Questions by Patrick McAfee
Photos courtesy: John Mitchell
DPRP: John, thanks for taking the time to answer a few questions, and allow me to start by saying that The Big Dream is absolutely brilliant. It does a great job of showcasing your ability to write and perform adventurous, yet accessible music that embraces the power of a great melody and a memorable chorus. There also, at times, seems to be more of a harder rock element to the album. Was there intent to move things in that direction?
John M: Thank you for the kind words. I'm glad you like the album. There was no actual conscious decision to make the album heavy or with detuned guitars. The music I listen to when I'm not producing, tends to be the polar oppsoite of whatever I'm producing at the time. I gravitate towards quiet classical music and film soundtracks. That said, I grew up as a kid listening to a lot of heavy metal and more recently have been listening to a lot of Rammstein. I like Rammstein. I like the directness of their music coupled with the cartoonish nature of their live show. I think Lonely Robot is a pretty straight ahead mash-up of my love of both things.
The title track of The Big Dream is a bit of a change of pace for you, in that it is a long-form instrumental. It is brooding, cinematic and really fantastic. With your strong skills as a multi instrumentalist and guitarist, have you ever considered making a completely instrumental album?
I have thought about doing something along those lines, yes. Although I hasten to add that my idea of an instrumental album would not be some guitar-based instrumental album, whereby all the music is basically a backing track designed for me to play endless solos over. I hate those things, they (on the whole) serve no purpose and are incredibly dull. I think very few people carry it off effectively, and I reckon that only Ronny Jordan (RIP), Jeff Beck and Joe Satriani have got the musical depth to carry it off. If I were to do an instrumental album, it would be more along the lines of a film soundtrack to an imaginary film that doesn't exist.
You included a great cover of Take Me Home on your EP (The Nostalgia Factory ) last year, and The Divine Art of Being from the new album has somewhat of a respectful Phil Collins sound to it in my opinion. Are you a fan of his work?
You're absolutely right. That song is intended as a nod to Phil Collins. I have massive respect for the guy as a songwriter. I know he was an easy target in the 90s, and everyone took the piss a bit, but what it all comes down to is the ability to convert emotion in a direct fashion, and Phil is the absolute master of that. Let's also not forget that Phil himself also (in my opinion) paid a similar kind of tribute to Peter Gabriel when he wrote the song Both Sides, which sounds more than a little bit like Talk To Me from Peter's Up album, so I guess I'm not the only one paying tribute here!
Having had the opportunity to become a member of one of the favorite bands of your youth (It Bites), are there other classic artists that you would love to work with as a musician and/or a producer?
I'd love to work with Neil Hannon from The Divine Comedy. I think his is an incredible talent. The way he manages to switch effortlessly between satire and romance, I find utterly beguiling. He seems like a highly intelligent chap, and from what I understand a lovely person to boot. My mate Johnny Haskett does Neil's live front-of-house sounds, and he says he's the coolest bloke he's ever worked with. I'd like the opportunity myself!
With two Lonely Robot albums to perform songs from, do you foresee doing more live shows for this album, and is there a chance for any concerts outside of Europe?
To be honest, I've reached an age where I'm not fussed about performing live any more. It's quite exciting when you're in your 20s, but I'm 43 now and the appeal has somewhat diminished. I'd rather stay at home and do the gardening; it's a lot less stressful. I might do the odd gig from time to time, but the potential risk of losing money doing live shows, is greatly outweighed by the good sense not to leave myself open to that eventuality.
Your music has elements that would appeal to a wider audience than modern progressive rock acts are generally able to acquire. I truly think that if there was more of an outlet on radio and such, for an album like The Big Dream, it would be huge. With that in mind, what do you see as the current state of the progressive rock or rock music scenes, and do you see a day ahead where rock music of this type could rule the charts and be more mainstream again?
I don't really think about such things. Making music should ostensibly be its own reward. Any time in the past that I have caught myself thinking about popularity or wanting to reach X amount of people, is around the same time that I was feeling disappointed and disenfranchised with my own career. I have enjoyed making the two Lonely Robot albums. I like to think I did a good job in doing so. The moment I hand them over to the label, is the moment I stop worrying about what happens next. It's not really my responsibility from that moment on. There are far too many variables and factors involved in the enigma of being a success within music. The moment you start pandering to that directive, is the moment you're not being true to yourself, and I honestly believe people can see through that. Take Steven Wilson for example. He stuck to his guns for many many years, and he's now the most popular musician in this genre, I don't however think he needed to spend too much time worrying about writing music, to be successful.
