There’s always a chance that albums like this can go horribly wrong. It’s been said before (and no doubt when Circa Waves release their next album in a few weeks, it’ll be said again), but the chances that indie bands will continue to produce material of significance after one or two albums tops only seems to be dwindling more and more, and Sundara Karma are a perfect example of that. They were one of the names touted for big things back in 2017 with their debut Youth Is Only Ever Fun In Retrospect, drawing largely favourable comparisons to not only The 1975 but U2 and Arcade Fire, but that’s an album that’s only fallen further and further in terms of relevance ever since. And sure, that alone doesn’t mean a whole lot, but the fact that Ulfilas’ Alphabet has seemingly slunk into view without warning or fanfare is incredibly telling regarding how little Sundara Karma currently hold. Again, that’s not automatically cause for dismissal, but especially for an album like this, it can make it hard to get overly excited.
On the other hand though, there’s the possibility that no one really considers with indie bands in this situation – Sundara Karma will see this diminished level of pressure as an opportunity to try something new and a bit more off-piste that could actually see them stick around of their own accord, rather than through fleeting spurts of hype. Ulfilas’ Alphabet definitely gives that impression before even a note of music hits, clocking in at just under an hour long and named after the creator of the Gothic alphabet, but perhaps even more than expected, this is a colourful, diverse listen that crosses into out-and-out self-indulgence a fair amount, but done so with a knowingness that Sundara Karma can surprisingly pull off. They certainly aren’t infallible by any stretch, but for what could’ve realistically been a fruitless gasp of effort barely materialising into view, Ulfilas’ Alphabet comes out stronger than anyone could’ve realistically predicted.
It’s that greater desire to branch out the easiest feature to spot as well, especially when considering it in relation to the other sonic reference points on this album. Oscar Pollock’s vocals provide the main throughline with how much they channel a combination Bono and numerous ‘80s synthpop acts, but that can also be felt in the album as a whole. The new wave comparisons are easy to make on tracks like Symbols Of Joy And Enterity and The Changeover, partly through the stateliness and poise that comes across in how straight the execution is, but also in the presence of atmosphere and how integral it ultimately is in the build of these songs. It’s reminiscent in a way of what Blossoms did on Cool Like You, and how it provides so much more of a driving force that’s actually noticeable in these compositions, rather than an accompaniment that simply attempts to wrap individual pieces up. It gives Ulfilas’ Alphabet a much grander standing, especially in its versatility, ranging from the scratchy darkwave disco that kicks off Higher States to the sweeping, washed-out haughtiness of Duller Days that feels just self-aware enough of its own pomposity to come out as rather enjoyable.
That’s really only because of that self-awareness though; if it wasn’t laid on as thick as it is, it’s easy to see how Sundara Karma really could become insufferable. Just look at the writing for that, where the band tackle issues of faith and the human condition with the overwrought, self-fellating pretension of Muse at their most impenetrable, often to reach the sorts of conclusions that simply don’t need to go down all of those byroads to reach. The fact that Sundara Karma are fine with settling on pure indie-pop anthems like One Last Night On This Earth that are more than comfortable with scrapping the larger theme is definitely a good move as well, though the fact that the album as a whole does feel incredibly bloated and runs longer than it should severely caps how much it can achieve. Trimmed down, this could be a great satire of albums that venture into those areas with no idea how to fully articulate their grand ideas, but in its current state, it can be easy to throw Ulfilas’ Alphabet on that same pile at points, with any sort of knowing wink reduced to an accidental crack in the veneer.
Fortunately though, that’s not as incidental a feature as it could be, and after navigating the minefield that is this album’s context and framing, this does feel like a success overall. Yes, a bit more quality control to shave off some dead weight would’ve made it even better, but Sundara Karma have taken to exploration and diversification remarkably well, and executing it with as much knowingness as they have is definitely an added bonus. More importantly though, as an attempt to break out of the indie guillotine ready to cut them off as soon as the next band comes around, there’s enough here to prove that Sundara Karma have the adaptability and talent to produce something far more unique to them. They’ve already laid all of their ideas on the table, and the jumbled, over-their-heads mess that it is has already yielded some real moments of gold.
For fans of: U2, Arcade Fire, Blossoms
Words by Luke Nuttall
‘Ulfilas’ Alphabet’ by Sundara Karma is released on 1st March on RCA Records.