John Mitchell is no stranger to progressive music. Known for his work with It Bites, Frost*, Arena, Kino, and John Wetton, Mitchell has made a name for himself as a multi-talented musician, vocalist , writer, producer, sound engineer, and all around talent. Mitchell’s solo effort, Lonely Robot, is an opportunity for him to sit in the driver’s seat and combine all of his many talents into one musical project. His first Lonely Robot album, Please Come Home, was very well received in the progressive rock community. The album introduces us to the protagonist of the Lonely Robot project- The Astronaut- who weaves in and out of a philosophical, literate exploration of the human condition,on top of the starry backdrop of deep space. The much anticipated follow up, The Big Dream, brings The Astronaut to, in Mitchell’s words, “terra firma”, as he explores his own consciousness through dreams.
One of the biggest differences between Please Come Come and The Big Dream is the roster of musicians. Please Come Home was full of brilliant guest performances from Peter Cox (Go West). Kim Sevior (Touchstone), Steve Hogarth (Marillion), as well as narration by Lee Ingleby (of Harry Potter fame). The Big Dream, however, relies on a core group of musicians- Craig Blundell (Frost* and Steven Wilson’s live shows) on drums, Steve Vantsis (Fish and Tilt) on bass, and Liam Holmes on keys. The guests on the previous album made for an Ayreon-like experience, with different voices bringing different tonal elements to each of the songs. The Big Dream, however, sounds much more cohesive and solid, more like a record from a band, as opposed to a “rock opera”. Both albums are conceptual albums, although though there is not a structured, storied narrative throughout. Both deal with concepts and themes, through the frame of The Astronaut.
The Big Dream, starts with The Astronaut waking from a deep, cryogenic sleep, only to find that he is stuck in a dreamlike setting, much like the Linklater film Waking Life. The Astronaut struggles to make sense of his surroundings, and interacts in this dreamlike space, trapped in what Mitchell calls “a solipsistic haze”. The production of the album reflects this well, and is a testament to Mitchell’s ability to execute his vision, even in terms of sound production. The sonic intensity of the album varies from song to song, but they all have a glimmering, almost dreamlike sheen, whether it is a heavier song or a ballad.
The ambient and surreal “Prologue (Deep Sleep)” introduces the listener to this surreal dreamworld through a brief narration about the nature of reality as it relates to dreams and consciousness. This segues into “Awakenings”, which is a thrilling, epic opener with big riffs and hooks, all complementing Mitchell’s smoky but soulful voice. Mitchell jumps right into “Sigma”, which is equally as catchy and as strong of a number, with a memorable and very sing-able chorus. “In Floral Green” is a lovely gem of a song, and provides respite from two very strong, back to back rockers.
“Everglow” is probably the strongest song on the album in terms of songwriting and statement. It starts with heavy guitars and scintillating keyboards that step into a subdued verse. The chorus returns in full force, with Mitchell’s husky voice backed up in perfectly executed 7/8. Every musician shines on this song, but Blundell’s intense drumming is exceptional . The combination of the melodicism, the heavy guitars and rhythm section, and Mitchell’s powerful vocal presence make this one of a few high points on the album.
Another track that stands out is “The Divine Art of Being”. Several of the songs are slower and more introspective, and this is one of the songs that trades the heavy guitars and intensity for a more subdued approach. Mitchell’s voice soars through a lovely, atmosphere-laden chorus, and the song fades out with a bit of an instrumental jam and a terrific and tasteful guitar solo.
In closing, this album is a big achievement from Mitchell, who has had a good career as a band member, producer, sound engineer, and contributor in several very iconic progressive rock bands, but has not yet had the ability to say, “Here I am.” John Mitchell reminds me of Richie Kotzen, who is a tremendous guitar player, singer, and songwriter, but has done such extensive work with groups and band that his talent and ability sometimes goes unnoticed. Mitchell is an amazing talent, and The Lonely Robot project is an opportunity for Mitchell to show the heights that he is capable of reaching, with a group of highly skilled musicians that understand his vision and allow him to go all out.
In closing, The Big Dream is a fantastic follow up album, but not because it’s identical to its predecessor. I think it matches the strength of Please Come Home, but for different reasons- so different that it’s almost futile to compare. The Big Dream is at times bold and bombastic, but in other times subdued and thoughtful. It’s overflowing with hooks that will pop in and out of your head for weeks after your first listen. For progressive music fans, The Big Dream will leave you wanting more. Luckily, Mitchell has confirmed a follow up album eventually. For now, we’ll just have to enjoy what we have.
Lonely Robot’s The Big Dream will be released on April 28, 2017. Click here to preorder.