Tag Archives: John Mitchell

Frost* Heats Up

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Frost*’s upcoming album, Day and Age, showed up in the DropBox this past weekend, and considering their last one, Falling Satellites, was one of my top 5 of 2016, I immediately plugged it into the USB port of my home stereo. After eight consecutive listens and picking my jaw up off the floor, I have to state up front that Day and Age is Jem Godfrey, John Mitchell, and Nathan King’s finest achievement. Ever.

The album opens with the title track, and it is a galloping monster straight out of the gate. A young boy tells the listener to “enjoy yourselves, you scum!”, a relentless beat is established, and one of the most addictive keyboard/guitar riffs ever recorded takes charge. I think Frost* must have been listening to a lot of Synchronicity-era Police before writing this song, because it reminds me of that massive, tense, steamroller of a song, “Synchronicity II”. It is a masterpiece of controlled chaos that builds inexorably for nearly 12 minutes. There’s even a little ska-like section at the 5:33 mark that makes the Police invocation explicit. However, in a battle of the bands, Frost* would beat the pants off Messrs. Sumner, Copeland, and Summers. This is an incredible track, and after I heard it for the first time, I wondered if the rest of the album could possibly hit the high bar it set.

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King, Godfrey, and Mitchell are Frosted*

I need not have worried, as every song on Day and Age is equally strong. There is not a single clunker on the album. I don’t what lit a fire under John Mitchell, but his vocals have never sounded more impassioned (and he’s sung quite a few songs with a lot of passion!). The core of the group is Jem Godfrey (keyboards, vocals), John Mitchell (guitars, bass, vocals), and Nathan King (bass, keyboards, vocals). They have enlisted the talents of three different drummers – Pat Mastelotto, Darby Todd, and Kaz Rodriguez – and each one provides perfect support depending on the needs of the song.

“Terrestrial” is the first single, and it is a great choice – melodic, energetic, and leaving the listener wanting more:

“Waiting for the Lie” is a keyboard-based ballad that provides a nice respite from the fast-paced previous tracks. It features a beautiful melody that is allowed to shine through a no-frills production. “The Boy Who Stood Still” is a spoken-word allegory about a boy who, you guessed it, stood still. So still, that he disappeared. The narrator tells the tale over an infectious bed of ’80s – era synths and skittering drums. It sounds weird, but it is oddly attractive.

“Island Life” begins with some waves on the beach as washes of synths and some arpeggiated guitar (there’s that classic Police vibe again!) as Mitchell sings of escaping a dreary life and “living in this island life”. “Skywards” is my second-favorite song (after the title track), with some especially beautiful chord progressions in the melody. You think you know where it’s going, and it takes an unexpected turn and ends up even better than you anticipated.

Wait, did I say “Skywards” was my second-favorite song? I actually meant “Killing the Orchestra”! An electric piano and delicate vocals introduce this one, and it gradually builds into a mini-symphony that includes Mitchell’s best guitar solo of the album. It is nine and half minutes of musical bliss that segues immediately into the closing track, “Repeat to Fade”, that reprises some of the themes from the title track. This is a terrifically dense and claustrophobic track that features Mitchell hollering, “Enjoy yourselves, you scum!” Sounds oppressive, I know, except that the melody is very uplifting and makes the dark atmosphere bearable.

Nathan King recalls the writing and recording of “Repeat to Fade”: “We were 30 feet by the sea, next to a nuclear power station and a lighthouse, in midwinter! …in my head you can absolutely hear the bleak isolated oppression having an effect on us.”

The recording conditions may not have been ideal, but Jem, Nathan, and John have managed to produce a pop/prog masterpiece of an album from them. I’ve listened to it a dozen times now, and I find new delights every time.

Day and Age will be released on May 14, 2021 on InsideOut Music. You can preorder it here: https://frost-band.lnk.to/DayAndAge

in The DropBox: Kansas, SANGUINE HUM, and Lonely Robot

There is some interesting music in this week’s DropBox: a 46-year veteran prog band continues their recent winning streak, a more recently formed prog group comes up with a welcome return to form, and a veteran of several seminal prog groups maintains his high quality on another solo effort.

