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Wednesday, 15 July 2020

Reviews: Lonely Robot, Toby And The Whole Truth, Three Colours Dark, Enuff Z’Nuff (Matt & Simon)

Lonely Robot: Feelings Are Good (InsideOut Music) [Matt Bladen]

With the so called 'astronaut trilogy' concluded on the previous album from John Mitchell's (Frost*, Kino, Arena, It Bites, Everything) Lonely Robot project, Feelings Are Good is a fresh start both conceptually and musically for Mitchell, here he has moved away from the science fiction realms for the first three album taking a more introspective route here. Mitchell himself says: "I wanted to explore more personal themes and the songs are very much about individual experiences and narratives that I believe had been the cornerstones, good and bad, to my life." This idea of it being personal is reflected in the slightly disturbing album cover seeing Mitchell's eyes and mouth taped, cutting off those "windows to the soul". So as John himself believes that this record may be his most personal ever how does it differ from the emotionally charged previous three albums. Well musically it's more diverse than before Mitchell showing why he has such a wide breadth of work.

The tracks here are all different to one another but carry a a certain 'feeling' throughout exploring genres and soundscapes, Army Of One builds on a carnival madness with some raging lyrics that's a bit Bigelf actually, this jaunty slightly twisted sound also permeates through the jabbing organs of SpidersArmy Of One is followed by Grief Is The Price Of Love a short acoustic track that reminds me of those similar parts on The Wall ending the album on a bittersweet note. The songs are awash with Mitchell's poetic lyrics but musically he's on top form, the self titled intro a heavily phased vocal number that notably harks back to the Spaceman, however it's followed by Into The Low-Fi a song that acts as Mitchell taking comfort in the warmth of the retrospective, as someone who would happily live in the past I agree though at the moment many would just want a rewind to 2019! Despite it's title obviously Mitchell's production techniques are everywhere here, it's bold and densely produced with twisting synths adding that 70's charm, though we go into the throbbing beat of the 80's on Armour For My Heart with it's synthy bass and stirring keys of Asia or 80's Yes.

It's one of many small homages that never detract too far from the amazing songwriting that's on offer here, with heart wrenching defiant anthems like Suburbia there is that definite Mitchell print in every single composition while the drums are again handled by sticksman extraordinaire Craig Blundell. Life Is A Sine Wave brings a darker tone and even has a peak and trough sound of a sine wave (I should know I'm a radio engineer by trade), with part of the song played through an oscillating synth as the beautiful, emotive guitar playing of Mitchell rounding out the song as it does on many of the tracks here, there are few guitarists that can ring out so much sentiment from a guitar but he is certainly on that list. I's not as dark as the dramatic Keeping People As Pets which if you listen closely is very unsettling but also very extremely relevant to our times.

However for me The Silent Life is probably the most affecting song on the album just a simple piano, cello and the vocals build the song into something with nods to both Peter Gabriel and Marillion. With the 'Astronaut Trilogy' firmly establishing John Mitchell's 'solo' project as something magical, Feelings Are Good is him baring his soul for all to hear, with the promise of live dates, it will be interesting to hear what the balance in material is. Feelings Are (Indeed) Good and you get a massive amount of them here on this pretty much perfect album. 9/10

Toby And The Whole Truth: Ignorance Is Bliss - Re-Release (Jepsongs Recordings) [Simon Black]

With new material output and touring disrupted globally by Covid-19, I’ve noticed that a number of acts are re-mixing and re-releasing material in order to keep busy (in addition to the usual live recording fillers). There are historical parallels, as this pandemic is going to be as big a bombshell as Grunge was in the early 1990’s, which feels like a lifetime ago. This release is interesting for me as it completely passed me by back in 1995, and it’s a bit like finding a time capsule buried in your garden.

When Little Angels split in 1994, a very frustrated Toby Jepson focussed his attention elsewhere. This was not a great time for a rock and metal scene still struggling from the body blow that was Grunge. Acts that had been packing the arenas globally couldn’t sell tickets for love nor money, the labels were ditching them like freshly baked dog turds and signing up anything that sounded vaguely on trend. Many artists folded completely, and took decades to revive. For Jepson, having a successful band acrimoniously fold at this point at least meant they went out on a partial high with a farewell tour culminating in a headline show at London’s Royal Albert Hall. But people still have to eat and like many artists at the time started trying to sound like they were part of the movement rather than desperately trying to play catch up. To be fair this was supposed to be the start of something new for Toby, but the tour collapsed half way through due to him contracting a severe bout of pneumonia, taking him out of the music industry spotlight for a few years. My those Covid parallels just keep on coming, don’t they?

This record feels like it is of this period, even though it has been remixed for this decade and our more demanding stance when it comes to production values. It doesn’t sound like Little Angels, but neither does it sound like a solo artist sure of his own identity and sound yet. There’s a huge dollop of Alternative/Indie Rock and some touches of grunge to the sound, but this sometimes jars with Jepson’s distinctive Hard Rock vocal style. In and of itself, these songs would have probably helped carve Jepson a new niche if it had come out 5 years later, but it disappeared into obscurity at the time and feels like an oddity now. That said, I can’t fault the music – this is good soulful stuff, with a strong mix of acoustic and lightly overdriven guitars, although Jepson seems unsure of himself vocally as he works out what his solo voice is in the new world he found himself in, but when it works, it works really well, (The Wind Blows Hard is a great example of this).

