Today, Belfast’s Robocobra Quartet return with the announcement of their highly anticipated new album “Living Isn’t Easy”, their first full length release in four years. The news comes on the heels of their recent double single “Heaven” / “Night”, and the band’s signing to Deptford based label, First Taste Records, who will release the album on 17th June 2022.
“Wellness”, the adrenaline-inducing lead single from the new album, sees the band further expanding on their malleable template merging punk and hardcore influenced bass lines with a jazz-inflected drum section and restrained vamping synths, which occasionally give way to frenetic and cacophonous sax lines. Thematically, the chaotic ear-worm is about how the process of healing sometimes leads us to something even more toxic, with drummer-vocalist Chris W Ryan simply reciting the daily routines of influencers aloud, read from an actual newspaper article. Sometimes truth is stranger than fiction.
Speaking about the single, he says, “There’s a song by The Fall called Dr Buck’s Letter where Mark E Smith reads out an interview by Pete Tong and there’s a beautiful absurdity to it so I thought I should just repeat this article verbatim as it didn’t need any fictionalising at all”.
The single gives a first insight into some of the key themes that are running throughout the new album. Ryan says that album “is all about aspiration – the things we aspire to and the things we are told to aspire to: work, success, family, health and wealth.”
Loosely based around one central character negotiating the absurdity of modern life, the record glimpses into childhood trauma; the mundanity of office work; the mania of corporate culture; sexual identity and the cult of wellness. Songs touch on topics such as looking to become a homeowner amidst an Irish housing crisis; the desire to have children despite the planet’s bloating population; and the exploration of sexuality in a world of binaries. Inspired by the mania of late capitalism, the recent singles “Heaven” and “Wellness” echo the characters of Falling Down (1993) and American Psycho (2000) drudging through corporate life with the songs’ protagonist reaching psychotic break as each track builds to a boil of cult-driven chaos.
Produced by Ryan (whose production credits also include Just Mustard, NewDad, Junk Drawer and many other up-and-coming artists out of Ireland), the recording sessions were laid out with specific intentions: All of the vocals on the album were recorded in one sitting in order to give a sense of the same perspective and tone from the narrator across the album, with his voice becoming increasingly worn and exhausted by the time the album closer “Night” comes around.
From the post-Brexit purgatory of Northern Ireland, Robocobra Quartet are also trying to pick out some truth amongst the fiction. Plant “(The Succulent Blues)” holds a mirror to the darkness of suicide, a subject too commonly discussed amongst friends (Northern Ireland being grimly crowned the UK & Ireland’s suicide capital in recent years). Speaking on the track Ryan says, “There’s a great 70s Irish pop song written by Gilbert O Sullivan called “Alone Again (Naturally)” that hints at sorrow with a uniquely Irish sense of dark humour. It made me think about how we deal as individuals with the epidemic of suicide in Northern Ireland, with so many us having had people close to us take their lives. The track Plant (The Succulent Blues) reflects on death but tries to linger & rest on the beauty of life and its capacity for happiness.”
Elsewhere, “Chromo Sud,” the album’s 9 minute epic centrepiece about housing turns the page to joy as the band lets their jazz flag fly with screaming saxophone, encircled by breakbeats and synth bass. “We’re through the worst of it now” yells Ryan in a slither of positivity amongst the gloom. “We originally wrote the instrumental as part of an improvised performance at the Belfast Film Festival live scoring the 1968 experimental film called Chromo Sud. The name stuck and it became a Robocobra song proper. This is the one where we let the jazz hang out,” says Ryan.
The band’s hometown of Belfast is also central to the band and the new album. The city has seen glimpses of the spotlight in the past year, with the local art group Array Collective winning the Turner Prize and Kenneth Branagh Oscar-nominated film Belfast (2021) in the headlines. The city’s historically low rent (due to its assumed danger by outsiders) has allowed artists like Robocobra Quartet to flourish and hone their craft for years without worrying about broad appeal or commercial interest, instead designing a singular style that is unique and borne of interests across punk rock, jazz, avant-garde and modern pop.
The unique placement of Northern Ireland as a kind of quasi-European post-brexit loophole means that Irish and British pop culture both influence the band’s work, with various band members growing up with Irish, British and European backgrounds.
Having released two full-length studio albums to date, the new material finds the band revered as cult favourites. Their musical freedom and proclivity for improvisation often results in Robocobra Quartet being spoken about in the same breath as jazz and experimental music but their background is in punk rock and indie rock just as much as the avant-garde. They simply deal with what they have at their disposal – a collective of six members of wildly different musical backgrounds swapping in and out to make a touring quartet, which has taken them across Europe to Montreux Jazz Festival, Latitude Festival, and as far as Inversia Festival in the polar north of Russia. All while receiving acclaim from the likes of The Quietus, The Line Of Best Fit, Prog, and BBC Radio 6, seeing comparisons to the likes of Fugazi, BadBadNotGood, Tortoise, Black Midi, Black Country, New Road, and Squid.
Improvisation and experimentation is at the core of Robocobra Quartet’s DNA, whether it be in the fluidity of their line-up or in their unique records which flirt with choral groups and string sections – almost intentionally at odds with their ostensible roots as a post-punk band.
For those who have yet to hear them, the new album will serve as a perfect introduction to the complex world of Robocobra Quartet – a band serious about their music but humorous in their approach, including members with no musical training alongside members with music conservatoire pedigree. The result is a collective of musicians inspired by Stravinsky and Black Flag in equal measures. On stage, the band are protons and electrons circling Ryan; meticulous arrangements and on-the-spot improvisations hang on every word. These words and rhythms are what propel the music of Robocobra Quartet forward and concoct a sound that is groove-driven but cerebral too.
“Living Isn’t Easy” is out 17 June 2022 on First Taste Records on LP/CD/DL – Pre-order HERE