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Belfast's jazz agitators Robocobra Quartet hit career-best on the explosive Living Isn't Easy

"Living Isn't Easy"

Release date: 16 June 2022
8/10
Living Isnt Easy Robocobra
16 June 2022, 12:42 Written by Kitty Richardson
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Polite jazz has always seemed a bit pointless to me.

The world's hotel lobbies may administer a piped-in dose of lounge to maintain the ambience. Fans might still flock to starched, strictly-schooled orchestras playing the works of Coltrane or Mingus, however neutered. But angry, emotional jazz seems to make so much more sense; an expression of a genre built on the shoulders of revolutionaries, and defiant in its disregard of musical convention.

Make no mistake, Belfast’s Robocobra Quartet are angry (and also a bit sad). As a channel for drummer and bandleader Chris W Ryan’s personal and political rage, their brand of jazz ranges from snarky funk to post-punk polemic, with Ryan’s spoken word at its centre. With a spate of fantastic singles preceding it, one hopes that Living Isn’t Easy – the band’s third album – will be the one to break them. It is, after all, their most beguiling yet: an exercise in tension punctuated by ecstatic highs and the occasional bit of deft humour.

Most listeners will likely find their way into the album through track two, “Wellness”, one of the band’s most playlisted singles. And for good reason: Ryan’s plagiarism of an influencer’s morning routine, lifted verbatim from a newspaper article, provides some excellent lyrical material. As the protagonist’s claims about nootropics and salt lamps get more and more ridiculous (“After I've had my coffee, I fill out a spreadsheet on my computer with how well I've slept and my urine PH.”), a cute slice of funk devolves into screeching saxophone and growling guitars – a juxtaposition that highlights the dystopian vibe of our late capitalist obsession with health.

“Heaven”, too, gets its teeth in early. Over a brain-snagging saxophone hook, Ryan assumes the role of the new money man, at first prideful about his acquired wealth and picture-perfect family. As Ryan spits out the punchline – “I lost it on stocks!” – the band begin a QOTSA-esque crescendo anchored by Nathan Rodgers’ driving bass, and our weary antihero chokes out a few pleas to God. It’s in this kind of cinematic storytelling where Robocobra really come into their own; Ryan’s modern-day tragedies are scored by a band who can both write a killer hook and slap you hard in your chest cavity.

There’s less irreverant fare here, though. “Labyrinth” is a poignant ode to being stuck in an unforgiving system. “Chromo Sud”, a personal rumination on ‘property is theft’, tips from a languid blues into blissed-out post-rock, a brief few bars of breaks showcasing Ryan’s talent as a drummer. Elsewhere, “Plant (The Succulent Blues)” opens with the frighteningly relatable line “Was depressed / Got a plant”. A kind of allegory for failed self-care, the track is fractured by the occasional, gleeful bar of metal, which blooms into an organ-heavy groove. These tracks have flickers of hope amongst the darkness, but, whether in the lyrics or in the arrangement, they are made to feel fragile.

And so, Living Isn’t Easy embodies its name without reserve. In the wrong hands, this brand of deeply political fusion could come across overwrought or academic. But Robocobra have retained the pop nous, carefully-controlled aggression and knowing sense of humour that made their previous efforts so enjoyable. Although the post-punk revival may be waning, one hopes it’ll stick around long enough for these guys to get the attention they so evidently deserve.

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