Absence of Presence

Pioneering progrock group Kansas’ new album, The Absence of Presence, proves that 2016’s excellent The Prelude Implicit was not a fluke. I don’t know what has lit a fire under these boys, but they are playing with more purpose and originality lately than they have shown in decades. Most bands of their age (46 years!) are content to rest on their laurels and milk nostalgia tours for all they’re worth. Kansas, on the other hand, has released two of the best albums of their career.

The title cut is a stone classic, comparable to any of the classics they released in the ’70s and ’80s. Ronnie Platt’s vocals are excellent, as is David Ragsdale’s violin work. Throwing Mountains is another terrific track with great energy and vocal/instrument interplay. The closer, The Song The River Sang, is a more straight-ahead rocker, and I love it.

Trace of Memory

The UK’s Sanguine Hum has new album coming out in November, and I am pleased to report that it is one of their best. Their first album, Diving Bell, was one of my favorites of 2011, and the follow-up, The Weight Of The World is one of the best albums of the past decade. Guitarist/vocalist Joff Winks, keyboardist Matt Baber, and bassist Brad Waissman have forged a totally unique sound, while remaining wonderfully accessible. The only way I can describe it is to imagine a mix of Kraftwerk, Devo, XTC, and Steely Dan, with a little Frank Zappa. Like I said, they have a unique sound. After TWOTW, though, they lost their way, and spent two concept albums telling a story that was a little too cute for its own good (a perpetual motion machine powered by cats – who always land on their feet – with butter on their backs, because buttered toast always lands butter side down. Ha.)

Fortunately, A Trace Of Memory is a definite return to form. They have an unerring ear for a beautiful melody, as evidenced by the 13-minute track, The Yellow Ship. It’s also the finest composition they have ever recorded, as Winks’ querulous, everyman vocals establish the melody before they take off on an extended jam session that never meanders or loses focus. I can listen to this one track all day, but the rest of the album is almost as good. Sanguine Hum have hit upon the perfect ratio of instrumental to vocal tracks with this set, and I would love to see them perform them live.

Feelings Are Good

Finally, an album that almost slipped past me – Lonely Robot’s Feelings Are Good. Lonely Robot is John Mitchell, guitarist and vocalist extraordinaire who has lent his talents to The Urbane,  Arena, It Bites, and Frost*. The first three Lonely Robot albums formed a trilogy that chronicled the adventures of an unnamed astronaut. Feelings Are Good, on the other hand, is more down-to-earth in its subject matter. There are glimmerings of power pop (Into The Lo-Fi), hard rock (Spiders), prog (the Floydish Life Is A Sine Wave), and balladry (Crystalline). Anything Mitchell releases is guaranteed to be an enjoyable listening experience, and Feelings Are Good continues his streak. Highly recommended if you like classic Peter Gabriel or Frost*.

So, three albums, three winners. I think so highly of them that I have purchased hard copies. Do yourself a favor and at least give them a listen on your preferred music streaming service.

Those Awkward Teenage Years – The 2010’s, pt. 6: 2015

We’re midway through the decade – thanks for joining us on our journey through the musical highlights of the 2010s!

In terms of music distribution, compact disc sales continued their steep decline. In 2000, 943 million CDs were sold. By 2015, that number had dropped to a little over 100 million. iTunes (and mp3s in general) was fading fast as Spotify, Amazon Music, and Apple Music attracted listeners to their streaming platforms. What these trends mean for artists remains to be seen. As it gets harder to earn income from recorded music, will that discourage new artists from getting started?

On the other hand – stepping back and taking a longer view of history – perhaps we’ll look at the 20th century as an aberration in terms of the financial rewards many recording artists were able to garner. For most of recorded history, musicians and composers have  had to struggle to survive, and even the the most gifted relied on wealthy patrons.

Fortunately for us in the 21st century, there is no shortage of great artists producing fine music, and 2015 was a good example. So here are the highlights of that year, in alphabetical order.

