Fans of British jazz minimalists Mammal Hands, you can sit this introduction out – chances are you already know enough about Sunda Arc to just skip to the next paragraph. As for everyone else, here’s the scoop: 2/3rds of the aforementioned Mammal Hands, namely brothers Nick (piano) and Jordan Smart (saxophone), branched off their main band for a project dedicated to their love of electronic music – the similarly aforementioned Sunda Arc. Drawing from their usual palette of minimalist classical music, jazz, and post-rock dynamics while filtering it through a more dance-music oriented perspective, the results aren’t drastically, but still noticeably different from what they’re usually known for.
Night Lands is the duo’s sophomore full-length release, and it was conceived – say it with me – during the time of pandemic-related lockdowns (I know exactly what you’re thinking: ‘Yay, another Covid record! Jerry, scratch it off the bingo card!’) as the brothers were feeling the same mental impact as everyone else, only with an operating creative outlet to channel their thoughts and feelings into:
‘We were talking about dystopian themes a fair bit when we were writing the tunes and I think being in London during the lockdown definitely had an impact on our mindset at the time. […] We definitely didn’t feel like making a celebratory or joyful record at that point, it was much more of an introspective and moody set of tracks we were focusing on and I guess the feeling of missing being able to go out or see friends and family played a part in this.’
Analogue synthesizers, home-made software patches, piano, saxophones and bass clarinet; even the tip of the iceberg of tools and instrumentation used to construct Night Lands is enough to make a music fan’s mouth water. Merging the digital with the analogue at will (even going so far as to treat their own previous recordings like samples), Sunda Arc achieved a balanced, nuanced sound that doesn’t yield to only one stylistic or temporal category. The haunting presence of the saxophone in the intro of album opener “Distant Siren” makes this timeless, dissociative effect abundantly clear; it sounds like an echo from a time we may or may not have lived ourselves, reaching our ears from beyond the harsh divide of time and space. After digesting that initial moment of confusion, though, “Distant Siren” comes across as a more beat-heavy, electronic version of a Mammal Hands track.
Other cuts on Night Lands cross that bridge a little more confidently and with a much more remarkable singularity. In fact, I’d say that the similarities between the Smart brothers’ two projects become less and less the longer this album goes on, until they’re reduced to the familiar tones of their instruments. It’s the emancipation of Sunda Arc, so to speak, observed in real time. “Beacons” makes Jordan Smart’s sax dance within a vocal sample-led, beat-focused composition, and “Neon Forest” places his bass clarinet in a throbbing, almost industrial techno milieu to great effect. Finally, “Ritual” is a bona fide IDM banger, bleeping and blooping beautifully against a steady dance beat.
The latter of those three is flanked by my two favorite moments of this album; it would appear that Night Lands lands its very best punches in the last round. “Mirai” (Japanese for ‘future’) works with bassy synths and airy reeds for a high-contrast experience. I don’t know how exactly it was achieved, but the reeds sound very similar to a Japanese bamboo flute at times, in a way I’ve seldom heard it emulated before (Arve Henriksen’s trumpet modulations come to mind as a reference point). Closing the album with the shortest and most ambient song “Endless Skies” makes for a gratifying send-off, as the droning background, comprised of synths and (artificial?) strings, allows the saxophone to soar into the endless skies of music that gave the song its title. It’s a graceful last bow for a forceful yet elegant album like Night Lands.
Did Sunda Arc make one of the best albums of 2022? I’m not so sure. But did they manage to create a little cosmos that I will gladly return to from time to time? Most certainly! Night Lands is an absolute delight (for the most part; some of the beats or structural ideas just didn’t sit with me as well as they could’ve) – in its prime, it really does float like a butterfly and sting like a bee. Even in electronic music, the Smart brothers know where to soar and where they need to simply let it glide for a while. Their humility and restraint, along with their undeniable musicianship of course, give these eleven tracks a character that stands out from your regular old electronica in a way that’s both surprising and deeply gratifying. Forget intelligent dance music – it’s time for Smart dance music.