Album Reviews

Issue 2022-076

It's Prog-Tober! 31+ albums and reviews in 31 days!

Duo Review

Lonely Robot — A Model Life

Lonely Robot - A Model Life
Recalibrating (5:00), Digital God Machine (6:04), Species In Transition (6:24), Starlit Stardust (5:48), The Island Of Misfit Toys (4:14), A Model Life (5:23), Mandalay (1:50), Rain Kings (6:33), Duty Of Care (6:22), In Memoriam (5:51)
Sergey Nikulichev

It would be an exaggeration to say that John Mitchell is an unsung hero, as his involvement with Arena, It Bites, Kino and Frost* has not gone unnoticed by the admiring prog crowd. And still I do not think that he gets all the praise that he deserves. There's not a lot of musicians who set themselves as fine guitar players, charismatic vocalists and experienced sound producers simultaneously. Not to mention the fact that Mitchell's key talents lie in the songwriting field.

In an ideal world he would have his house decorated with platinum disks, wear Lagerfeld suits and sit in Grammy committees. Yes, this is a fanboy's statement, but I would not take it back.

While the first Lonely Robot CD was a nice but mixed experience for me, starting from The Big Dream through Under Stars and further on, I have been listening to Mitchell's project repeatedly; immensely enjoying the sound, the drive, the songs and the nuances.

Now, released two years after Feelings Are Good, A Model Life seems very much a transitional record for John. As he has stated, the recording process took around a month, and was done single-handedly, with only some touches added by Craig Blundell on the drum stool. Besides that, A Model Life is very introspective and balladry, again as confessed by John, written mostly on the keyboards, rather than guitar.

Indeed, the 6-string instrument has made a step back on this record, allowing a palette of keyboards to play the leading role. However, the quality of solos remains impeccable. On the negative side, while The Big Dream and Under Stars are perfectly balanced in terms of fast and slow tracks, this new release is very focused on slower compositions.

Thematically, Life continues the down-to-earth topics from Feelings, but while it throws away the space-centered themes of the first trilogy, lyrics about childhood, its memories and feelings, are still what makes Lonely Robot what it is. This is also stressed by a wide usage of musical toys and imitating sounds to bring the nostalgic atmosphere into the spotlight.

Lonely Robot's John Mitchell, promo photo

The first change I noticed is that the intros and grungy opening tracks (which I always considered to be sub-par to the rest of every LR record) are gone. Instead, A Model Life opens with a synth-pop-meets-prog hit Recalibrating which is the most upbeat song on the album. Mitchell did this many times before, but I believe no-one else mastered the trick like he did.

The following Digital God Machine is a classic Mitchell track on the thin line between alt-rock and a Gilmour-Floydian sound. It's a nice one, but nothing fascinating, apart from the great solo. Then we have Species in Transition. This is my favourite track, a misty composition evoking memories of Kino's Picture at its most melancholic, with tribal rhythms and the sad voice of John floating above.

The subsequent Starlit Stardust (LR is back to space for a minute), A Model Life and Rain Kings are all slow, bitter-sweet tracks, intercepted by The Island of Misfit Toys, another pop-rocker with very inventive keyboard sounds; sarcastic and dark. As soon as the Rain Kings are over we have (guess what?), another ballad. But this one is actually worth hearing. Duty of Care starts in a rather usual manner, and a lengthy first part may force a listener to push the skip button. Do not do this, as you will miss a gorgeous, emotional chorus, with multi-layered vocals, Mitchell's absolute trademark, and probably one of his greater ballads.

Mitchell described Craig Blundell's work on this album as “less pyrotechnical”, and this may be the most accurate description of the whole record. There are fewer hits here. The recording was almost impromptu, with very few changes in the sound. Also, the standards set by the previous records are so high, that it is nearly impossible to keep the same level of quality material. Still, the record has at least five superb songs, that will be a part of the Lonely Robot legacy, and elsewhere it's an example of sound design wizardry. Recommended for when in an introspective mood.

Héctor Gómez

Being a rhythm-oriented kind of person, the drums and the bass are always the main things my ears feast upon when savouring a musical treat. So my apologies if I tend to (for lack of a better word) "ignore" the guitars. That said, I do appreciate the thrill of a great guitarist, with "great" standing for emotive, expressive and distinctive. John Mitchell belongs in this category all the way. His world-class talent is a mainstay of modern prog-leaning rock music, from neo-prog stalwarts Arena, to more contemporary-tinged propositions such as Frost* or Kino.

Mitchell's secret weapon though, is his surprisingly effective singing identity. He is a sort of Peter Gabriel for the 21st century if you will, which is both hoarse and warm in equal measure. This serves A Model Life's tales of heartbreak and frustration very well, as thanks to this and some scorching guitar solos, the album successfully hits a sweet spot between the wistful and the soaring, on its best moments. This release may not be Lonely Robot's crowning achievement. I think I still favour 2017's The Big Dream, but it is certainly the most touching and heartfelt.

The dynamic Recalibrating is a great way to kick-start the journey, in a similar way Numbers was in Falling Satellites. This in fact makes sense to me, as that 2016 Frost* opus and Lonely Robot's release complement each other brilliantly, both in terms of substance and style. It also helps that the brilliant Craig Blundell lends his drumming expertise to both recordings. Other references to Frost* and their more expansive and modern inclinations, include the anthemic Starlit Stardust and the playful The Island Of Misfit Toys.

Regarding style, the influence of 80s Genesis as well as solo Phil Collins and Gabriel is undeniable. This is none more evident than on the sombre Species in Transition or the title track, which I can only describe as Collins' Take Me Home through the lens of Gabriel's So. That might not be your definition of "groundbreaking", but it works very well.

All things considered, at the album's heart lies the last four tracks, a sort of 20-minute observation on melancholy, regret and ultimately hope, in which we find Mitchell's voice at its most sincere and poignant. From Mandalay, which is a gorgeous little interlude, and the Marillion-esque Rain Kings, to the emotionally charged Duty of Care, which will tug at your heartstrings, and the closing ray of hope that is In Memoriam.

A Model Life is yet another showcase for John Mitchell's many talents, and while not his most impressive work in pure musical terms, it more than makes up for it with raw emotion.

Lonely Robot On

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