Were an unsuspecting inhabitant of downtown Reading to have wandered randomly from an uninspiring suburban high street into Sub 89 on this mild Thursday evening, they’d surely wonder what lunacy they’d stumbled upon. On the venue’s stage, a middle-aged man is wearing a replica NASA space suit, the audience rapt as he flits between thinly veiled metaphorical comment upon isolation and humanity’s pre-programming within today’s society and blasting out searing guitar solos.
Well fear not, Concerned of Berkshire, for this is no alien invasion, nor clandestine David Icke-esque public gathering of lizard worshippers. John Mitchell of Frost*, It Bites and Arena fame is here to launch a second album recorded in the guise of his sci-fi alter ego the Lonely Robot.
Given that said disc, The Big Dream, will be heard for the first time 24 hours later, Mitchell is wise in sticking largely to the songs from its star-studded and extremely well received 2015 predecessor Please Come Home. Mitchell’s musicianly reputation and gregarious nature have drawn along several famous friends in the crowd, including John Beck from It Bites and Headspace’s Damian Wilson. Peter Cox, the Go West frontman who voiced the first album’s The Boy In The Radio, is here but remains in the shadows, though former Touchstone vocalist Kim Seviour opts to join in with a sublime Oubliette. However, in keeping with the new album’s more stripped-down direction, additional guests are conspicuous by their absence.
Sporting that eBay-acquired interplanetary apparel of his, our local lad is the undoubted star of the show tonight, but my… what a backing band he has. This early in the campaign there are some furtive nods as prompts to solos and endings, but who cares? On loan from Fish and the excellent Tilt, Steve Vanstis supplies fluid, melodic bass lines. Keys player Liam Holmes colours and even thrusts along the overall sound. His octopus-like solo spot to commence the encore and a frenetic display during God Vs Man forces Mitchell to announce of his Frost* bandmate and Steven Wilson associate: “Mr Craig Blundell on drums… he’s not shit.” Shame about the Celine Dion T-shirt, mind.
Three unheard tunes are aired. “This is a slow new song, so you’re doubly in trouble,” Mitchell grins of In Floral Green, a track that reminds us of all the tricks contained in the band’s locker with its gently ascending mood, nagging hookline and a soaring, scintillating guitar motif.
A more upbeat and harder-hitting pair, Sigma and Everglow, are saved till the encore, by which time this fine band has Sub 89 eating out of its hands.
So, are Lonely Robot pop masquerading as prog, or is it the other way around? With songs as good as this, frankly, the debate becomes pointless.