Album Review: Sundara Karma - 'Ulfilas’ Alphabet'

Reading indie-rock idols offer a majestically grander adventure into unchartered territories for a sophomore record emblazoned with emotional intelligence and obsessive hook-laden offerings

A spiritual awakening has swept across Reading’s budding music scene since Sundara Karma’s foundation in 2013. Following the release of three sublime EPs, the four-piece brought out debut record ‘Youth Is Only Ever Fun in Retrospect’ to widespread acclaim, establishing the band as a breath of fresh air in a growing quagmire of indie-rock outfits. For the group’s second record, the four-piece, consisting of Oscar Pollock (vocals, guitar), Ally Baty (guitar), Dom Cordell (bass), Haydn Evans (drums) have exceeded expectations and highlighted themselves as one of the best hook-writers in indie-rock.

Named after the Greek 4th Century bishop Ulfilas, who created his own alphabet to translate the Bible, ‘Ulfilas’ Alphabet’ is an immersive, volcanically expansive experience. Having previously flirted with grand, hook-laden numbers like “Explore”, the record sees the group take a daring artistic exploration to bolder, unreached heights. The groove-ridden party of “Symbols of Joy & Eternity” contains a simplistic guitar line, which allows a shrill wave of synths to pass through a predominately 80s pop-rock track whilst a seductive, spoken word breakdown transitions into a scintillating concoction of instrumentation, lust and narcotics-induced bliss. “One Last Night On This Earth” begins with an insurgent’s urgency before developing into an indie-pop thriller narrating an alien coming to earth and discovering love. Pollock’s melodic vocals carry a glorious tonal quality amongst the towering chorus which provides an early glimpse of what the record will expand to.

An exhilarating sprawl of sound, “Higher States” delves into the world of Eastern mysticism on what is single-handedly the band’s most impressive single produced to date. From beginning to end, the reciprocity between band and listener radiates energy and life beyond dimensions untouched on past ventures. A rapid firearm loaded with invasive synths, the track probes light into the darkest of corners whilst the demanding cries of Pollock’s chanting vocals firmly establish him as the captain of a bold and integral ship. “Rainbow Body” further offers a joyously expansive breakdown following its combination of funk-infused bass and stalking synths, atop a rippling guitar riff.

Album opener “A Song For My Future Self” spies an enchanting maelstrom of synths separating for a cataclysmic mix of shuffling guitar and percussion amongst a head-bopping keyboard melody. A track forever in transition, detailing the maturity of life and the need for development in a world highly-strung on normality, bouncing drums and pulsating synths alternate on the diverse offering which encapsulates the ambitious second record. “Little Smart Houses” is a straightforward indie-rock joy swept with preposterously obsessive bass and vocal performances that fascinate and embed into the brain. A provocatively mesmerising funk-filled extravaganza, the hair-flicking swagger within the diverse percussion arrangement receives nothing but admiration for the track’s end product which reflects the nonchalant charm of David Bowie post-1983.

A distorted moment of sedateness builds to a crashing peak on the record’s title track, before washing away again for the second verse. Cannoning waves of guitar and vocal highs from Oscar Pollock lead the track on its lengthy journey and establish the single as a hidden treasure. Pollock’s powerful vocals impress again on poignant album closer “Home (There Was Never Any Reason To Feel as Alone)” which is yet another inspirational and rousing offering.

A mystical presence lies within many elements of the band’s less exhaustive productions, with Pollock’s vocals carrying an enchanting weight as they ride along delicate breakdown sections. “Illusions” is a masterful snapshot of seduction via a slow-blues guitar and piano collaboration. Having crafted a gloriously addictive piano melody, the track’s winding guitar loops to an emphatic crescendo of gyrating instrumentation. The explosive warmth of “Sweet Intention”’s chorus contrasts its spacious pop-oriented verses which sway along a spiritually searching journey.

With the majority of ‘Ulfilas’ Alphabet’ taking shape as an expansive probe into the future, “Greenhands” and “Duller Days” take inspiration from music legends of the past. Whilst the steady jaunt of the latter resonates with flourishing gothic prose and the vocal depth of David Bowie, the former is a track of pompous narrative nostalgia. Staccatoed, Elton John piano licks provide the base of the single whilst the soulful and bluesy melody is reminiscent of early-era Fleetwood Mac.

For a record brimming with creativity and intellect, Ulfilas’ Alphabet’s only downfall comes from a simple aspect in record production. Track ordering is an integral part to the flow and emotional experience of an album and by placing their most impressive piece in “Higher States” before “The Changeover”, a disappointingly drab offering, the four-piece lose the momentum gained within the first half of the record. As a single, especially one released prior to the album coming out, “The Changeover” is formulaic and non-whimsical, failing to ignite the passion so startlingly present amongst the rest of the record.

Despite one sole blip, Sundara Karma are a gloriously entertaining prospect, never afraid to opt away from the dramatic, grandeur notions of cosmic indie-rock. If 2017’s debut record was a palette-cleansing warm-up, ‘Ulfilas’ Alphabet’ is the sonic equivalent of strutting onto a dance-floor in the prime of your life, carrying enough emotional intelligence and artistic originality to fill an array of albums. For such progress to be accomplished within the space of two years, Sundara Karma’s future is set to be an illustrious path into the unknown, yet they are fated to reach heights unknown to the majority of budding indie outfits.

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