It’s been thirteen years since UK progressive rock troupe Kino (spearheaded by It Bites/Lonely Robot vocalist/guitarist John Mitchell and Marillion/Transatlantic bassist Pete Trewaves) released their debut LP, 2005’s Picture. You’d be forgiven, then, for thinking that a follow-up record would be not only quite unexpected but also noticeably lackluster. Thankfully, only the former proves true, as Radio Voltaire is a delightfully immersive and colorful playthrough whose robust personalities—now completed by original keyboardist John Beck and drummer Craig Blundell (Steven Wilson), who replaces Chris Maitland (ex-Porcupine Tree/Nosound)—converge masterfully on each track. It’s as hypnotic and gentle as it is explosive and sophisticated (and it’s all the better for it).
Originally, Mitchell set out to record a third Lonely Robot album—succeeding 2015’s great Please Come Home and 2017’s even better The Big Dream—but then concluded that it was “too soon” for that. As such, he reached out to Trewavas and “began the writing process in late August” of last year. (Beck was an obvious choice to include, as well Blundell since he’d played on both Lonely Robot albums.) Of the title, Mitchell explains:
[Radio Volatire] sounds very cool and obviously, there's a connection with the band Cabaret Voltaire. But Voltaire himself (the 18th-century French philosopher) had a fascination with death, which appealed to me. He also stood for freedom of speech and freedom of religion. On top of that, I love the idea of a radio station that would reflect his views on life and cut through the bullshit which seems to be all over politics. Now, that is the type of radio station I think would reflect what a lot of us want to hear.
While the record doesn’t stray too far from the style Mitchell harnessed with those other projects—it’s arguably more direct, safe, and accessible, if anything—that’s also its biggest asset, as his vocals and melodies are always distinguishing and magnetic. (Of course, Trewavas, Blundell, and Beck deserve equal credit for their soaring in their roles.) Take the title track, for instance, which kicks off the sequence with a trademark blend of spacey and emotive distortion before an explosion of piercing guitarwork, shimmering effects, and rhythmic chaos gives way to piano ballad verses. Naturally, the chorus finds a nice balance between these timbres and temperaments, making it a welcoming and fetching opener (complete with touches of strings).
Elsewhere, “The Dead Club” is more synthy and sinister—with playful backing tones—whereas “Idlewild” feels like a wonderfully sentimental lost elegy from Map of the Past and “I Don’t Know Why” is surprising in its blend of early ‘60s pop sensibilities and late ‘60s psychedelic undertones. The feisty complexity and self-affirming catchiness of “I Won’t Break So Easily Any More” provides a strong contrast to the majestic acoustic philosophies of “Temple Tudor”—easily one of the best selections here in terms of pure songwriting—as well.
Afterward, “Out of Time” offers a boisterously multifaceted—if not downright magical—arrangement before “Warmth of the Sun” once again captures somber beauty (with even more symphonic subtlety than before). Interestingly, “Grey Shapes on Concrete Fields” somewhat combines all of the previous Kino shades into one captivating composition, whereas the penultimate “Keep the Faith” alternates between industrially intense and blissfully affectionate and closer “The Silent Fighter Pilot” makes for a wholly dynamic, cinematic, and epic [mostly] instrumental finisher.
Radio Voltaire is a remarkably different yet fitting follow-up to its predecessor and a markedly successful return for Kino. Once again, Mitchell provides some of the most revitalizing and charismatic singing in modern progressive music; likewise, Beck does a fine job of both stealing the show and resourcefully decorating the scenery, while Blundell and Trewavas work expertly in tandem to maintain a constantly invigorating momentum. Hopefully, this incarnation of Kino remains and releases something equally sturdy before another decade passes.