I absolutely hate writing negative reviews for artists that I really like. It has to be done sometimes, though. Kino is getting ready to release their second album on the 23rd of March, and my normal fanboy heart for John Mitchell is not as enthusiastic about this offering. If anything, “Radio Voltaire” has spurred me to express my concerns over the obvious issues in this plastic album.
Kino primarily consists of John Mitchell on vocals and guitars, and also Pete Trewavas on bass and synth. Their first album released 13 years ago, but here they are again working together on new music. Joining them this time is former member John Beck on guest keys and drummer extraordinaire Craig Blundell. The music is progressive rock with some pop trappings, including plenty of guitar solos and synth.
I’m going to get right to the point: This is one of the blandest, most lifeless albums in recent memory. All the elements are there – John’s great voice and excellent guitars, Craig’s awesome drumming, and Pete’s sizzling keys and bass – but the results are not as convincing as the individual parts. There’s simply a lack of inspiration and good choruses on this album, and many of the lyrics come off as “matter of fact”, meaning that the song titles are sung in the chorus, and not in a classy or artistic fashion (that drives me nuts). It all feels so forced, like John didn’t want to make this album in the first place.
Don’t get me wrong: John’s guitars are wonderful, as usual. The solos are great, if not as emotional as on other albums. His vocals, too, are as rich as ever, even though the vocal melodies are insipid and uninteresting. Craig’s drumming is a highlight, and he deserves real praise here as he lifts this boring album up a few notches with meaty fills. Pete’s bass is also a highlight, being used in some interesting ways, but his and John’s keys often have nothing to do with the core melody: They are often just the background noise, even though there are a few notably special moments. Ultimately, the performances are not the problem here, though.
I have decided that I will not hold this album against John. In the bio that came with the album, it is noted the John wanted to create a third Lonely Robot album, but Inside Out told him it was too soon for that. So, they asked him to do a new Kino album, which obviously is something that wasn’t on his mind. The writing for this album didn’t begin until August 2017, which means everything on this album was made in less than 6 months (I’m guessing more around 3 months since they announced it a few months ago). It even seems like a time limit was in place here (maybe the label needed another offering this time of year). It seems certain that this album had no real inspiration or organic thought behind it, and the results speak for themselves.
I think some examples are in order. First, there are a couple songs I do enjoy. The album opens with the title track, “Radio Voltaire”, which is one of the better tracks on the album. While the vocal melodies are still a little leaden, the guitar work and the glorious climax are still worth hearing. Another good one is “Out of Time”, an interesting song that has some ambient and outside the box moments.
Other tracks drive me nuts, though. “The Dead Club” is annoying and abrasive to my senses, both musically and lyrically, through its eye-rolling chorus and weird guitars. “I Don’t Know Why” is a case in point for this album: It feels like an attempt to be playful or bluesy, but ultimately comes across as unwieldy and tedious. Even ballads, like “Temple Tudor”, which normally are the beacons of emotion and performance, are passable and boring here. Finally, “Grey Shapes on Concrete Fields” feels so promising, almost like it will be this epically ambient and abstract masterpiece: It ends up being a shorter track with a maddeningly simple chorus, achieving none of the potential that I had expected.
In the end, Kino’s “Radio Voltaire” might attract a few fans, but I feel like it’s going to pass into oblivion rather quickly. There just isn’t enough meat or inspiration here, and I tend to blame the record label on this one. For someone as brilliant as John Mitchell, this album feels simple, by the numbers, and forced. While a few moments, like the title track, offer much potential and promise, the album as a whole doesn’t even approach delivering on those expectations.