IT WAS just a fortnight ago that Chris W Ryan, the Irish producer and veteran of many bands on the Emerald Isle scene, unveiled the palate-cleanser of his new project, SORBET; and he did that with the widescreen, theatrical sweep of “I Heard His Scythe”, featuring the Einar-like declamatory tones of Chris entwined with Galway folk artist Maija Sofia – a song we described as “looking death in the eye (socket) and grinning with optimistic nihilism. Double bass lends heft and warmth, electronica chills with cold, singing tonality; our Chris-as-narrator insouciant in the face of it all in the way Baxter Dury is on “Miami”, sans the cool disco funk.
“Maija carries that dark lyrical refrain: “I heard his scythe whoosh past my ear / It gets a little louder every year”.
And there’s the concept sitting behind SORBET’s forthcoming album, This Was Paradise: the between-place of our 21st-century life.
Chris says of the inspiration behind the song: “‘I Heard His Scythe’ was inspired by a guy I had been seeing for a while who just stopped answering my messages one day and seemed to disappear.
“I had this sense for a few weeks that I would eventually run into him; it’s an uneasy feeling. It made me think about all the things we avoid and that avoid us, leading to the album’s themes of the impending reaper’s scythe of climate change.
“The video borrows from the paranoia of 1970s film and feels like some weird cross between a thriller and a hip-hop video.”
And you can hear that unease in Chris’s lyrics: “Sometimes you touch the electric fence, find out what you don’t like / Know for next time …. if there is a next time.”
The song comes now with suitably restless, unnerved, monochrome visuals from Rian Lennon, who says: “The video was initially inspired by the surreal landscapes of artist Giorgio di Chirico. We wanted to show Belfast from an angle it isn’t usually seen, show it in a nightmarish light that fit the paranoia of the song’s lyrics.
“We also had to pick something that could be shot during lockdown, so the idea of someone being watched through various windows seemed appropriate.
“Thomas, the dp [director of photography], suggested 1970’s thriller The Conversation as a reference and we started to build the visual language from there. The silhouette lighting was a late addition that helped tie the paranoia of the lyrics into the visual style and gave the whole thing a more ominous energy.
“It really helped bring out the cinematic quality that was already in the song. Joe – our actor – recorded over 15,000 steps on his Fitbit from all the running around we made him do. It was a good team effort.”
With its genesis in producer-led greats of the past, and citing Eno’s Another Green World as an example, Chris set to work once he conceived of the SORBET project.
“I love the way you can hear the playful interaction between friends on an album like that – there are none of the constraints or rules that you might have when you’re trying to represent the sound of a live band or artist,” he says.
“It’s all the same to me: producing beats, writing lyrics, drawing up sheet music for classical musicians, EQing snare drums – I’m just using everything I can to create something exciting to listen to.”
So he called on friends and associates to flesh out the project and let it spiral out freely in a multitude of directions; including not just Maija, but Mark McCambridge, of the quietly and brilliantly pastoral Arborist, and Mícheál Keating, of West Limerick’s Bleeding Heart Pigeons – as well as musicians brought in from the jazz and classical worlds.
“There are so many great musicians on this record, some of which I’ve been friends with years and others that I’ve been admiring for a while and itching to work with like jazz saxophonist Lara Jones and upright bass player Jack Kelly,” Chris comments. Both Lara and Jack feature to good effect on “I Heard His Scythe”.
“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,” says Chris.
The album’s littered with references to Milton’s epic poem “Paradise Lost”, which opens with Adam being expelled from the Garden of Eden for “Man’s first disobedience and the fruit of that forbidden tree.”
The duality of paradise and hell is represented in the binary use of electronic and acoustic instruments, especially in the case of album closer “Hell” – a recording split right down the middle between a string quartet and four synthesisers.
“Aesthetically I wanted to hang in the balance of electronic and acoustic composition: between the natural world and humanity’s imprint on it,” Chris concludes.
SORBET’s album, This Was Paradise, will be released by Bureau B digitally, on CD and on vinyl on June 4th; it’s available for pre-order here.