The British prog alchemist, John Mitchell, after a few decades on the frontline of modern progressive rock, is proving to be one of the most prolific polymaths of the genre. As a member of such revered prog ensembles as IT BITES, ARENA, FROST*, and his own projects KINO and THE URBANE, he has become a vital contributor to the scene. Since 2015, he has also been operating at the helm of his solo project LONELY ROBOT, through which he has released some of the most vivid and fascinating music of his career to date. The band’s catalog, four albums deep already, is about to grow with the release of their fifth full-length effort, bearing the title, “A Model Life,” due out on August 22nd, 2022, via InsideOut Music. While the outing marks a notable departure from the synth-fuelled futurism of 2020’s “Feelings Are Good,” the songcraft is once again of top-notch quality. The wistful and somewhat sci-fi-tinged observations that characterized the previous offering give way to the present-day anxieties and omens of the post-pandemic world in nothing short of a haunting, honest, and vulnerable manner. The album is by far the most personal and, what with being so prominently guitar-driven, the most hard-hitting LONELY ROBOT effort to date – but it hits with warmth and wit that few can match.
The lead single, “Recalibrating,” does the honors of opening the album by musing on the aftermath of a broken relationship. The realization that there will be no second act to the story is delivered with a punchy prog riffathon that would fit rather nicely somewhere between Steven Wilson‘s solo endeavors of late and the post-Peter–Gabriel-era GENESIS, apart from the obvious; of course, Mitchell‘s signature sound triggers flashbacks of his other band efforts, of which the latest, hauntingly spectacular FROST* album, “Day and Age,” released in 2021, may still be lingering on your mind. The single was released in good time ahead of the album and it really got me stoked about the upcoming full-length. Those few most recent releases under both FROST* and LONELY ROBOT have been consistently and stratospherically so brilliant that there was more than enough reason to be optimistic about this new selection.
In Mitchell‘s own words, “there are lots of weird sounds. At the risk of sounding like Peter Gabriel, there’s a lot of ethnic elements like marimbas and things I haven’t used before.” In fact, the second track, “Digital God Machine,” kicks off with one of those weird-sounding riffs, leading into a sardonic tribute to all the keyboard warriors everywhere, and I cannot help thinking about some of Gabriel‘s finest moments in the past 20-something years. Whether it’s a good thing or not depends on the listener. For me, it works like magic.
As noted above, this album is all about the guitar. However, Mitchell does not indulge in mindless shredding but rather conducts his solos with a bit more melodic and sophisticated approach. The blazing solos on “Species in Transition” and in the coda of “Starlit Stardust” are especially euphoric. It obviously helps quite a bit that the songcraft is so sublime. The riffs punch hard and the next thing you know, the album is tugging remorselessly at your heartstrings with a spirited plateau of melancholy. Even on the ballads, such as title track “Mandalay” and the album closer, “In Memoriam,” Mitchell steers clear of falling into the trap of sounding dull and boring. Then again, I guess it is simply impossible with the gravitas ingrained in his singing voice; he could be singing total gibberish and it would still resonate with exactly the air of the profoundly emotional soundtrack to a restless and uncertain world that this album truly is.
Released as the second single from the outing, “The Island of Misfit Toys,” not only serves as an upbeat tribute for people who don’t fit in, it comes with a chorus that is one of the most persistent earworms in this selection. There was something very Douglas Adams about the previous album, what with the concept of a robot claiming that feelings were good. On this track, the analog of knackered toys with eyes hanging out representing people with no sense of belonging is, once again, straight up from the toolbox of British literary masters of dry wit.
Before hymn-like “In Memoriam” closes the album, “Rain Kings” recounts some childhood trauma with a nursery-rhyme-like keyboard ostinato, to a chilling effect. Yes, this sonic trope has been used in horror films ad nauseam but sometimes it does work wonders and this is one of those occasions. Then, the childhood theme turns maybe a notch darker on “Duty Of Care,” with the lyrics dissecting the plight of the adopted child abandoned by the parents. Yet, in spite of the lyrical themes being rather grim, the mood never gets depressing – not on this track, nor on the album as a whole.
I’ve probably said this way too many times before but I’ll say it again: don’t we just love it when beautiful music tells us terrible things? LONELY ROBOT‘s new studio album feels somewhat comforting, forgiving even, like a hug from a stranger or a warm blanket on a chilly night. Isn’t that just perfect?
Written by Jani Lehtinen
- Digital God Machine
- Species In Transition
- Starlit Stardust
- The Island Of Misfit Toys
- A Model Life
- Rain Kings
- Duty Of Care
- In Memoriam
John Mitchell – vocals, guitars