Way back in 2013 I posted a couple short missives/teasers (here and here) regarding Simon (son of Phil) Collins’ Sound Of Contact project with multi-instrumentalist/producer Dave Kerzner, and mysteriously failed to follow it up with an album review. Shame on me, then, for whilst Dimensionaut was initially a slow grower, it’s proved to be record deserving of repeated spins over the last year and a half. ‘Nu Prog’ is perhaps rightly derided for borrowing the musical template of the pioneering ’70s acts – long songs, instrumental showboating, conceptual contrivances – without really adding much in terms of originality or imagination. Certainly there are bands guilty on these counts – Riverside, early The Tangent and DeeExpus spring to mind – though for me the cardinal sin committed by such bands is their inability to oftentimes muster a memorable tune. Sound of Contact are not such a band, and whilst I enjoyed Dimensionaut from first listen, it was from repeated spins that I learned to really love it. Another recently-purchased album that falls loosely into the aforementioned ‘genre’ is Please Come Home by John Mitchell, aka Lonely Robot. The two artists (and albums) have, on the face of it much in common: overarching sci-fi themes; driving-force musical presences with a reluctance to commit their names to the project; a preponderance for hummable melody over musical excess (not always the case with ‘prog’ type acts).
Mitchell, and to a lesser extent, Collins are both well established ‘names’, at least on a cult-following level. As a long time Marillion fan I discovered the former thru his previous band Kino, featuring Pete Trewavas on bass guitar. He is also a key member of Jem Godfrey‘s Frost* project (third album, anytime soon?) whose Milliontown album remains a high watermark of Nu Prog. (Ironically, if casual listeners are familiar with Godfrey at all, it’s more likely to be thru his work with pure pop fodder such as Blue, Shayne Ward and Atomic Kitten). PCH could be an album by either of those artists, though, despite some input from Godfrey, it more closely resembles Kino. There is a certain ubiquity of melody and style which is distinctly Mitchell, albeit one which chimes rather well with Godfrey‘s and with the broader Nu Prog aesthetic. You can hear such an aesthetic in the work of bands as disparate as Fair To Midland, Doves, Everything Everything and Mystery Jets; one of making music that perfectly combines the demands of pop immediacy with complexity and depth. It’s not a million miles from the ’70s Art Rock blueprint mapped out by the likes of 10cc, Supertramp, or even Talking Heads. As early as the late ’90s, early ’00s, the idea that ‘Prog is no longer a 4-letter word’ had begun to creep back in. Albums such as Mansun‘s Six, Mercury Rev‘s All Is Dream, Pure Reason Revolution‘s The Dark Third and Secret Machines’ Now Here Is Nowhere attracted much critical acclaim. Radiohead perhaps deserve much of the credit for re-establishing the idea that musical ambition is a worthy pursuit, their own flowering spectacularly – in parallel with popularity and critical acclaim – on OK Computer and the Kid Amnesiac double-whammy. Dimensionaut and Please Come Home wear their cleverness more lightly than those albums: in spite of the sci-fi concept angle, both are perfectly enjoyable as pop pieces, for their well-written songs. Both, as is so true of the best of Nu Prog, hark back to ’80s/’90s pop/rock. I’m not a huge fan of Phil Collins‘ solo output at the best of times (as much as I love so much of his work with Genesis) but I’m not oblivious to the fact that he was incredibly popular; and that doesn’t happen without good reason. His son has clearly imbibed much of what was great about his writing: it’s almost a perfect balance of pop Phil/prog Phil. Lonely Robot tips unselfconciously its hat to ’80s singer-songwriting talent too, in the form of cameos from Go West‘s Peter Cox and Nik Kershaw. Both have, what I like to affectionately call their Porcupine Tree (and there’s another band that certainly belongs amongst the list in the previous paragraph) moments; where metallic riffing rudely, albeit appropriately intrudes into procedings in trademark Nu Prog counterpoint.
On first inspection, they could almost have been produced by the same crew, despite Mitchell’s and Collins’ distinct vocal styles (the latter’s eerily similar to his dad’s, as is his drumming): both exhibit the ubiquity of the new prog era as much as its accomplishment. The jarring, unsettling aspects that say, Robert Fripp, Peters Hammill or Hackett brought to the party back in the day (or latterly Radiohead and Secret Machines) are notable for their absence. Where Crimson, Van Der Graaf and early Genesis could sometimes be fuzzy and disorienting, Nu Prog is smooth prog. I’m conscious that I still haven’t provided a proper review of either album; but if you’re a fan of things proggy I hope I’ve maybe progressed a few yards in whetting your appetite. If you’ve made it this far, check out a couple soundclips now: these are not albums that you want to be missing.