Sundara Karma are not the kind of band to rest on their laurels. Perhaps dissatisfied by the fervent hype which has followed them around since the release of their 2017 debut album Youth Is Only Ever Fun In Retrospect, their tireless touring soon made way for Ulfilas’ Alphabet, a genre-bending curve ball of an album which landed earlier this year, earning them comparisons to Bowie. Anticipating razzle dazzle and raucous teens, we secured our spot on the balcony nice and early…
First up on the bill is Phoebe Green, a curly-haired maxi dress-clad singer songwriter from Manchester. Together with her band, she kicks off with new track Song for Adults, which captures my attention very early on with rich vocals and marching percussion. Another new one, recent single Dreaming Of, is fantastic; three minutes of pearlescent vocals, sleepy guitars and drummer-boy rhythms. There is a touch of faded glamour to Green’s sound and style, and coupled with volatile guitar hooks and glacial lyrics, it is a killer combination.
Next up are whenyoung, an Irish indie pop four-piece whose driving energy is seeing them appear in support slots on the reg. They unveil new single Future, a high-octane number which demonstrates their talent for working the crowd. There is certainly something fun about their four-way vocals, and similarly about their penchant for boiler suits, but as for their songwriting, I’m less convinced. Nonetheless, whenyoung are an undeniable powerhouse, ending on a high tonight with Never Let Go.
But it is Sundara Karma the people are yearning for by now, and they make an ethereal emergence from backstage through purple smoke and spotlights to this fevered crowd. Sundara have certainly earned a reputation for flamboyance in the fashion department, but they have truly kicked it up a gear tonight; lead singer Oscar Pollack looks stellar in knee-high leather platform boots and corset, along with smatterings of florals, studs and lace from the other band members.
I want to love this performance; the new album is deliciously ambitious and exhilarating, and their stage presence tonight matches that. Yet Sundara still seem at their best on the older tracks. Flame and Explore are solid gold, sending ripples of celestial pop energy through Rock City. It isn’t that the crowd aren’t loving the new direction - Little Smart Houses provokes as much adoration as anything, as does Illusions, which takes things to a slower, more reflective place through Pollock’s tickling of the ivories.
Are they trying a little too hard perhaps? They struggle on new track The Changover – which sounds slick but strained – as opposed to one of their earlier singles Happy Family, which instead raises the roof with its heavenly vocal trio and bittersweet guitar work. “You’re wonderful”, Pollock tells the crowd at this point, after an earlier emphasis on the importance of being present and the capacity for gigs to temporarily take you away from your troubles; important messages for a band to impart to their audience.
Ultimately Sundara Karma are a band with conviction, and ambitions larger than the boundaries which the indie genre previously allowed them. On Youth Is Only Ever Fun In Retrospect there were traces of sheer creative force, which have burst their way out on Ulfilas’ Alphabet. Whilst tonight that force feels unruly, and at times pinches like a new pair of leather boots, I reckon in time their live performance will follow in the album’s game-changing footsteps.
Sundara Karma played Rock City on Thursday 4 and Friday 5 April 2019