The Dear Hunter: Act IV: Rebirth In Reprise

Casey Crescenzo has released five of his planned six acts. Act IV: Rebirth In Reprise is my favorite so far. As usual, there is everything but the kitchen sink here. “A Night On The Town” is the key track as it swings like a Gershwin composition before an exhilarating rock motif takes over.

Gazpacho: Molok & NIght Of The Demon

Another year, and not one, but two Gazpacho releases. Molok is another dark concept album about the ancient demon utilizing modern technology for his nefarious purposes (I think). The fact that Molok has some of the prettiest music Gazpacho has ever made makes the concept go down easy. Night Of The Demon is a live set where the band really cooks. It’s a perfect introduction to them, if you’re curious.

Glass Hammer: THe Breaking Of The World & Double Live

Another year, and not one, but two Glass Hammer releases. The Breaking Of The World is another peak for them (how do they keep doing that?) with essential songs “Mythopoiea”, “North Wind”, and “Nothing, Everything”.  Double Live is a terrific no-frills live performance. Susie Bogdanowicz and Carl Groves are excellent singing classics like “The Knight Of The North” and “If The Stars”, while the band rocks tighter than a tick.

I Am The Manic Whale: Everything Beautiful In Time

A new band from Reading, England, I Am The Manic Whale sprang fully formed from the brain of Michael Whiteman (the band name is an anagram of his). This is an impressive debut with songs celebrating subjects ranging from 10,000 year clocks to the joys of parenting messy toddlers. “Princess Strange” is an inspiring take on cyberbullying.  A true delight to listen to, and worthy of a large audience.

Karnatake: Secrets of Angels

Veteran proggers Karnataka enlisted new singer Hayley Griffiths for Secrets Of Angels, and she really lit a fire under them. Opening track “Road To Cairo” has a killer middle eastern riff that is as satisfying as Led Zep’s “Kashmir”. The title track is also excellent.

Dave Kerzner: New World

The keyboardist and composer from Sound Of Contact struck out on his own and produced this wonderful Floydian sci-fi epic. Put it on, and imagine you are back in 1977, hearing a fantastic new prog masterpiece.

 

Lonely Robot: Please Come Home

John Mitchell’s (Arena, Frost*, It Bites) first album in a trilogy about an astronaut lost in space. One of the best albums of the decade, Lonely Robot features John’s excellent vocals and stellar guitar work. Every song is memorable, but “Oubliette” and “Are We Copies?” are standouts.

Neal Morse Band: The Grand Experiment

The first album from The Neal Morse Band is one of the best of the decade. First, it is NOT a Morse solo record – this is a band effort with all members contributing to the songwriting. Second, Neal found a young multi-instrumentalist in Eric Gillette who is simply phenomenal and spurs everyone to new heights. “Alive Again” may just be the finest epic Neal has been involved in.

Riverside: Love, Fear, and the Time Machine

This was my favorite album of 2015, and I still listen to it fairly often.  Riverside pulled together their metal and hard rock roots with Mariusz Duda’s gentler Lunatic Soul excursions, and came up with a winning mix. Add in some nods to ’80s new wave, and this is a very fine record.

Rush: R40

A document of Rush’s 40th anniversary tour, where they played songs from every phase of their long career. The stage set began filled to the brim with props and effects, and they gradually shed them as they worked their way back to the first shows they played in a high school auditorium.

Subsignal: The Beacons Of Somewhere

Subsignal’s The Beacons Of Somewhere was a highlight of 2015. Straight-ahead prog rock with awesome melodies. “Everything Is Lost” is an excellent song, as is the multi-part title track. Every time I listen to this marvelous album, I hear new details that delight.

Tesseract: Polaris

Tesseract toned down the more extreme metal aspects of their music for Polaris, and that made a huge difference. Daniel Tompkins has always been a terrific vocalist, but on this album he really shines.  “Dystopia” soars, and “Tourniquet” is a gorgeous cacophony of sound. “Phoenix” makes me want to drive 100 mph. A great album that earned Tesseract a well-deserved wider audience.

