Over the last few years, you might have spotted Chris Ryan’s name on the credits of any number of Ireland’s most essential musical releases, in just about any capacity. Producer of work alongside the likes of Just Mustard, Careerist & the rising NewDad, and the beating heart of jazz-punk ensemble Robocobra Quartet – most recently namechecked on The Guardian in the same breath as Slint & Tortoise as an influence on ‘post-genre’ outfit Black Country, New Road.
Last year, under the SORBET pseudonym, he released the Life Variations EP via Bureau B – home of experimental & electronic pioneers like Faust & Cluster – and contributed to all-island compilation A Litany of Failures Vol. III. Not one for frivolity, the conceptual debut EP chronicled the journey from birth to death, probing at the many facets of identity and mortality, as he does, at the microcosmic level, rarely offering easy outs but minor reprieve in a neurotic, yet Zen-like acceptance.
The freedom in imposed newfound solitude saw an exploration of new threads, evident on his recent deep house take on Joshua Burnside’s ‘Under The Concrete‘ : “I found the original musical seed of ‘Under The Concrete’ so infectious – a simple melody in 5/4. I thought it would be cool to create tension by speeding it up a little and underlying a very straight-forward 4/4 beat in a kind of house style, letting the polyrhythms shine through. I danced by myself a lot while working on this through lockdown. If it doesn’t end up in the FIFA soundtrack I’m flipping the monopoly board.”
Just announced today is the June 4 release of his debut album This Was Paradise, via Bureau B, accompanied by new single ‘I Heard His Scythe’. It features one of the finest Irish songwriters of her generation, Maija Sofia, and wonderfully expressive work from upright bass player Jack Kelly and jazz saxophonist Lara Jones, as Ryan addresses the advancing question of mortality, tapping into memory and first times.
True to his M.O., This Was Paradise is set to be cosmic alignment from a career of eking out the truth and energy of collaborative relationships. As Chris tells us: “There are tons of great musicians all over the album, and amazing guest vocalists too. Between woodwind players, a string quartet, engineers, artists, there’s about 20 different people involved in this album. I see the record as an extension of my relationship producing other artists and it has led to me poaching various musicians to be part of the album, and starting some new friendships with people I admired. I was really inspired by albums like Brian Eno’s Another Green World, where you can almost hear the relationship between the musicians and the producer.”
It’s fair to expect a fully-formed vision that draws power from the cranking of tension between seemingly disparate areas of life and art; from music to podcasts; pop and the avant-garde; acoustic and synthetic textures; from the schooled and the emotionally intuited – and the conceptual through-line of his debut LP is no different: “Aesthetically I wanted to hang in the balance of electronic and acoustic composition: between the natural world and humanity’s imprint on it”, and that analogue is one of many inspired by Milton’s Paradise Lost – “We’re stuck between Paradise and Hell, always swinging between the two as a result of how we behave towards each other and our planet. For example, climate change is sliding us towards an almost literal Hell”
With Robocobra Quartet, Ryan has consistently trampled on the notion of genre bounds, conceptually-heavy writing and collaboration, so why a solo project now? “I’ve been producing a lot of other people’s records recently and over the years I’ve learned that with a band like Robocobra Quartet which is made up of musicians who can react improvisationally and have strong musical characters, the best stuff comes from me having ‘seed ideas’ and letting the musicians put more of their own personality into it as opposed to if I was to over-orchestrate anything too early. We’re currently making an album which is probably the most ‘decentralised’ yet which I am really excited about. The flip side is that a solo project like SORBET is the perfect outlet for very specifically ‘composed’ ideas, because these can be communicated to classical musicians via sheet music or communicated directly to a computer or synthesizer! I’m a big believer in the idea of ‘designing for the medium’ and so having Sorbet as an outlet means I don’t try to fit a square peg into a round hole, if that makes sense? It’s almost two completely opposed styles of writing and producing.”
Collaboration on every level is a guiding force on Ryan’s practice, and despite the challenges of the last 12 months, he has managed to maintain his singular perspective. “There’s a handful of great records I’ve worked on that should be out this year. Despite some of it not necessarily being my own musical output as an artist or musician, I feel a really strong connection to the music I work on with other people. In a way I see my life as one big swirl of different musical works and they all tie in to each other one way or another.”