 18 months ago, there was always a sense that Sundara Karma were a band in waiting; on the verge of launching into the stratosphere, but waiting for something to fall into place and allow them to do so.

Ulfilas’ Alphabet is that thing.

The album makes clear from the outset that the ensuing tracks aren’t going to be quite what we’ve come to expect from the quartet. Its title is a reference to Ulfilas, the medieval Germanic Goth who developed a new alphabet in order to translate the Bible from Latin, and, immediately, the record shows us exactly that: development. The opening notes of ‘A Song For My Future Self’ are cacophonous, discordant and other-worldly; all synths, horns and various strings competing for attention, before the drums and guitar kick in with a Primal Scream-like swagger, and Oscar Pollock’s distinctive, resonant vocals are set free, meandering over the verse like a skater over ice. It’s an opener characterised by disparity; its individual parts painting a tapestry that paves the way perfectly for what’s to come.

Further down the line, ‘Symbols Of Joy and Eternity’ epitomises the eponymous Ulfilas and the shroud of historical mystery that Sundara Karma have resurrected him from. The melody is almost shamanic, with spectral guitar hooks and disembodied shouts emphasising its ghostly funk and giving it – oddly – a family resemblance to Boney M. (think “Ra Ra Rasputin”). It’s like looking at a Gothic mansion through a funhouse mirror.

Meanwhile, ‘Higher States’ shows just how far Sundara Karma are willing to push the envelope this time around, careening into view with a thundering bassline underpinning a litany of synth sounds and an irrepressibly, gleefully erratic drum beat all combining to produce a strobe light part way through the album, flickering tirelessly like the lights at a Pet Shop Boys gig.

It’s no coincidence that the aforementioned duo spring to mind here, since ‘Higher States’ stands out as the track on which the influence of producers Alex Robertshaw (of Everything Everything fame) and Stuart Price (whose production credits do indeed include the Pet Shop Boys) can be felt most clearly. While the album is replete with examples of nuanced, electronic-oriented production (like ‘Illusions”s ’80s-style synth lines that wouldn’t seem out of place in the Blade Runner Soundtrack), ‘Higher States’ is a balls-to-the-wall, honest to God dance-pop titan, and one of the album’s highlights.

On the other hand, ‘The Changeover’ seduces with its campfire sing-along serenity, while ‘Rainbow Body’ has the dynamism and perpetual motion of a steam engine. All this to say that each track, because of the nuanced production and the irreverence with which the band celebrates their eclectic styles, manages to feel both unique and appropriate at the same time.

With Ulfilas’ Alphabet, Sundara Karma have created a collection of songs that, manages to revel in the contrasting, nuanced styles that influenced them, while not completely deserting the sound that the band have worked so hard to cultivate. It’s hair-raised, mad-cap Gothicism for the digital age, and Sundara Karma have stepped into the spotlight.

Ulfilas’ Alphabet is out today via RCA Records. Get info on dates and tickets for Sundara Karma’s upcoming 2019 tour here.

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