Flowing with the stream

Sanaya Ardheshir’s latest album eschews dance floor bangs, giving way to playful pop electronica

On Monday, Mumbai-based pianist-turned-producer Sanaya Ardheshir, who performs as Sandunes, previewed her latest album, Downstream, to a small group of people. In a heavily-curtained room, Ardheshir played the album from start to finish, while live MS Paint visuals, flashing Playstation controller icons and warped Wolfenstein playthroughs were projected on the wall behind her. Jivraj Singh’s early digital-era visuals — a work in progress — have a direct nod to the glitch art and 90s cyberpunk aesthetic of the vaporwave movement. They clearly alluded to Downstream’s retreat from the album as a spit-and-polish product in favour of an approach that allowed for risks and creative failures, or as Ardheshir says, “The idea that making music should be fun.”

Forced to start afresh by the loss of two hard disk drives carrying almost all of her recent work, Ardeshir turned the lack of a safety net into an advantage, an opportunity to “play”. But the visuals also had a secondary role, with their transformation of the dance floor into a bedroom studio where the nuts and bolts of music production are allowed to show. This clever negotiation of audience expectations speaks to a larger unease with the pressure of doing gigs in an EDM-obsessed club circuit. “I’m currently in a place where I find myself being very careful about the gigs I’m doing because I genuinely feel too pressured to play music that just isn’t me,” says Ardeshir. “I want to be in more safe spaces where I don’t want to deal with that very demoralising, jarring pressure of EDM expectations.”

This pressure from promoters, audiences, and often even your own management, is something that a lot of Indian producers have to struggle with. It often leads to ugly compromises: beautifully composed music undercut by a jarring, monotonous 120bpm beat, or tracks that should slowly unfurl sped up to feed the hungry dance floor beast.

With Downstream, Ardeshir responds to that pressure not by buckling in, but by doubling down on a downtempo bass-oriented sound that has space to build, grow and breathe. Her subtle, painstakingly-crafted music is the auteur’s response to EDM’s utilitarian digital maximalism. The ten tracks of the album continue to draw their main influences from UK bass, but there are many more hip-hop grooves in the mix, partly due to the time spent with percussionist Jiver (Jivraj Singh), her partner-in-crime in Perfect Timing. There’s attention to detail, but the rawer production avoids her earlier tendency towards navel-gazing compositions that offer no edges for the mind to really latch onto and explore.

Opener ‘Mighty Protonic’ warms up the listener as it gently builds into an expansive, mid-tempo soundscape that shimmers and ripples. ‘Honeytree’ offers up a shuffle-and-skitter rhythm and radar-sweep synths, interspersed with eight-bit samples and wiry, contortionist sub-bass. ‘Closet Jester’ sounds like a track Skream would write while on vacation in Goa, sunlight filtered through the dark, hazy cloud of UK dubstep. Album highlight ‘Jack Blaguar’ is more sinister, with its contemptuous glitch-and-grime beats and ominous throbbing synths just calling out for a Skepta verse. Vaguely ‘uncanny valley’ keys weigh in, laid over a dense bed of needle-stab percussion.

After a strong first half, the record takes a bit of a breather with the lush, gentler swirl of ‘That’s Been Following Me’ and ‘Crystal Pink’, before ‘Indigo Village’ queers the pitch. It kicks off with vocal samples alternately sped up to helium bubble squeaks and slowed down to deep quake rumbling, which give way to a single swaying synth line that anchors the track. Ardeshir adds and removes elements to the mix at will: doppler effect notes, hi-hat beats, squiggly synth samples and sussurating glitches. It’s captivating, but perhaps a tad too long. The tail end of the record is also its most obviously hip-hop influenced, with the chopped-up samples and drum break beats of ‘LBDF’, and ‘Outro’ with its fourth-wall-breaking sample of OML Artist Management Head Tej Brar giving feedback on the record.

If there is one critique to be made of Downstream, it’s that the music, well-crafted as it is, lacks a certain edge, that transgressive quality that gives so much of the best dance music its sense of thrill. At times, it sounds too studied, too deliberate. But that’s a minor quibble for a record that is consistently engaging, often exciting, and most of all, playful. It’s a reminder that if we allow electronica to break away from the tyranny of the dance floor, it can lead to some fantastic, cerebral pop music.

The author is a freelance writer

Sandunes will play at the Budweiser Made Sessions this evening at Bonobo 9 p.m. onwards. Entry is free.

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Printable version | Feb 18, 2020 8:44:44 AM |

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