Steven Wilson: Hand.Cannot.Erase

Steven Wilson’s Hand.Cannot.Erase caused the biggest stir in progworld in 2015. It was his breakthrough album, catapulting him into the mainstream, and deservedly so. That said, the subject is so emotionally harrowing (the true story of a young woman who died alone in her apartment, and wasn’t discovered for three years) that I have a hard time enjoying it.

Yes; Progeny

A box set that contains recordings of seven concerts from 1972. Yes was touring in support of Close To The Edge, and this is a fascinating document of a young and hungry band at the peak of their powers. Yes, the setlist stays constant, but it is fun to hear how their performances evolved over a short period of time, and how they dealt with onstage setbacks, like a local FM radio station taking over their PA system!

Once again, I easily could have doubled the length of this post. I left off excellent albums by Bruce Soord, Downes Braide Association, Echlyn, Izz, and Perfect Beings, among others. Let us know what your Best of 2015 list is in the comments!

Those Awkward Teenage Years – The 2010’s, pt. 3: 2012

As I mentioned in Part 2 of this series, 2012 is when the floodgates open for prog releases. This post features 15 albums from that halcyon year, and it barely scratches the surface! So let’s dive into the great music 2012 had for us, in alphabetical order.

Anathema: Weather Systems

Anathema followed up the wonderful We’re Here Because We’re Here with the even better Weather Systems. Featuring a weather-related song cycle – “The Gathering Of The Clouds”, “Lightning Song”, “Sunlight”, and “The Calm Before The Storm” – Anathema produces a prog classic.

Big Big Train: English Electric Part 1

After a 2-year absence, Big Big Train returned in a big way with English Electric, Part 1. David Longdon is now fully integrated into the band, and his songwriting sparkles, particularly on joyous romps like “Uncle Jack”. One of BBT’s finest hours, ever.

Devin Townsend Project: Epicloud

All of the disparate styles Devin Townsend played with on previous albums is synthesized in this masterpiece. Power pop, metal, gospel -it’s all here in one big beautiful mess.

Echolyn: Echolyn (“Windows album”)

This album topped a lot of critics’ Best of 2012 lists, and rightly so. Every song is perfect, and “Some Memorial” may be the best they’ve ever done. This is a classic prog record that will still be lauded decades from now.

Flying Colors

This effort from the prog supergroup comprised of Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy, Steve Morse, Dave Larue, and Casey McPherson was a very impressive debut. Everyone participating subsumed his personality in service to the group, and the result was a lot of fun – reminiscent of the best of ’70s arena rock.

John Galgano: Real Life Is Meeting

This is a somewhat obscure gem by John Galgano, the bassist of Izz. It’s a quiet, beautiful, philosophical collection of songs that is truly charming. There is a lot of depth and solace in these songs.

Glass Hammer: Perilous

Glass Hammer continued its winning streak with the third album to feature Jon Davison. Perilous is one long song chronicling the adventures of two children trapped in a, well, perilous land populated by malignant beings. The music is appropriately exciting and compelling.

It Bites: Map Of The Past

John Mitchell (Arena, Frost*, Lonely Robot) took over It Bites’ reins for this marvelous concept album about a young man confronting his past and his tortured relationship with his father. “Wallflower” is one of his finest songs.

Arjen Anthony Lucassen: Lost In The New Real

Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon, among many other projects) released this solo effort in 2012, and it featured his love of science fiction themes. Many years in the future a cryogenically preserved man is revived and brought up to date with all the changes that have occurred in society while he was frozen. Along the way, Arjen gives us a history of rock while an evil Rutger Hauer narrates. Great fun.

Mystery: The World Is A Game

I’ve written a full post on this excellent band, and this is one of their best albums. It’s a perfect introduction to Mystery if you’ve never heard them. “Another Day” is a 19 minute song that ranks with the best epics in the genre.

North Atlantic Oscillation: Fog Electric

The second album by Kscope’s North Atlantic Oscillation still has their impossibly angelic vocal harmonies from the debut, but there is an undercurrent of unease in songs like “Savage With A Barometer”. Utterly unique sound, and one of the best albums of the decade.