To be fair, Jepson has been busy over the years as a hired gun in everything from Fastway to Gun, cropping up as one of the Dio Disciples and most recently carving a new career with Wayward Sons, so don’t expect a Whole Truth revival anytime soon. This does deserve a second airing, since it really came out at the wrong time and was sunk by a lobbed brick of bad luck, even if it’s not sure of its identity, it remains a fascinating snapshot of a turbulent time for an industry working out how to survive in a changing world. 7/10

Three Colours Dark: The Science Of Goodbye (Self Released/Burning Shed) [Matt Bladen]

I remember the night well 24 February 2007, The Point (R.I.P) Cardiff, it was my first viewing of progressive rock band The Reasoning, having arrived on good friend's recommendation I watched one of the most mesmerising gigs I've seen leaving me with a love affair that would last right up until very recently, in fact right up until singer Rachel Cohen left the band, the chanteuse who fronted The Reasoning was every inch of what you want as prog rock frontwoman drawing from the mystique of Kate Bush but with her own delivery, I was transfixed, thoughts of future wedding bells ran through my head (I was a very naive 17 year old), but once I came to my senses I returned numerous times to different venues to get my fix. Obviously after that show I realised that many there knew Rachel as the first vocalist of Welsh prog rock legends Karnataka, something I discovered later as I expanded my horizons into Mostly Autumn, Panic Room and Karnataka themselves all swapping and changing members throughout the years.

Now when  saw that Rachel was returning to the mic I did once again get those butterflies in my stomach I had back in 2007 and when I saw that Three Colours Dark, the new band, was a collaboration with 'The Maestro' Jonathan Edwards, original Karnataka keyboardist and founder of Panic Room/Luna Rossa, and producer/engineer/musician Tim Hamill of Sonic One studios. Now I am a little late reviewing this release I know but some cases you have to make a special dispensation but I'm so glad I did as you need to hear this very personal, affecting record. Enter, Soubrette is Rachel dealing with her past life on stage with staggering truthfulness, it glistens with Edwards' keys, Hamill's fluid guitars but the haunting strings here really make the opening of this album 'otherworldly'.

Edwards is known as 'The Maestro' due to the depth of his playing and the masterful movements between Rhodes, piano and synths are effortless, able to strip it right back to a single piano on Rainbow's End or a techno -infused groove on Monster. Edwards excels when he's adding a layered sound to tracks such as Wonderland (How Can This Be Love?) yet again featuring some stark, bitter lyrics from Cohen who I think gives one of the best vocals performances I've heard from her on The Science Of Goodbye, there's a spectral Celtic lilt of Moya Brennan on Ghosts In The Wind, that air of the Celtic folk/rock sound is with you for the whole album, while on the atmospheric title track she moves into modern folk pop realms, which could be down to the drum pattern and tinkling guitar from Hamill and even there is some Annie Lennox-like soul/blues on Blood Moon Rising. 

The triumph of adversity and how vulnerability is not a negative, that all of the songs here deal with are an inspiration to anyone having a dark time at the moment. The album gives you a sense of power listening to it and also when there are nods to Dark Angel on the jazzy stylings Know You Know, which has some great trumpet from Nathan Bray, it does give my miserable heart something to smile about as those long lost days are taken back with defiance. Bray's addition is not the only one with Dave Gregory of XTC adding some electric guitar along with solo artist Chantel McGregor (electric guitar & ebow) while songwriter (and mid-1990's Jesus) Steve Balsamo lends his vocals to the album. Despite reasonably short run times there is no shortage of musical dexterity here showing again that it's not the run times but the songwriting that is the most effective. An album of loss, acceptance and rebirth The Science Of Goodbye could be the ultimate break up album (and you thought that belonged to Alanis Morissette) and it stayed with me for hours after each time I listened to it. A wonderfully vivid album from some of the Welsh 'progressive' rock scenes finest, a must listen. 9/10

Enuff Z’Nuff: Brainwashed Generation (Frontiers Records) [Simon Black]

Although the era of Power Pop and Glam was when I first got sucked into this strange world, this bunch passed me by at the time, coming as they did quite late to the party and just in time for the major labels to ditch the genre in favour of Grunge and all that followed. These guys have been plowing the furrow ever since for 30 years and 15 albums, although this incarnation sounds very different to the original, now being fronted by Chip Z’Nuff (bass/rhythm guitar). On a positive note this line up seems to be playing more consistently than many slices of their history, but sadly this is not enough to save this album from mediocrity. Although I quite like the psychedelic sounds swirling in the mix on some of the tracks, the piece lacks energy and sounds as flat as a hill in Lincolnshire.

After the obligatory intro, the album starts properly with Fatal Distraction – intended to be a mid-paced rocker, but it sounds tired and limp. I Got My Money Where My Mouth Is has a more promising start, and a reasonably catchy riff, but again doesn’t have that certain something you need to grab you by the balls, although it’s probably the strongest track on the album. By the time I get to the third full song Help I’m In Hell I couldn’t agree more. I guess my biggest beef is that this style of music works best when it stays short and to the point – pop songs, as a former radio DJ friend of mine once advised me, should only have one minute’s run time for each of the letters in the name (which tell you everything you need to know about ‘Progressive’). 

The average run time of 5 minutes is what kills these tracks, as there just isn’t enough going on in them to sustain the average 5 minutes run time. This band have never really fitted into any of the niche’s they’ve been posted to over the years, and that I can empathise with. But what I cannot excuse is blandness, and sadly this album has this in spades. 2/10

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