John Mitchell’s first Lonely Robot album, Please Come Home, was a big hit when it was released in 2015. Some reviewers even whispered – out of Steven Wilson’s earshot, obvs – that it might even be better than Hand. Cannot. Erase. Certainly the two works shared some musical and thematic DNA, both dealing with isolation and alienation – in Mitchell’s case, conjuring up the image of a lonely astronaut floating through space, a kind of Major Tom figure strung out in heaven’s high, hitting an all-time low. Both had a sense of the dramatic – Mitchell inspired by the scores to sci-fi movies such as Moon and Contact – and both had an uncanny sense of melody, the ability to conjure up catchy earworms almost at will, to produce anthemic choruses but also wistful tunes floating like smoke on the wind – with tasteful, restrained lead guitar lines serving the songs not the egos.
And it also helped that Mitchell used Wilson’s touring drummer, Craig Blundell (Mitchell having originally recommended Craig for that post after Marco Minnemann left).
So this is Lonely Robot volume two – and fans will not be disappointed. Mitchell – whose previous day job have included fronting It Bites when he is not on guitar duties for Arena, Frost* or Kino – has once again come up with 54 minutes of dramatic, powerful, wistful, sometimes melancholic prog-pop, propelled by Blundell’s muscular drumming, anchored by some soaring Gilmour-ish guitar and vocals that put you in mind of later Peter Gabriel – a bit raspy but full of feeling and a sense of world-weariness.
Even the structure of The Big Dream apes its predecessor. Both begin with a scene-setting opener – in Please Come Home it was Airlock, a bold, dramatic statement of intent. In The Big Dream it’s a more sombre, mysterious Prologue with a voice-over pondering on what it would be like to “sleep, and never wake up”.
Then we have a couple of powerful, dynamic ear-rattlers to get the adrenaline going. Awakenings has an intro that sounds like King Crimson getting into their stride and a slowed-down instrumental section in the middle with some gloriously evocative guitar. Sigma is a similar creation, with a singalong chorus that will lodge in your head.
Then things get a bit more reflective with In Floral Green. Our narrator is back (no idea who he is; I was working off mp3s without the benefit of any sleeve notes) ruminating about the “unconscious state” over a simple, delicate piano phrase. Before long we are into one of those anthemic choruses that Mitchell does so well – simple melodic lines that go through the ears and get you in the pit of your stomach. It’s one of those songs you will want to repeat a few times before moving on to the next track, which is Everglow, the first online stream from the album; I guess in the old days we would call it the single. A heavy guitar riff launches us into another loud, powerful beast driven by Blundell’s drums. Symbolic and False Lights are made of similar stuff – catchy and powerful, like a bit of stripped-down Rush from the 1980s.
But a feeling of deja vu begins to creep in – this is pretty much how Please Come Home strutted its stuff. And both have an eight-minute prog-out near the middle. On The Big Dream it’s the title track, a dramatic, cinematic instrumental with soaring guitar and what sounds like a rocket taking off at the end (or landing – my rocket knowledge is rudimentary!).
Please Come Home wrapped things up with a sparse piano piano ballad – on The Big Dream we get the same, the Epilogue, which fades into the sound of the sea, suggesting the astronaut has found peace in a deckchair on a beach somewhere with a pina colada in hand.
To sum up then: We have here a successful second album, as packed full of melody and drama and great guitar playing as the first. There’s also a sense of greater confidence, leading me to tentatively suggest that this may be an even more accomplished piece of work than its predecessor.
But it also follows the same musical and structural blueprint, with no real surprises in store. Perhaps Mitchell is trying to tell us that life is circular, that everything – including the music we listen to – eventually comes round again, or perhaps Please Come Home was so successful that he is following the old maxim of “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it”. Whatever the reason, he may want to think about getting out of his comfort zone on album No.3 and throwing in a few musical curve-balls. Otherwise, we may start repeating the title of one of the tracks on Please Come Home: Are We Copies?
01. Prologue (Deep Sleep) (2:18)
02. Awakenings (5:18)
03. Sigma (5:08)
04. In Floral Green (5:18)
05. Everglow (5:04)
06. False Lights (5:36)
07. Symbolic (5:09)
08. The Divine Art Of Being (5:40)
09. The Big Dream (8:01)
10. Hello World Goodbye (3:56)
11. Epilogue (Sea Beams) (2:54)
Total Time – 54:22
Craig Blundell – Drums
John Mitchell – Everything Else
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country of Origin: U.K.
Release Date: 28th April 2017