Round Table Review
Lonely Robot — Feelings Are Good
Utilising the pseudonym Lonely Robot, John Mitchell has been quite prolific during the last few years. Feelings Are Good is the fourth release in five years under this moniker and proves to be a welcome change of pace in several ways.
Moving on from the astronaut and science fiction themes, the lyrical approach is more personal and therefore relatable this time. Also, the heavier rock elements have been lessened in favour of a style that is more akin to Mitchell's work with It Bites and Kino.
The influence of his 80s musical upbringing is recognisable throughout the album. Tracks such as Into The Lo-Fi, Life Is A Sine Wave and Armour For My Heart feel modern, but display a jaunty quality that elicits a trace of nostalgia. There is a bit more emphasis on keyboards, but Mitchell also continues to cement his standing as one of the best guitarists in the prog and rock genres. Drums are again supplied by the fantastic Craig Blundell, who plays a vital part in the band's sound.
The material is accessible, and flawlessly mixes rock, pop and prog. Spiders and Army Of One are two great examples of this and provide the hard rock kick that no Lonely Robot album should be without. At the other end of the musical spectrum, ballads are a speciality of Mitchell's, and both Crystalline and The Silent Life are superb.
Though not a concept album in the proper sense of the word, there is a connecting emotional theme that helps it to feel like one. The book-ending of the title track with the stunning Grief Is The Price Of Love is particularly eloquent.
Even with the noted alterations considered, this is very much a Lonely Robot album. Mitchell has struck upon an overall style, and fans of his previous work will likely celebrate this one as well. Loaded with great songs and excellent performances, Feelings Are Good is another essential Lonely Robot release.
When Lonely Robot released their third album Under Stars in 2019, the final song, An Ending, left little doubt that it marked the conclusion of the story of the lonely robot, and brought an end to what is now called the "Astronaut Trilogy". While Under Stars completed the trilogy on a high note, it felt like it could be the end of the Lonely Robot project as a whole. Fortunately, just a year later, Lonely Robot has returned with Feelings Are Good, an album set back on the pale blue dot, the planet Earth.
For those familiar with the previous Lonely Robot albums, let me quickly answer the two questions that are probably on your mind. Is this album a worthy successor to the Astronaut Trilogy? Yes, absolutely. Does the absence of the familiar space theme detract from the charm of the new album? Only very slightly, to the extent that the Astronaut Trilogy offered, at least on the surface, a bit of playful escapism from terrestrial concerns.
Feelings Are Good explores similar themes of isolation, loneliness, and mortality, but in a much more personal way that hits (forgive me) closer to home. Spoiler alert: feelings aren't ALL good.
Now that existing fans are off listening to samples and making purchases, I'll try my best to describe Lonely Robot.
While the project's sound is distinctive and immediately recognisable, it's not easy to describe. Lonely Robot is the brainchild of John Mitchell, the guitarist for Arena and Frost, the singer/guitarist for Kino and the revamped It Bites, a very active producer and engineer, and a guy who somehow finds time to run a very active recording studio in Berkshire, England.
On Lonely Robot, Mitchell sings and plays guitar, bass, and keyboards. Previous albums have had guest singers including Steve Hogarth (Marillion), Heather Findley, and Kim Seviour, but this album is solely Mitchell on vocals, which enhances the feeling that it is a more personal statement. Mitchell's singing has a husky quality, a bit like Peter Gabriel. As fans of Arena are aware, he's a stunning lead guitar player, and some of the best Lonely Robot songs drift off into guitar solos that are like fluid, miniature compositions.
Drums are played, as usual, by Craig Blundell, whom you may have heard with Frost, Steven Wilson, or Steve Hackett's Genesis Revisited. Blundell's drum style, while growing more nuanced over time, is very aggressive, perhaps most similar to Ed Warby's playing in Ayreon. I wouldn't hazard to guess how many drum heads Blundell must break each year, but it's got to be a lot.
I won't go too much into the individual songs on Feelings Are Good, because one of the best things about Lonely Robot albums is that you can put on your best headphones and just drift away with wherever the album takes you. The songs cover a wide dynamic range, from piano or keyboard-based ballads, to crushing guitar and drums. The contrast between the two is at the heart of the Lonely Robot sound, but there's also a charming simplicity to the compositions that feels exposed and vulnerable. Mitchell says about Feelings Are Good: "I wanted to explore more personal themes and the songs are very much about individual experiences and narratives that I believe had been the cornerstones, good and bad, to my life."
The second single from the album, Spiders, shows off the heavier side of Lonely Robot. The vocal melody in the chorus prominently uses the augmented 4th of the lydian mode. Normally the raised 4th of that mode gives a song a floating quality, like in my favorite Joe Satriani song, Flying In A Blue Dream. But here the 4th feels especially sharp, like the fangs of a spider. I know this song isn't literally about spiders, but I'm still not going to listen to it right before going to bed.
I really hope the third single will be Crystalline, because it's my favorite song on the album, and a strong contender for my favorite Lonely Robot song ever. It best exemplifies both the charming simplicity and the vulnerability that defines this band. When Mitchell sings: "The seasons may come, and they sure as hell go / but you can't change the course of a heart / So I'm covered in shame and take all of your blame / and I'm turning this pain into art," I get goosebumps every time.
The closest comparison I could make to this album is Kino's wonderful first album, Picture. I can't find the perfect words for why the Lonely Robot albums move me, but they always do, and this one is no different. The only potential negative I would mention is that if you, like the lonely robot, have a heart that is beautiful and programmed to receive, you may find that the raw emotions, especially the pain and frustration, on this album are too intense to process without the familiar abstraction of the astronaut theme. Knowing that these are John Mitchell's very personal thoughts and memories, makes this an emotional journey, even if it does stay on planet Earth. And do beware of those lydian spiders.
