A lmost exactly a year ago, during an interview with Prog to promote a new release from Frost*, John Mitchell offered a cheeky progress report on the second album from his solo side project Lonely Robot. The presence of a plethora of special guests including Marillion’s Steve Hogarth, Nick Beggs, Kim Seviour, Heather Findlay, Peter Cox, Nik Kershaw and his Frost* bandmate Jem Godfrey had helped to make Lonely Robot’s debut Please Come Home a rip-roaring success, with many of those same names having backed him at both an album release party and a riotous Christmas appearance at the Scala in London’s King’s Cross.
So the message seemed to ring out loud, clear and unmistakable: Lonely Robot is an all-star project based around the Frost*, It Bites and Arena singer/guitarist and whichever buddies he might happen to have lurking in his Filofax.
Mitchell’s words that day would serve to blow such assumptions clean out of the water. Agreeing with Godrey’s observation that too many outsiders “dilutes the essence of a band”, the second album, Mitchell revealed, was to be very Lonely indeed.
“A rather cynical theory suggests that bringing in a load of chums and sticking them on your record will tap into the fan bases of the other artists, but there’s no circumstantial evidence,” he said, adding: “Steven Wilson told me that having Alex Lifeson on a Porcupine Tree record [Fear Of A Blank Planet] didn’t make a single jot of difference to their sales. So riddle me that, man.”
And so The Big Dream differs from Lonely Robot in one crucial regard – its guest list. Save for Frost* bandmate and Steven Wilson associate Craig Blundell, who played drums for Mitchell in the studio and on the road, all other instrumentation and of course the vocals on the album are provided by John himself… the clever git!
However, you’ll be relieved to learn that the one commonality between the two records is every bit as obvious – both are quite superb.
Once again, sci-fi is a driving force, the mysterious character of The Astronaut its central figure. This time he awakens from a cryogenic sleep to find he’s no longer in space, but, according to the press release, “in a woodland area surrounded by a group of strange people with animal heads”. This plot sounds surreal but its solipsistic (the theory that the self is the only thing that can be known and verified) nature could be an everyday occurrence in the twisted mind of sci-fi nut Mitchell.
The album begins with an explanatory spoken word prologue delivered over a plinking keyboard backdrop before the arrival of Awakenings, a bold, emphatic slab of what has for want of a more suitable description become known as pop prog: heavy on drama, big on hooks.
As you’d expect of a man whose CV includes names as diverse as Touchstone, You Me At Six, Enter Shikari and Vega, the production, handled of course by Mitchell, is almost quite literally out of this world. Mitchell’s budget might have more in common with eBay – where he acquired the spacesuit used in those eye-grabbing videos and promo photos – than Hollywood, but there’s no faulting his imagination or sense of ambition.
It would be easy to imagine a track like Sigma in the hands of It Bites, which is of course intended as a mighty compliment. Elsewhere, the music takes us through a variety of moods and flavours, from wistful and contemplative (In Floral Green, The Divine Art Of Being, Hello World Goodbye) to panoramic and thunderous (Everglow, The Big Dream). Capped by a soaring guitar solo, the exquisite In Floral Green manages to dip into all of these styles, capturing Mitchell at his most introspective. John has suggested that due to economics it may be impossible for Lonely Robot to perform live again, but should they do so, this is bound to be a showstopper. The pared-down line-up will make things much easier, of course.
If you were among those who enjoyed Please Come Home then this fine album, which sees its creator continuing to step out of the shadow of the list of bands for which he is known, will be food and drink from the gods.
Mitchell says that The Big Dream was always intended as the second part of a trilogy, though at present he has no inkling of whether the tale will conclude in space or on Earth, in life or the afterlife, in the future or the past, or quite possibly in the booze aisle of his local branch of Waitrose. On this evidence, however, it’s unlikely to be anything but gripping.