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Intelligently Designed Prog

Lonely Robot

I’m a little late to the party, but John Mitchell’s solo project, Lonely Robot: Please Come Home has taken over my sound system the past couple of weeks, and I have to spread the good word about this extraordinary album.

John Mitchell is getting close to Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy for earning the award for participating in the most groups: he is a guitarist for Arena, he’s played in Frost*, he’s been in It Bites for almost a decade, and he put together the prog supergroup, Kino (hat tip to Progarchist Frank Urbaniak for that info). However, according to Mr. Mitchell in an interview in Prog Magazine (Issue #54, March, 2015), Lonely Robot has been “the most refreshing thing I’ve ever done.” Freed from any preconceived expectations based on a particular group’s history, Mitchell has crafted an album that excels on multiple levels.

While not a full-blown concept album, Mitchell has stated in his series of video blogs that Please Come Home has a unifying theme: how can life on earth in all of its glorious diversity have sprung from nothing? Whether we are the result of primordial alien seeding or a divine architect is left to the listener to decide, but Mitchell’s musings are fascinating. “God vs. Man” is a neat little history of the human race, from building a fire, to building a city, to building armies, to building rockets:

So then you build a rocket, and you point towards the sky

No end to the ambition and no cause to wonder why

You start the search celestial to find the one who made

For reckoning the architect will stand across your way

Of course, as far as I’m concerned, the lyrics could be Shakespearean and the album would be worthless without the music to support them. In this department, Mitchell delivers – in spades. From the cinematic opening track, “Airlock”, to the delicate and emotional closer, “The Red Balloon”, Please Come Home is a collection of songs that will satisfy the most discriminating connoisseur of prog. In addition to having phenomenal chops on guitar, Mitchell’s vocals are outstanding – soulful with a little Peter Gabriel rasp to them. There are also a couple of duets that are heartbreakingly beautiful: “Why Do We Stay?” with Heather Findley, and “Oubliette” with Kim Seviour. “Oubliette” is my nomination for song of the year, with its catchy chorus and snaking lead guitar line. “Are We Copies?” is the current single, (video below), which laments the failure of humanity to live up to its enormous potential. The next track, “Humans Being”, is a comforting response:

Oh don’t be so hard on yourself, so hard on yourself

All we have done, and all of the people we’ve been

Take this flag and wave it again, just wave it again

All we have done, and all of the things we have seen

We’re only humans being

Mitchell has gathered a stellar group of supporting artists for Please Come Home: the aforementioned vocalists, as well as Jem Godfrey, Peter Cox, Steve Hogarth, Nik Kershaw, Nick Beggs, and Craig Blundell. I hope this album is the first of many from Lonely Robot; American prog fans should embrace the music of John Mitchell – he is a top-tier talent who deserves to explode worldwide.

HRHProg In Pictures

Y-Prog Cancelled

Sad news tonight from organiser Kris Hudson-Lee of the cancellation of the weekend part of Y-Prog here in the UK, intended to be Yorkshire’s first progressive rock festival.

Saturday 15 March was to feature Dec Burke, Also Eden, IOEarth and The Enid; Sunday 16 March had Crimson Sky, Knifeworld, Manning and It Bites on the bill. Thankfully, the Friday night show featuring the mighty Riverside goes ahead.

I have no further information on the reasons for cancellation, but I presume poor ticket sales are at the heart of it. Y-Prog may have been hit by the subsequent announcement of HRH Prog, a bigger festival at a more glamorous venue a few miles away, just three weeks later.

It’s a salutary reminder that, despite prog’s resurgence, the audience remains finite. Too many events in too short a span of time and some are going to struggle.

Trouble with Machines (Best of 2012 — Part 9)

District 97

Another one of the albums in my Top Ten for 2012 is District 97’s Trouble with Machines.

Nick is right to call this “top-class prog metal.” It’s the sort of thing that is right up my alley.

But what makes this disc a cut above all the others in its class, and truly worthy of being in the upper echelon in that beloved genre, is the outrageously distinctive jazz sensibility that Leslie Hunt brings to these songs.

In fact, it is hard not to classify Trouble with Machines as the best jazz album of the year!