Sometime around the year 2000, while I was still in the early stages of discovering progressive rock, I came across a band called Arena on a CD I got with Metal Hammer magazine. I remember being fascinated by their huge, movie-esque soundscapes and imaginative song structures. I'd never heard anything quite like it. They became one of the most important bands for me, as I went down the rabbit hole of prog rock and metal through the following years. And thus John Mitchell became one of my favourite guitarists of the time.
Mitchell has been involved in a host of well-known progressive bands over the years, including, Frost, Kino and It Bites, and is also known as a successful producer and recording engineer, working from his own studio, known as Outhouse, located in Reading, UK. He's worked with many popular bands such as Enter Shikari, Architects and Steven Wilson. On top of all this he even co-owns his own record label, White Star Records, who manage some of the UK's most exciting up-and-coming progressive artists.
The music that has been released under the Lonely Robot name was initially supposed to be a trilogy. Its sci-fi themes and futuristic leanings have always provided a consistent, if never thrilling, listen. The first three albums are full of catchy, melodic and memorable songs that flow between heavy, guitar-driven hard rock, to quiet, sometimes ambient pieces. All three albums are relatively easy-listening when it comes to prog, and I still return to certain tracks often. The lyrical themes that are often explored include space, the universe and human existence, and curiosity about the huge expanse around us. With Feelings Are Good, Mitchell has taken a step away from these themes, and focuses on a more personal story. This was first evident in the album's cover, which shows Mitchell with tape over his eyes and mouth, rather than the heavily sci-fi inspired and dream-like covers of the first three albums.
Further evidence of these more personal themes are littered throughout the album's music. The pop-prog of opening track, Into The Lo-Fi, is a great example of this. The song is stuffed full of the typically beautiful melodies that we've come to expect from Mitchell. This is about as close to pop music as I like to stray, and if this had been released in the eighties, artists like John Mitchell would be performing to stadiums, instead of dimly-lit London bars. In a similar, yet quieter fashion, Crystaline, is another superb track, straying even further from the Lonely Robot sound with its orchestral arrangements, soft piano and self-reflective lyrics. This one reminds me of something Mitchell might have included in his project, The Urbane (a more radio-friendly style band who put out a couple of albums some years ago, that are now very hard to find, but well worth checking out if you can find them).
There are some moments which still encompass the more familiar, guitar-driven Lonely Robot sound. Spiders is probably the most hard rocking track on the album, and at first I found its unusual melodies quite perplexing. The music and vocal melodies don't seem to quite fit. I was almost ready to give up on the song until I found its chorus stuck in my head for most of last week. I've grown to quite enjoy it, and the strange structure of the chorus slowly grows on you. I imagine, given the lyrical content of the song, it's deliberately written this way to make initial listens uncomfortable. On the other hand, Life Is a Sine Wave is a more upbeat song that could have comfortably fit on Lonely Robot's previous album, Under Stars. It contains a great chorus and a fantastic synth solo towards the end. It is a JM classic, for sure.
The second part of the album kicks-off with a trio of great songs. Armour For My Heart in particular is one of the album's best tracks, with a huge chorus and a beautiful middle section. Mitchell's vocals soaring above the music in one of his best vocal performances. He's often said that he feels uncomfortable as a front man, especially on stage, but Feelings Are Good probably contains his best all-round vocal performance and he should be very proud.
Surburbia is another familiar-sounding song, the opening piano lines run almost identically to Frost's Welcome To Nowhere, and later in the track the piano briefly plays the opening guitar riff from the It Bites song, Memory Of Water. These parts I'm sure are meant as an innocent homage to those other bands. Surburbia itself is a fantastic song overall and holds within it some of the album's best melodies and by far its best guitar solo. The Silent Life is more of a ballad, with soothing vocals, some soft cello and a bluesy guitar solo.
I've neglected to mention the always brilliant Craig Blundell, who once again does a stellar job behind the drum kit on this album. The whole album sounds rather good from a production perspective, in fact I'd say it might be John Mitchell's best work to date. Everything is clear and the mix allows for plenty of space for all the samples and other intricacies to be heard behind the music.
If there are a couple of tracks that did not jump out at me as much, it would be the following duo of Keeping People As Pets and Army Of One. The former is quite a bleak, heavy track, and while it moves away from the main tried-and-tested formula of the album, the song doesn't really do it for me. Similarly, the almost circus-like romp of Army Of One sounds confused and awkward. The verses are nice enough, but the chorus just doesn't fit the song at all. It might sound great in a live setting, it's definitely heavy enough, but the almost theatrical keyboards that overpower the guitars during the chorus just take all my attention away from everything else.
The album closes with a short, beautiful acoustic piece which fits perfectly. I'd have loved it if this track was much longer. The same could be said for the vocoder intro.
If I'm going to fire some serious criticism at this record, it's that it's very safe and very predictable. The way that John Mitchell writes music and melodies is such that you hear things you think you've heard before, because they are very similar to things he's done before. This can either be viewed as a good or bad thing, depending on whether you like these types of songs or not. Fortunately, I love the way JM writes, and therefore I really, really enjoyed this album. But some might say that it is exactly what they've come to expect, and therefore there are very few surprises to be found.
Basically, if you like John Mitchell or anything he's done before, you'll probably love this album. There's nothing that is going to throw you off-guard, there is nothing that truly stands out as a masterpiece, and there is nothing new or groundbreaking here. But, it is a well written, superbly-crafted album that contains songs that will get stuck in your head for days, and I love it for what it is.
P.S: Thanks John for being the artist who finally converted my fiancee to prog rock!