Under Stars is the third album from John Mitchell project Lonely Robot, diversifying from his impressive career as guitarist, producer and vocalist with bands such as It Bites, Frost*, Arena and Kino. Using the ‘Astronaut’ central character as an observer, Mitchell has previously released finely crafted albums of accessible rock songs with a progressive edge in Please Come Home and The Big Dream. This latest release is very much in tune with those albums and draws the theme to a conclusion. Under Stars has a particular focus on the millennial generation, and the conversely isolating and disconnecting effect that being constantly connected to social media and technology is having upon their perceptions and understanding of the world around them.
Once again John Mitchell has teamed up with renowned drummer Craig Blundell, who has previously drummed with Mitchell in Frost* and Lonely Robot, alongside his duties with Steven Wilson and his forthcoming tours with Steve Hackett. Steve Vantsis of the excellent Lonely Robot live band, and long-time collaborator with Fish, contributes bass guitar on five of the tracks. However, the mainman and star of this project is definitely Mitchell himself. Alongside his impressive and assured vocals, he performs the great majority of other instruments, including guitars, keyboards and some of the bass. Whilst his guitar skills are well known and understandably to the fore in his projects, it is notable on Under Stars that he has reined back on guitar and has turned more towards creating textures and soundscapes with keyboards and programming.
In common with the two previous Lonely Robot outings, there is a very real sense of the cinematic on Under Stars, particularly on the atmospheric introductory track Terminal Earth, which could easily be a theme tune to a Sci-fi film, reminiscent of a Vangelis soundtrack. This leads in to the vocoder start of Ancient Ascendant, which very soon plunges us right back into a recognizable musical universe with walls of rock characterised by Mitchell’s distinctive Lonely Robot guitar sound and crunching drums from Blundell. These passages characteristically alternate with more restrained vocal sections, which then return to the catchy crunching chorus lines. We are definitely back in the orbit of Lonely Robot.
Lonely Robot’s cinematic influences are brought to the fore with the sparkling Icarus, based on the Danny Boyle Sci-fi film Sunshine which featured the space ship ‘Icarus 1’, carrying astronauts to reignite a fading sun. This is a song dominated by synths and keyboards with a simple, straightforward approach which instantly burrows itself into your brain with its catchy hook-filled melody, with little reliance upon guitars. Similarly, Authorship Of Our Lives begins with a distinctive and pretty keyboard line which is repeated through the song, indicating a shift more towards keyboards for this album. This is sparkling, melodic rock of high quality.
More experimentally, The Signal may just be one of the weirdest pieces John Mitchell has written for Lonely Robot, with its electronic heartbeat rhythm and his ethereally filtered voice enunciating peculiar lyrics across an understated cosmic synth backing. It’s the most interesting piece on the album and takes Mitchell in a different direction. When Gravity Fails commences with a chiming, percussive start before blasting into a trademark slab of Lonely Robot rock. An insistent and pulsing section evokes a claustrophobic atmosphere as Mitchell’s lyrics focus on the insidious effects of social media. The song intensifies manically with continuing pulsating rhythms, heightening a sense of insanity and lack of control. It’s a 5-minute gem, brimming with musical ideas and lyrical insights which intelligently and pointedly focus on a troubling facet of modern life.
For anyone fearing that John Mitchell was losing his ‘Guitar Mojo’ with all this keyboard and synth work, relax and listen to the guitar work of The Only Time I Don’t Belong Is Now which ranges from flowing Floydian guitar sweeps over the melody and then erupts as a blazing, fizzing guitar duel with oscillating synths in a gripping middle section. Similarly, Mitchell’s excellent and distinctive guitar work is showcased in the main climax of the album, the remarkable instrumental Inside This Machine. This begins with bleeping, eerie synth effects and vocoder voices before building into a more powerful almost gothic full band section. From this evocative base, Mitchell launches stratospheric and scintillating guitars combined with a fabulous drum and keyboard accompaniment. It’s an outstanding piece of inventive and exciting rock, which then strangely recedes into a peculiar synth/vocoder coda.
Overall, there is a sense of this being a more pensive and reflective album from Lonely Robot, exemplified in the lyrical flow and gentleness of the title track Under Stars, with a sense that the Astronaut wants us to turn away from our screens, turn off our devices and just look out at the splendour and beauty of Space and our World. The Ending concludes the album with a title probably intended to echo the title of Brian Eno’s ethereal An Ending (Ascent) from his classic 1983 Apollo film soundtrack about the Moon landings. The Ending fittingly ends the Lonely Robot trilogy with a melancholic, ethereal voice, first heard on Please Come Home in 2015, gently asking:
“Please Come Home, Lonely Robot, Your Heart is Beautiful, programmed to receive,
We miss you now Lonely Robot, Ever So Beautiful.”
John Mitchell is the ‘Renaissance Man’ of modern progressive rock, involved in a range of bands and projects, but in Lonely Robot he may just have found his most distinctive and notable achievement. He has hinted that whilst the initial Lonely Robot trilogy is now complete we may yet see Lonely Robot take flight again with a focus on more personal perspectives. The very high quality of the songwriting and excellent performance of this latest Lonely Robot incarnation has ensured that many of us will be saying:
“Please Come Home, Lonely Robot…”
01. Terminal Earth (1:56)
02. Ancient Ascendant (5:47)
03. Icarus (5:21)
04. Under Stars (5:16)
05. Authorship Of Our Lives (5:39)
06. The Signal (3:20)
07. The Only Time I Don’t Belong Is Now (5:16)
08. When Gravity Fails (5:03)
09. How Bright Is The Sun? (6:03)
10. Inside This Machine (3:28)
11. An Ending (2:40)
Total Time – 49:41
John Mitchell – Vocals, Guitar, Keyboards, Bass
Craig Blundell – Drums
Steve Vantsis – Bass (2,4,7,8 & 9)
Record Label: InsideOut Music
Country Of Origin: U.K.
Date Of Release: 26th April 2019