On the heels of an excellent, newly released album, it may seem a bit presumptuous to ask what is next. That said, with your own record label (White Star Records) and considering your prolific recording history, is there anything that fans can begin to look forward to?
Well I've almost finished producing Kim Seviour's debut album. We have written the album together and I'm very proud of it indeed and I like to think it has my own particular stamp on it. If you like what I do, there's a good chance you'll like this album too.
Prologue (Deep Sleep) (2:19), Awakenings (5:18), Sigma (5:08), In Floral Green (5:18), Everglow (5:04), False Lights (5:36), Symbolic (5:09), The Divine Art Of Being (5:41), The Big Dream (8:02), Hello World Goodbye (3:57), Epilogue (Sea Beams) (2:54)
Patrick McAfee's Review
I sometimes ponder on the idea of how popular certain, modern-day prog performers would have been back in the era when progressive rock was much more commercially viable. Back in the day when prog related bands like Yes, ELP and Genesis were filling up stadiums, rather than small theatres and clubs. John Mitchell is one such artist that fits into this scenario for me. He is an extremely talented musician, songwriter and producer who has a gift for making adventurous music that is also commercially fetching. Be it in bands like It Bites and Frost or in his solo platform, Lonely Robot, John has created a solid discography, worthy of a huge audience.
The Big Dream is the second Lonely Robot album, coming two years after the debut release, Please Come Home. Again focusing on Mitchell's Astronaut character, the publicity states that it isn't a concept album. However in many ways, it does feel like one, mainly due to some continuing themes and its overall progressive rock feel. The album expertly melds a melodic pop-rock feel, with some very complex musical moments. A solo project in the truest sense, with John expertly handling all of the instrumentation minus the drums. His Frost bandmate, Craig Blundell expertly covers in that area. There are also some sublime moments where John is joined vocally by Bonita McKinney.
After the short Prologue (Deep Sleep), the album really kicks into gear with the excellent rocker, Awakenings. With a bit of a Steven Wilson feel, and containing one of the best guitar solos I have heard from Mitchell, this is a great start to the proceedings. Sigma is another driving rock song that is certainly deserving of radio play, and containing a chorus that you will be humming immediately. In Floral Green showcases his ability to write a spacious and sweeping ballad. In fact, some of the strongest moments on the album (The Divine Art of Being and Hello World Goodbye) fall into this category; the former sounding like a tribute of sorts to Phil Collins.
For the most part though, The Big Dream is a progressive "ROCK" release and it excels in its heavier moments. False Lights, Everglow, Symbolic and the instrumental title track (which is stunning) are all highlights. As great a multi-instrumentalist and singer that John is, he shines most brightly here as a guitarist. He is truly one of the best in the business, a fact that is proven brilliantly throughout this album.
I remember reading an interview that John gave before the release of Please Come Home, where he seemed unsure if people would be interested in Lonely Robot. The positive response to that album should have squashed any concerns that he had, and this follow up will certainly heighten the stature of his project even further.
The Big Dreamis an incredibly entertaining listen from beginning to end. In terms of writing and performing music that provides the listener with incredible musicianship, as well as infectious melodies and choruses, very few can match John Mitchell. This is my favourite release of 2017 thus far!
Dario Albrecht's Review
John Mitchell, guitar hero and natural vocal master, known for his work with Arena, It Bites and Frost, is back with his second solo effort under the Lonely Robot moniker. Please Come Home from 2015 was a huge and immediate hit in the book of this particular little writer. It even managed to fill the void left by the inimitable It Bites who disappeared again in the wake of 2012's Map of the Past, an album chock-full of heartbreaking nostalgia, and a lot of its success was by courtesy of the 'new' frontman John Mitchell. With Lonely Robot, Mr. Mitchell updated his sound, arriving at a somewhat-timeless halfway between the (positively) dusty feel with It Bites and the modern, electronic flourishes of he keeps exploring with Frost.
Naturally, I was intrigued and excited at the prospect of a follow up to Please Come Home, curious as to whether John Mitchell would be able to pull-off another album studded with hits upon hits. To spare you the surprise: yes, he has done it! This is perhaps not as immediate as his first effort, as I only got hooked on it after the fifth spin or so, but by now it is safe to say that he has definitely succeeded in making his sophomore album equally brimming with quality.
Written, produced and performed entirely by the master himself, except the drum parts that are again expertly handled by none other than Craig Blundell (Steven Wilson Band, Frost*), The Big Dream is yet another testament to this man's seemingly endless talents.
