REVIEW: LONELY ROBOT – “A Model Life”
There are a lot of different types of styles that make up and fall under the moniker of progressive rock. Some bands focus more on technical pyrotechnics, others multi-part epics, and many somewhere in between. Others focus more on atmosphere and songwriting, with the prog elements coming in more with the keyboard, guitar textures, and approach. One of my favorite bands to take this approach in recent years has been Lonely Robot, which is not so much a band, but a solo project by John Mitchell (Frost*, Kino, Arena). This new album ‘A Model Life’ is the fifth album under this name, but it is the first not to deal with science fiction topics of robots, space, spacemen, and technology. The lyrics this time a bit more personal, and a bit more bitter, the results of a break-up of a long-term relationship, and a world that has gone to hell in general. The resulting album is unsurprisingly every bit as good as those that came before it.
Although Mitchell’s guitar work has always been a big part of the LR sound, it is a bit more prominent this time around. This is especially clear in the opening number “Recalibrating” and “Species in Transition,” both of which have some very engaging solos. His style is certainly influenced by David Gilmore, but it is also very clearly his own, with its own color, and warmth. “Recalibrating” also features some rather catchy riffs and an oddly infectious chorus. It makes for a perfect opening number.
An early stand-out is “Digital God Machine” which with its keyboard-heavy sound, and mechanical rhythm section feels more like older LR. The song is about the number of trolls on the internet, who seem to live for nothing but tearing down artists, and live in darkness and safety behind their computer screens. An obnoxious bunch for sure. He continues his theme of modern times with “The Island of Misfit Toys” (yes like on the old Rudolph special). This time he deals with the people who just don’t fit in with the majority of society. A frequent topic of course, but this has the added element of focusing to some degree on people on the autism spectrum, which while having unique struggles, also tend to be more gifted when it comes to numbers and figures, and are often sought out by data companies. The song also has a rather quirky music video to go along with it, which is worth checking out.
Sometimes it’s the odd little song that stands out to you, often for outside of music reasons. On this album, that song for me is “Mandalay” which is a short song, less than two minutes. But it’s a brief telling of the novel/ Alfred Hitchcock film ‘Rebecca” with the oddly haunted Mandalay estate that promised a new life of loves, but ended in flames. Like much in life… It’s a great film, which undoubtedly explains my attachment to the song.
Two of the strongest songs are left for the end of the album the melodically hard-hitting “Rain Kings” and the pain-filled “Duty of Care.” The songs have similar themes of painful relationships, and getting through the aftermath of them. In the album bio, Mitchell mentions the deaths of several people in his life, I get the sense that these two songs deal with getting over the memories of some or one of them. “Duty of Care” is about growing up with an alcoholic parent (it sounds like a father), and the emotional abuse that often goes with that. To make the childhood nature of the song deeper the song begins with a toy piano, which gives an eerie sense of innocence that is quickly lost. It’s probably also the heaviest track and features what I feel is his strongest vocal performance as the pain and intensity grow towards the end of the song and closing choruses are repeated.
The album concludes with “In Memorium” which while being rather subdued, seems to be a companion piece for “Duty of Care.” It serves as a goodbye (and in many ways good riddance) to his father. Whether this is meant to be literal, or metaphorical I don’t know, but I get the sense it’s a true In Memorium to his father, who the lyrics of the two songs strongly suggest he didn’t have a very good relationship with. It’s a very slow song but does contain a quite emotional guitar solo towards the end, a final goodbye, and a search for peace. For his sake, I hope it comes.
It’s always good to get a new Lonely Robot album. And although the tone and mood are different this time around, the soul and essence of the project remain the same. ‘A Model Life’ is a more than worthy addition to John Mitchell’s catalog, and a prime example of melodic, song-driven prog rock done right. Whether you’re in the mood to dive deeper into the heavier themes of the songs, or just want to chill and lose yourself in the music and atmosphere, there’s a lot to love, and long-time fans won’t be disappointed. And it will in all likelihood make some new ones too.