Sundara Karma’s debut album ‘Youth Is Only Ever Fun In Retrospect’ should be regarded as one of the best debuts to be released in recent history. It was everything that guitar-craving, indie kids of the time needed: driving riffs twinned with anthemic, sing-along vocals and danceable rhythms. I still love it – but it does create a hard act to follow.
And so it seemed: the band went two years without releasing music before unveiling their sophomore album ‘Ulfilas’ Alphabet’, led by singles ‘Illusions’, ‘One Last Night On This Earth’ and ‘The Changeover’ before the turn of 2019. These releases seemed slightly hit and miss compared to the driving bombardment of guitar that punctuate the bands earlier work.
The first track on the album continues this trend, ‘A Song For My Future Self’ is a step away from accessible indie-rock towards a more a slower and more wistful sound that may sound more at home at a hippie commune than in a mosh-pit. It’s almost acoustic, soft rock is verging on country music. This is only exaggerated in a similar track later on the album ‘The Changeover’ – where Oscar-Lulu’s voice is echoed and drummer, Haydn’s focus on the cymbals of his kit, in stark contrast to the prominent and powerful drums from the first album.
It’s hard to know whether this is the more natural approach for the band – whose name translates to ‘Beautiful Karma’ in Sanskrit. This dystopian ambience of the album smacks of a band that is stepping back and exploring abstract concepts, where the last album’s narrative was one of romantic love. This is noticeable in songs like ‘Home (There Was Never Any Reason To Feel So Alone)’, which explores the journey of a young conscripted soldier at war; and ‘Illusions’, a piece critical of widespread societal desensitisation and disconnect.
The latter continues the whole protest-era vibe of the album, drawing in 70s funk guitar and bassline which fades in and out of prominence after a fittingly modern Siri-esque opening.
The influence of the past is a trend of the album: everything from 90s electronica in ‘Higher States’, which is reminiscent of The Prodigy’s major hits, to McFly-come-30 Seconds To Mars soft-core rock ballad in title-track, ‘Ulfilas’ Alphabet’ (though the use of auto-tune brings it closer to the 21st century). The most prominent age of music is undoubtedly the glam-rock of the 1970s, the best songs on the album feature Elton John style piano alongside the customary driving and purposeful guitars that punctuate Sundara Karma tracks of the past. These are spread out through the album, ‘One Last Night On This Earth’ and ‘Greenhands’ appear second and third respectively, while ‘Little Smart Houses’ fills out the middle of the album and ‘Home’ at the bookend.
That is the major sticking point of the album for me, there is so much of a shift in genre between tracks that it’s hard to establish a narrative based on the lyrics or general sound creating an emotion. It would be too critical to call ‘Ulfilas’ Alphabet’ confused, I feel more that it simply just feels off, and doesn’t hit the mark which was intended by the band. There are very few tracks where something doesn’t just annoy me slightly: ‘Greenhands’ – my favourite track of the album – completely undermines the major strength in Oscar-Lulu’s rangy vocals by maintaining a deep, monotone pitch throughout. Similarly, in ‘Duller Days’ the whole song seems in an unnatural key.
Even on songs where they got this right there are other niggles: ‘Little Smart Houses’ the dominant percussion is off-beat and out of step in the verses, when left bare without the guitar; ‘Home’ never seems to build to the levels you’d expect from a closing number, it feels frustratingly on the cusp of something, leaving only 30 seconds or so of real “breakdown”. ‘Rainbow Body’ and ‘Sweet Intentions’ really showcase Oscar’s vocal ability, but to the detriment of the rest of the band, there is a control and a purposeful restraint to what is being done, but it’s unclear why this actually is – putting the track in danger of being forgettable. This is the case in ‘Symbols of Joy and Eternity’: the song feels edgy for the sake of performance, rather than integrity and identity.
The more I’ve listened to the album the more I like it, but in order to be a proper grower you need to grab people’s attention on the first listen, and that’s where ‘Ulfilas’ Alphabet’ fails. It is not a bad album but it suffers through its lack of tangible impetus. ‘Youth Is Only Ever Fun In Retrospect’ hits you in the face on almost every track and grabs you, pulling you into a dancing trance; in contrast this album seems almost full of itself, having its own party and asking you to watch, rather than really bringing you in and involving you in the emotions at play.
‘Ulfilas’ Alphabet’ is available to buy, download and stream now! Tickets for their April tour are available online.