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Life Variations Brian Coney , October 28th, 2020 09:54

Chris Ryan of Belfast's Robocobra Quartet goes solo in order to meditate on the cosmos with sweeping, mesmerising effect, finds Brian Coney

As drummer-vocalist of Belfast punk jazz collective Robocobra Quartet, a band he formed back in 2013, Chris Ryan is at the heart of a heavily collaborative ensemble. It’s a time-tested M.O. that the musician and producer masterfully deviates from on Life Variations.

Doubling up as his debut solo release in the guise of SORBET, these three tracks originally began as re-workings of the same chord progression that Ryan tried to turn into a song “many times, years apart”. Fast forward to 2020 and, hastened into existence in lockdown, it’s a crystallisation of that aim, and a foray into prismatic pop that blurs the lines between traditional songwriting, sound design, and classical composition.

A meditation on, in his own words, “not just human life, but the life of planets or our environment – and the death and birth of personal identity... of sexuality or gender”, Life Variations sees Ryan realise three deftly explorative variations upon a theme. Vital to these palette-spanning soundworlds is his savvy for magpieing — not least from his own work. While artists as disparate as Laurie Anderson, Dan Deacon and Oneohtrix Point Never make their imprint both musically and conceptually, Ryan fares singularly self-referential by sampling the likes of Brazilian street preachers, as well as from his own vault of the hundreds of recordings he has done with artists over the years.

While opener ‘Birth (My First Day)’ and ‘Living/Dying’, featuring Mark McCambridge of Arborist, prove equally sorcerous, ‘Dying’ (This Year I Died)’ is a shapeshifting centrepiece. Recorded in São Paulo when Ryan was there as the PRS Foundation Musician in Residence last year, it distils the cyclical essence of Life Variations to twelve minutes. Melding scorched synth arps with hypnotic patterns that traverse the flux and form of noise, post-classical and contemporary electronica, it’s a triumph of Technicolour experimentalism.

With a full-length follow-up as SORBET teed up for next year, Life Variations is as much a full-blown samsaric rumination as it is an invitation to experience an artist pushing through indecision to eke out something uniquely sweeping and holistic.