Robocobra Quartet

Music For All Occasions

With fourteen interchangeable members Robocobra Quartet breach convention not simply in the nominal sense. Since forming in Belfast’s Sonic Arts Research Centre back in 2014, their cunning marriage of jazz, spoken word, punk and avant-garde noise has thrown the cat amongst sleepier circles at home, setting them apart as an act intent on mining meaning from hard-won scope and purview. Led by drummer, vocalist and de facto frontman Chris Ryan, their debut album, Music For All Occasions, is a carefully-crafted release that presents one’s thinly-veiled personal disquiet as a single prism beam bounding from the much bigger picture.

Almost symphonic in its poise and flow, Music For All Occasions is a record where even small details are rendered with precision – almost nothing, it seems, is kneejerk; the tangents feel intended. With slick sax and iterative webs of bass and drums wedding to form a strong core throughout, Ryan’s words offer up a narrative that blurs musing doubt, flickers of dead conversation and the dregs of self-conscious recall in masterful fashion. Take opener and lead single ‘Correct’, a track touching on the irreducible triviality of personal endeavor or ‘You’ll Shrug’, an early highlight bowing out in an impressionistic cloud of Mingusesque noise: in much the same way Julia Holter re-frames Woolf’s “incessant shower of innumerable atoms” Ryan’s self-referential scattergraph takes the choking insignificance of even the most throwaway encounter and – just as Enablers’ Pete Simonelli fixates over the madness of nameless characters of the night – sets it all free through song.

Musically, it’s controlled experimentation and intuitive economy that underpins the orchestrated praxis: from flurrying jolts of brass that run the gamut from wispy to rapt and bobbing rhythms that unfurl beyond the realm of second-guessing to metrical bass lines that rarely take the easy way out, these nine compositions triumph as a whole by resisting the descent into a blustering miasma of sound each time. From two-minute anti-mantra ‘Find X’ (“find yourself saying the same thing…”) to ‘Nice Life’, a peak about not being able to get out of bed in the morning (“Chris won’t be seeing anyone today, he feels it’s better this way”) Ryan commands more by way of hinting ciphers than outright obscurism, centered above a sound that only imposes itself when due. Composure here is tantamount to cutting loose.

But it’s closer ‘Album of the Year’ that sees the modus operandi of the self-released Music For All Occasions as a record – rather than Robocobra Quartet as a live proposition – hit home. Much like Donny McCaslin Quartet’s work on the more downcast moments on Bowie’s Blackstar, its subdued meditation on “that” feeling of disassociation at the tail-end of the year is imbued with a taut musicality – quivering clarinet, chromatic bass inversions, extended piano chords – that knows the inherent value in quietude and pace.

With Ryan audibly crying on the track, the unbearable shiteness of being is laid bare: where the severity of the unsaid thing holds its own elsewhere, a hard dose of the realest of real shit does wonders here.

Whilst it feels much more like a checkpoint rather than a breathless culmination of the band’s burgeoning trajectory over the last three years, the ambition of Music For All Occasions is concurrently – and fully – realised in its vision and restraint. A record that neither overstays its welcome nor veers into wandering overdulgence, it stands up as the Irish album of 2016, at the very least. Here’s to more.

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