My first introduction to Sunda Arc came with a December 2018 show supporting Go Go Penguin at the Royal Albert Hall in London. I was left speechless as brothers Nick and Jordan Smart presented a thrilling, loud, bass-rich techno-inflected set that fused intricate electronics with Jordan Smart’s clarinet; it contained such velocity and intensity that I honestly figured the roof of the 1867 concert venue was going to collapse.
The duo quickly released their debut EP Flicker in the days that followed and it didn’t disappoint, capturing the precise essence of that live set that felt so compatible with Go Go Penguin’s own – in spite of Go Go Penguin’s flavour of jazz being written with electronics but played acoustically, whereas Sunda Arc keep the electronics in. It was, perhaps inevitably, more restrained than the live show had been, but only in volume.
Their debut album, Tides, is, in comparison, strangely muted. Aside from the juddering Warp-inflected ‘Dawn’, the slowly growing shimmer of ‘Everything At Once’, the utterly gorgeous ‘Cluster’, and the ominous kick drums of ‘Hymn’, it’s not that the album lacks energy, it just feels like that energy might have taken on a more rueful, less recognisably euphoric tone. A sparseness, or even a brittleness, permeates through these pieces, spliced in with a cautious fragility maybe. Listen to all the components of the aforementioned ‘Hymn’ and it’s hard to know precisely where that comes from – its juddering electro rhythm has plenty of forward motion, and its central melody is not immediately plaintive, questioning or uncertain.
‘Secret Window’ takes that maudlin disposition and attaches it to delicate piano loops and mournful reeds, while ‘Vespers’ does the same only with sheets of ice-bright Bob Fripp-style atmospherics. These are pieces that feel like they could erupt into something edgy and dangerous at any moment, but instead they stay firmly bedded down in an achingly beautiful, yet ultimately sorrowful place.
Once you realise that this is just where Tides wants to stay, it makes for an incredibly well-crafted, detailed and wonderfully minimalist record, full of meticulous gestures and an ever-shifting palette of complex sounds. In spite of the Smart brothers’ role in hip Norwich modern jazz unit Mammal Hands, any overtones from that group lurking around on Tides are discrete, tentative and sporadic. The mysterious ‘Collapse’ is the exception, Jordan’s bass clarinet leading this album centrepiece through an atmospheric, electronically-structured ride through a vibrant, edgy, futuristic souk.
Tides by Sunda Arc is released February 7 2020 by Gondwana.
Words: Mat Smith
(c) 2020 Further.