After a short intro, the album starts with a string of four veritable single hits, right out of the songbook. Awakenings and Sigma provide a similar straight-forward feel, with heavy rocking verses and soaring chorus hook-lines. They are pretty much the blueprint of a perfect prog rock hit single, in the same way as God vs. Man from Please Come Home. Craig Blundell's energetic drumming provides the right, energetic energy and the guitar solo in Awakenings will put all the shredders of this world to shame once more. This man puts more feeling into each and every single note than many other guitarists in their entire life. His vocals are pure emotion as well, though somewhat more raw and unpolished, highlighted in the calmer tracks, like the pastoral and dreamy In Floral Green, which is reminiscent of John Mitchell's time with It Bites and their final opus Map of the Past.
Everglow (not to be confused with the Coldplay song of the same name) is another take on that hit single blueprint I mentioned earlier. But before anybody gets the impression the songwriting is getting dull or repetitive, I have to stress the fact that John Mitchell and his partner-in-crime Craig Blundell are clever enough not to fall into this trap. Every one of the songs that is built upon this pattern, has its own distinctive character, and there are a plethora of distinguishing ideas within that formula on display.
In the second half of The Big Dream, John Mitchell's love for (sci-fi) soundtracks and soundscapes is shining through more and more, as the song structures seem to dissolve, climaxing in the eight-minute instrumental title track. But that doesn't mean the quality is dissolving too, on the contrary. False Lights builds upon a groovy bass line, surging to a monumental riff. Spacy vocal effects are juxtaposed with Mitchell's naturally rough timbre in the two-part verse of Symbolic (not to be confused with the Death album of the same name).
The slow build-up of The Divine Art Of Being puts the spotlight on Mitchell's heartfelt vocals once more, before the soundscapes and instruments take to the fore in The Big Dream. And staying true to his reputation, even an eight minute instrumental from John Mitchell never gets wanky. Instead big arcs of melody build upon one another, permeated by a serene, transcendental feeling.
Closing the album in true Mitchell fashion, we are treated to a short, calm, vocal-driven song (Hello World Goodbye), with one last chance to indulge in his beautiful guitar sound before being released from The Big Dream by an epilogue of a lonely piano melody. This is a magnificent achievement of an album, and a heavy contender for album of the year in the prog rock section.
Kevin Heckeler's Review
I was immediately into this album. From the mysterious opening, to the equally quirky and catchy hooks of the tracks that followed, the best traits of today's progressive rock are embedded in the DNA of Lonely Robot's latest opus The Big Dream. Some music takes a while for me to get acquainted. The Big Dream greeted me like a long-lost friend, arms wide open, telling tales of where they've been and making plans for where they might yet go. In this warm embrace of the familiar, I found comfort in the trials and tribulations, as shared in their songs.
Frontman and multi-instrumentalist John Mitchell is rejoined by Craig Blundell (Frost, Steven Wilson) on drums. I'm very familiar with Mitchell's work in Frost (Falling Satellites is one of my favourites from 2016), and saw Craig Blundell perform with Steven Wilson; as well as enjoying his drumming on the first Lonely Robot album. Although not listed in the pre-release band credits, it appears Kim Seviour has returned to add stellar backing vocals on one of the bonus tracks.
The first Lonely Robot album is very enjoyable, but on a whole it's not music I will come back to very often. Any minor shortcomings on the first release are absent here. Both albums feature great sections of music, performances, lyrics, and singing. On The Big Dream the improvements are in the details. Other than the longer jams, during the mostly instrumental title track, the songwriting is concise. Every note feels etched with intent and clarity. The Big Dream leaves the impression that a lot of time and inspiration was expended on these songs.
Awakenings, Sigma, Everglow, and Symbolic are melodic monsters. Superb guitar solos, accomplished frantic drumming, polished bass playing, and exquisite keyboards demand instant inclusion to the pop-prog canon. The ethereal Floral Green is a masterful and understated track, standing out among the other excellent songs. Craig Blundell nails it on Sigma and False Lights, carrying entire sections with exceptional, energetic drumming. John Mitchell's Peter Gabriel-esque and often haunting vocals soar on The Divine Art of Being.
So that no prog listener feels short changed, the title track erupts into a delectable stylistic orgy of sci fi and classic rock fusion, wrapped in all the goodness of an unrestrained, modern progressive package.
Despite my involvement with a music review page, I would hardly call myself a wordsmith (or purist prog fan). Even though I knew everything I loved about each of these songs, the awareness of every note that moved me, and having spent nearly two solid weeks filling my ears with this music, it still took me three different attempts at writing this review, to find these scant "right words." Hearing is believing. And with that, this is the only perfect score I've given in my now-36 reviews for DPRP.