LA-based Sudan Archives’ debut album ‘Athena’ is full of hybrid genres, confidently crafted lyrics, and genuinely exciting melodies. There are no punches pulled and no shortcuts taken, resulting in an unpredictable and captivating listen.
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Sudan Archives stands triumphant and nude, captured in black marble like so many ancient deities, yet bolder, more poised. Where Athena’s namesake, the Greek goddess, would typically hold an instrument of war, Sudan Archives – real name Brittney Denise Parks – instead brandishes a violin. This symbolic sculpture adorns the cover of Athena, and accurately represents a formidable artist.
Listen: ‘Athena’ – Sudan Archives
Released November 2019 via Stones Throw Records, Athena begins with perhaps its daintiest sound, violin played pizzicato. On more by-the-book R’n’B or pop records, this introduction could simply be played on keys, and would not be amiss. The plucking is far more effective, however, and elevates the opening track, Did You Know, as a result. The opening bars are immediately vulnerable in contrast to the ensuing drums. Despite this, as the song progresses you notice the coming and going of the violin, delicate though it is. The deliberate plucking of the strings works in tandem with the increasingly confident vocals; the pizzicato pauses to give the lyrics room to land, and then re-joins as Sudan Archives becomes more assertive. Throughout Athena there are many moments like this. There are shortcuts available that lesser musicians may have taken. Yet the instrumental choices that Sudan Archives has made are not for novelty’s sake, but for the emotional and stylistic benefits of utilising her four-stringed weapon of choice.
Track two, “Confessions,” cuts through an opening mist of dream-like strings to deliver a catchy and punchy number. The sloping violin motif is sure to linger long in the ears, as is one of 2019’s best lyrics:
Watch me frolic through the fields
The painful tinge present in many of the song’s other lyrics, combined with the sliding violin parts, means that “Confessions” feels like a descent into the rest of the album. As the song title suggests, Sudan Archives is candid, feeling at times out of place. “Confessions” is a highly accessible track despite its jaunty tone, so helps to engage the listener whilst also establishing an aural Dutch angle through which to view Athena.
This ethereal, even hallucinogenic quality continues throughout the album. Whispered and warped interludes, such as Black Vivaldi Sonata and Ballet of the Unhatched Twins I pepper the record with captivating clusters of sound and movement.
One of Athena’s greatest successes is its balancing of dark and light, heavy and soft. There are opaque growls and pulses akin to those found in many traditional R’n’B and rap records, which are offset brilliantly by airy strings and unconventional melodies. It is not a case of pitching electric tones against acoustic ones, but more an effective and enthralling demonstration of how to cleverly bridge genres and sounds.
In tandem with a confident mastery of her instruments and beats, Sudan Archives provides lyrics which can be empowering in spite of their circumstances. Athena is emotionally and sexually bold, and thus conveys an unmistakable pomp and power. “Green Eyes” is a case in point. Sudan Archives delivers a refrain in an imperative tone, urging emotional connection instead of overthinking:
Just feel it, don’t fight it, just feel it
Just feel it, don’t fight it, feel it
This swagger runs through much of the latter half of Athena. “Iceland Moss” offers this self-assurance whilst also rejecting expectation, in this case amidst the break-up of a relationship, whilst “Coming Up” saunters along with lofty violins and subterranean electronic beats. In this latter track, Sudan Archives delivers vocal sections through a fuzzy, radio-like effect, evoking a self-recorded quality which adds a raw, confessional tone to an already very strong song. The grouping of these songs together is smart, and hammers home the notion that the artist behind Athena is uncompromising in both instrumentation and lyrics, and is more than deserving of her marble model.
After this self-reflective section of Athena, Sudan Archives pushes her album further still. Another interlude, “House of Open Tuning II,” is the calm before one of the album’s best storms: “Glorious.” Here, Sudan Archives once again exhibits her able grasp of multiple styles, sounds, and genres. It is musical experimentation, but without any negative results. Distorted strings, leading with what could be either a basic Bhangra motif or Celtic folk, or anything in between, are contained by simple drums and a bass-line. Soon, however, the strings run amok. Sudan Archives introduces more bass and more electronic tones, as well as rapper D-Eight; “Glorious” then goes up a gear. On top of the whirling violin riff are 21st Century concerns about employment, providing for one’s family, and a ‘focus on the bottom line’. Through “Glorious,” Sudan Archives demonstrates that there is no need for a clash between times and places, but that fusion is very much her way forward.
Approaching Athena’s conclusion is “Stuck,” a brief segue, and part one of a trilogy about a friend’s unhealthy relationship. Limitless, part two, is one of the strongest vocal performances on Athena, and also one of the most conventional, reminding us that Sudan Archives is capable of conveying emotion and anguish through her voice as well as her instrumentation. Her concern for a friend’s unhappiness is mirrored in the next track, Honey, and yet in a different style. Where Limitless feels like a compassionate, conversational performance with lyrics that read almost like a pre-written list, Honey is uncut – rougher at the edges. There is more space around the vocals in Honey, perhaps suggesting that all has been said, and the artist has done all she can to help her friend.
These three tracks would be capable of standing alone, and yet display the wholeness of Sudan Archives’ messages throughout Athena. After analysing her own experiences and agency, as well as her own love-life, the artist’s attention turns to those around her; Sudan Archives, it appears, is not simply content with empowering herself as the first half of the album suggests, but seeks the same for those she cares about. What good is her strength and independence if she leaves her friends alone in their own unenviable situations?
Indeed, “Pelicans in the Summer,” the closing track, reiterates the self-awareness and development that the artist has undergone across fourteen tracks.
I just want you to remember
I never lied, never lied
Sudan Archives has been, throughout Athena, brutally honest with herself, we the listener, and with her loved ones.
She has laid bare the obstacles to happiness, fulfilment and power. She stands, at the end, as she did at the beginning: triumphant and nude. Athena the goddess, wise and ready for battle, is the perfect fit for Sudan Archives, a musician whose debut album takes exhilarating musical risks, and does not shy away from everyday struggles and anxieties. Enjoyed simply as the catchy result of fusing multiple styles, Athena would be exhilarating enough, but seen as a maestro’s blueprint for feminine maturity, agency, and bravery, Athena is breath-taking.
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? © Stones Throw Records
an album by Sudan Archives