I wasn’t paying close enough attention it seems. Kino managed to slip an album release past my radar, which, admittedly, always seems to be splitting at the seams with music and bands to keep an eye on. I’m a big fan of John Mitchell, English guitarist and vocalist, who’s worked in a number of progressive rock-oriented bands such as Arena, It Bites, Frost*, and my personal favorite, Lonely Robot. With Radio Voltaire, Mitchell and company continue to provide more stripped back, progressively slanted rock songs that run the gamut from acoustic ballads to high-soaring anthems, more in line with Mitchell’s recent offerings under the Lonely Robot name than the harder rock of Kino‘s last album from 2005.
It’s worth noting that Kino nearly qualifies for supergroup status at this point. This album sees Mitchell combine artistic efforts with previous collaborator Pete Trewavas (bass, also of Marillion), Craig Blundell (drums for Steven Wilson), and John Beck (It Bites) who’s coming through on keyboards on a number of songs. It’s evident that Radio Voltaire acts as an amalgamation of all the styles these musicians bring forward, all meeting at the epicenter of modern British progressive rock.
Progressive rock is a genre that’s hard to pinpoint, but to me, it’s consistently about combining lighter, palatable tones and melodies with more eclectic ones or presenting them in unconventional manners. To that effect, lead single “The Dead Club” carries the prog rock stamp of approval. There’s a psychedelic keyboard line during the chorus that’s staggered and stands out significantly over a lightly shimmering flush of synthesizers and Mitchell’s lyrical condemnation of people that do anything in pursuit of fame. One of the best-executed tracks is “Grey Shapes on Concrete Fields”, and it too is a good encapsulation of prog rock. The introductory rhythms are robotic and sterile, but not lifeless. Given the song’s lyrical theme of a world robbed of its natural color and life, this is perfectly complementary. There’s warmth found in the bass tones, and the very minor use of a theremin (or at least theremin-like synth hum) provides a lot of character in a small, otherwise quiet space.
Given the circumstances we’re working with, it only makes sense that we take a trip down the ‘dad rock’ rabbit hole, and that’s perhaps where we got “I Don’t Know Why” from. The song is serviceable, but the basic melodies, lyrics and flat tones make it a very mediocre track in the listing. There is a distortion effect on the vocals for the third verse to give them a dreamy, ethereal feel, but that’s the only element that stands out (positively, that is). “Out of Time” is of the same ilk, but fares a lot better because it’s more dynamic. The bass-heavy rhythms delight, the vocal effect from “I Don’t Know Why” returns, and there’s an lengthy instrumental passage that offers a lot more to digest, including an exceptional bass solo that envelops one like a blanket on a chilly day.
Across Mitchell’s many projects (and a large amount of UK progressive music as a whole), we are nigh guaranteed to get slower, more emotional songs. This is where the soundscapes can spread out a bit, with more sensitive acoustics focusing on piano and clean guitars. “Temple Tudor” is an acoustic guitar-driven track (which is rare for Mitchell), with a purposeful, pronounced melody and vocals front and center. The descending melody reminds me of Coheed and Cambria‘s lighter offerings. “Warmth of the Sun” is about as cathartically simple as it gets. An ode to the big hot star in our sky, the piano gives the short song some Disney movie-like whimsical touches. Similarly, “Idlewild” is a heart-rending, piano-led vehicle of sadness. The vocals harmonize with a somber keyboard line as the lyrics sing about saying goodbye to your loved ones at airports. The tempo remains slow and low for the entirety of the song, which makes it a good fit in the tracklist, sitting between mid-tempo tracks “The Dead Club” and “I Don’t Know Why”.
I can’t say these moments move me as much as the ones on Lonely Robot‘s The Big Dream or even an album like Big Big Train‘s Grimspound, though. Radio Voltaire isn’t a slouch, but the emotional weight isn’t as prominent here. This is definitely more of a conventional rock-oriented affair, and that’s just fine! I do miss the biting, overarching album concepts or epic scale that the two aforementioned albums brought to the table. Still, this proves to be a solid album that’s perfect for more laid-back listens.
Although the edges are more sanded down from their last effort, Kino still have a lot to offer. I prefer the flavors of other Mitchell projects like Frost* and Lonely Robot, but Radio Voltaire is an album that wades in pools of mood and atmosphere, transporting me to a chilled-out zone that brings me a lot of joy and peace. Between chasing the next great pulverizingly heavy album or concept-heavy avant-garde prog act, you sometimes need to recenter yourself with some lighter music that just works. Kino had just the thing for me in that regard.
Notable Tracks: “The Dead Club”; “Out of Time”; “Grey Shapes on Concrete Fields”
FFO: Lonely Robot, Spock’s Beard, Galahad