O.S.I.: Fire Make Thunder

The fourth (and final?) album from the Office Of Strategic Influence. Jim Matheos (Fates Warning) and Kevin Moore (Dream Theater, Chroma Key) collaborate on another fine collection that is somewhat somber but always melodic. If you need music for a rainy afternoon, O.S.I. is the perfect choice.

Producers: Made In Basing St.

Another supergroup, this time composed of, surprise, producers. Trevor Horn, Lol Creme, Stephen Lipson, and Ash Soan (with a uncredited Chris Braide on vocals) combine to produce a wonderful pop confection. Too bad they only lasted for one album.

Rush: Clockwork Angels

In 2012, we had no way of knowing this would be Rush’s final album, but what an album to go out on. It was meant to be the soundtrack to a Kevin Anderson sci-fi novel, but it works well as a standalone work of art. Rush pulled out all the stops on their tour supporting it, and it remains a high point of their career.

Ultravox Brilliant
Ultravox: Brill!ant

This was a complete surprise – after decades of inactivity, the ’80s synth band Ultravox reunited in 2012 and put together this terrific set of songs. It was as if they never left, still at the top of their form. If you loved Vienna and Rage In Eden, then this is a must-have album.

That’s 15 albums from 2012, and I could have added many more. District 97, Downes Braide Association, Gazpacho, Headspace, Izz, KingBathmat, Pineapple Thief, Porcupine Tree, Storm Corrosion, Threshold, Time Morse, and Yppah all released outstanding records. Let us know what your favorites of 2012 were in the comments!

Lonely Robot Finally Comes Home

Under Stars

John Mitchell (Arena, Frost*, Kino, It Bites) has just released Under Stars, and it is a fitting conclusion to his Lonely Robot trilogy. Full of oblique lyrics sung by Mitchell in his gruff tenor, every song is a melodic tour de force. The trilogy is ostensibly about an astronaut (the lonely robot?) who eventually finds his way back home after some surrealistic detours. In John’s words, “It represents the human condition. I’m not suggesting that human beings behave like robots, but so many people lead regimented lives and it’s easy to get stuck in a rut and not realise or know how to get out of it.”

Please Come Home
The First Album Of The Trilogy

A recurring theme throughout the trilogy is the call to “Please come home.” In Under Stars, he finally makes it. The album begins with “Terminal Earth”, in which a Vangelis-inspired instrumental emerges out of radio static. In “Ancient Ascendant”, the astronaut is chided for his aloofness: “Ancient ascendant, well I think that we should talk/We may be evolutionary but it’s a backward walk.” “Icarus” features some tasty vintage early-80s sounding synths, while the title track is a beautiful ballad that tugs at the heartstrings. It also happens to contain one of Mitchell’s finest guitar solos – lean, clean, and lyrical.

In “The Only Time I Don’t Belong Is Now”, the astronaut gradually comes to terms with his humanity, and he cries out, “I know that I’m alive without a doubt/The seasons changing, history waiting/The only time I don’t belong is now.”

“When Gravity Fails” takes on superficial social media virtue-signaling with the lines, “Checking in with false empathy/Do you feel #proud, proud?” In “How Bright Is The Sun”, he laments, “We’re basking in the progress; we’re blinded by the cost/And in the forward motion, we’ve never been so lost.”

BIg Dream
The Second Album

The album’s overarching theme seems to be the necessity of embracing one’s common bond with all of humanity. The astronaut tried to separate himself from everyone through a sense of superiority, but he only succeeded in realizing his own incompleteness. As the final song, “An Ending” reassures him (in a reprise of the theme from the first album), “Please come home, lonely robot/Your heart is beautiful, programmed to receive.” No man is an island, indeed.

Taken together, the Lonely Robot Trilogy is a magnificent achievement by one of rock’s most talented artists. John Mitchell has an unerring ear for a seductive melody, and the instrumental chops to back it up. The thematic material might be pretentious in another’s hands, but Mitchell’s lyrics are elusive enough to suggest multiple meanings on several levels. This is music for thoughtful persons, who happen to appreciate finely crafted melodies.