Just listen to all those wildly intricate jazzy vocal lines that Leslie does. Totally mind-blowing. And all in perfect coordination with her bandmates.

I was going to put Map of the Past by It Bites into this slot in my top ten, but Trouble with Machines won out instead. Partly this is because of my own metallic predilection, a longstanding gravitation towards riff-tastic guitar work.

But mostly this is because the prog-pop excellence of It Bites was eclipsed for me by the more purely pop perfection of Bend Sinister, which won a spot in my Top Ten this year instead. Beautiful as Map of the Past is, the purer power pop perfection of Small Fame wins out.

In other words, for me the prog on the It Bites disc is less innovative than District 97’s prog-giness, and the pop less perfect than Bend Sinister’s pop-iness. But darn it, this was a tough call to make.

I love how District 97 has a bunch of my all-time favorites as their prog influences: e.g., you can catch them live doing eminently satisfying covers of Rush and Genesis. But then they transcend all that and do something amazing: i.e., they are able to be their own audaciously unique selves.

What a great album this is. Don’t miss it. I think it exhibits a magical truth of prog: viz., how a truly great group must be one that is made up of extremely talented individuals but who then become something even greater than the mere sum of their parts.

Moreover, this amazing group is arguably what jazz was always meant to become, in order to articulate the maximum impact of its full musical potential. At least that’s what their amazing jazz metal is for a guy like me.

Wildly exemplary.

Frost*Bites

This was inside of a Christmas firecracker we popped last night.

frost bite

Nick’s Best of 2012 (Part 2)

Following on from my list of ‘Highly Commended’ albums, we have my ‘Top 5 Contenders’.

The following five albums have missed out on a Top 5 placing by the slimmest of margins. Once again, they are listed alphabetically, not in order of preference.

Beagle in park with little planet effectAnathema – Weather Systems

For quite a while, this was a strong contender for my album of the year. That it doesn’t make my final Top 5 is testimony to the amazing quality of this year’s releases. The music here grabs you and stirs the soul just as effectively as 2010’s wonderful We’re Here Because We’re Here. but Weather Systems benefits from the more prominent role given to Lee Douglas, particularly on the haunting Untouchable Part 2 and Lightning Song.

echolyn1echolyn – echolyn

A late entrant into my Top Ten of 2012. It’s a multifaceted, multilayered work and I’m still digesting it – else it might have crept into my Top 5. I love the variety here, encompassing classic prog complexity but also a much more contemporary sound. Different parts remind me fleetingly of Radiohead, The Pineapple Thief, Amplifier (circa The Octopus) and even Elbow, but the net result is something completely original. Stand-out tracks for me are Some Memorial and the languid Past Gravity.

itbites1It Bites – Map Of The Past

Reforming with John Mitchell at the helm was a masterstroke, resulting in the excellent The Tall Ships in 2008 – but Map Of The Past is even better than its predecessor. It’s one of those albums that you simply can’t help singing along to and it never fails to put a smile on my face. Highlights include the lovely ballad Clocks, the thrilling prog of Meadow And The Stream and the deeply moving The Last Escape. Prog-pop at its finest.

sanguinehum1Sanguine Hum – Diving Bell

I’ll confess I’m cheating slightly here, as this album appeared on Bandcamp in late 2010, but the CD from Esoteric is a 2012 release, so it qualifies as far as I’m concerned! It’s an album of strange but beautiful sounds, unusual melodies and odd rhythms. At times it calls to mind Porcupine Tree in their more reflective moments, at others a less layered, less electronic North Atlantic Oscillation. On top of this it has the acoustic feel and vocal style of Turin Brakes. Fascinating stuff.

stormcorrosion1Storm Corrosion – Storm Corrosion

This collaboration between Steven Wilson and Mikael Åkerfeldt caused consternation amongst some fans of these artists when they discovered that it didn’t sound like the expected blend of Wilson/Porcupine Tree and Opeth. Personally, I love it. I certainly can’t do better than Alison Henderson’s pithy description of it as sounding like “Simon and Garfunkel on magic mushrooms”. A subtle and mysterious album, best listened to late at night.

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