Album Review: Ibukun Sunday – Mantra

[Spirituals; 2023]

The Four Vedas are the Rigveda, the Yajurveda, the Samaveda, and the Atharvaveda. Originating in ancient India and Hindu’s oldest texts, the Four Vedas are “primordial rhythms of creation” that restore the cosmos “by enlivening and nourishing the forms of creation at their base.” Said to be sacred sounds and texts heard by ancient sages after intense meditation, the Vedas are otherworldly and not of this plain. Lagos-based sound artist/violinist/ambient musician Ibukun Sunday taps into the Vedas as inspiration for Mantra, his new mini-album released on Phantom Limb’s Spiritual imprint.

At his most ethereal, Sunday swirls this inspiration into meditative drones that ask the listener to sit with them. “Contradictory” is a thick, oscillating hum that shifts in frequency across its runtime, ascending upwards from the haze while “Manash” moves indistinctly like an amorphous digital cloud swallowing up its surroundings. “Avaśisyate”, with its flickering and frayed edges (like a modular synth left to decay and play out at its own accord) fittingly echoes Christiaan Virant and Zhang Jian’s work for the FM3 Buddha Machine, a nonspecific, loosely melodic ambient noise to fill the air in a room. The music seems to invite ascension of some sort, to go beyond simply sitting in the sound of the track.

What the music doesn’t do though, is go on nearly long enough. A mini-album in name and nature, many of the tracks on Mantra seem like small sketches for listeners to dabble into; many just seem like one idea or sound allowed to decay and fade naturally. “Compulsory” is heavy with thick air, but just peters out uninterestingly while “Illusion” is a mere passing moment of velvety dark and noir-ish ambience that doesn’t even last a full two minutes. Though punctuated at the start with some Yoruba and Igbo-language dialogue, “Culture of Knowledge” suffers much the same fate, a thick vaporous haze only occasionally simmering lightly before it’s gone. Perhaps Mantra is meant as a stopping point before Sunday’s next venture, but as it is, the record doesn’t allow enough time for the listener to sink into anything nor for anything to develop in a manner that attracts repeated listens. 

It is something of a trait for Sunday to leave the listener wanting. 2021’s five-track The Last Wave (also for the Phantom Limb label) had many small moments that begged for longer to unfurl, but equally had two extended tracks that saw him do just that (and rather wonderfully too, leaning into Robert Rich-like dark drone work). Sunday brings in rich and ripe influence (last year’s The Refuge worked off the theme of the courage that links all refugees, and making music as a refuge), but it doesn’t always come through clearly. Without a little reading, it would be hard to discern the underlying theme linking the seven pieces on Mantra.

Opening track “Purport” then – with its church organ drones building, vibrating, and pulsating around one another – is something of a red herring. It sets a hymnal scene, introduces a pausing calm, and though it could happily go on longer, satisfies well enough with just three minutes of entrancing sound. It feels both natural and astral, despite having a recognisable sound source, and this could be down to its direct reference point (Swami and Hare Krishna founder A. C. Bhaktivedanta’s teaching to “Purport The Complete Whole). Moments like “Purport” feel linked to something bigger, a grander scheme outside the picture of the music which can be felt for those brief few minutes. It’s only a shame that this feeling doesn’t carry forward across Mantra’s all too short runtime.