Review: Flying Colors – Second Nature

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I was a big fan of Flying Colorsdebut album. As soon as the project was announced, I suspected I would be since I love of all the constituent parts: Casey MacPherson’s work with Alpha Rev and Endochine Day Two and New Morning are two of my most played albums; Steve Morse’s work in the Steve Morse Band and Dixie Dregs, often accompanied by the brilliant Dave LaRue on bass; and of course, the inimitable partnership of Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy, who have produced some of my favourite music over the years, particularly through Transatlantic, and much of Neal’s solo work. So to hear that they were collaborating to create a pop-rock-prog hybrid album excited me no end. And the result was brilliant.

But after a short tour and a live DVD, I was eager to see how they would follow it up. Second Nature is a worthy successor.

I admit, I had my reservations about this album. I had read that they were incorporating more progressive elements this time around, and I feared that would put me off. I love long, complex progressive music, but that was not really what I was after with Flying Colors. I enjoyed the slightly more poppy song-focussed nature of the first album, and to my surprise the track I enjoyed least was ‘Infinite Fire’, the 12-minute album closer, which I thought felt a little incongruous; like an attempt at hybrid-prog that hadn’t quite found its unique voice.

Added to that, the first track I heard from Second Nature was their single, ‘Mask Machine’, which – whilst having grown on me over time – still remains my least favourite track on the album.

But as soon as I gave the whole CD its first spin, my fears dissipated. This is an exceptional album!

It is progressive – very much so, with a few songs sitting around the 7 or 12 minute mark – but there are no sacrifices made on the quality of the song-writing. Neal Morse is already one of my favourite songwriters, but the addition of Casey MacPherson in the mix brings a freshness to an already well-perfected formula.

Neal’s keyboards come through far more on this album than on the previous one, and it was nice to hear a more natural piano sound come to the fore, rather than his trademark synth lead, which – whilst still there, and still welcome – does rather mark out his style. I think a strong prominent piano sound really suits Flying Colors, and added a lot to tracks like ‘Open Up Your Eyes’, ‘The Fury Of My Love’, and ‘Cosmic Symphony’.

I think there will always be a tension in a band in which there are two prominent vocalists, and there were a few times where I wished one or other of Neal or Casey had been allowed to do the whole song, rather than trading off verses. But that said, it’s amazing to have such an array of talent within one band, and when each member is able to play to their strengths, the results are remarkable.

A few thoughts on each track:

1. Open up your eyes

This is a great opener, and the piano solo leading into the overture sets the tone for the album. By the time the vocals kick in around the 4-minute mark, you are left in no doubt that this is going to be a progressive album.

Each of the band members gets a chance to shine on this track. There is a great bass groove around 3 minutes in, some brilliant drum patterns around 7.10-7.40 and 9.22-10.10 – and nice backing vocals from Portnoy too. I enjoyed the guitar solos, and the quirky sections around 5 minutes and again towards the end, which reminded me of the various ‘Thoughts’ tracks from Spock’s Beard.

2. Mask machine

As I’ve said, this remains my least favourite track on the album, but still it’s pretty strong! The bass riff that kicks it off is solid, and I really love the drum break around 2.30 and the screaming guitar solo.

3. Bombs Away

Tracks 2 and 3 fit well together. Both of them have a steady driving groove, but whereas ‘Mask Machine’ is faster and more full-on, ‘Bombs Away’ is slower, more spacious, and gives room for some great guitar work over a sparse underlying riff.

Instinctively you feel that the track will be a straight 4/4, but the added half bars are a nice addition. And the breakdown around 3.40 takes us into familiar but welcome progressive territory. There are some moments in the second verse where the vocals verge on the manic side, which remind me of the latter part of Spock’s Beard’s ‘Snow’ album. All in all, a great song.

4. The Fury of my Love

This is undoubtedly one of my favourite tracks. The piano and acoustic intro is beautiful. I have to say, I wasn’t always convinced by the acoustic guitar tone on the first album, but it’s far better here and starts off the song nicely.

The chord progressions are rich, the ending was epic, and just when I thought it was going to die down and finish quietly, the screech of the guitar feedback brought a smile to my face.

Casey’s vocals are perfect and the ‘Somewhere in the back of your mind, yours was more important than mine‘ motif has been stuck in my head for ages.

5. A place in your world

This song is fun from the outset, with the quirky keys and guitars being held nicely in place by rock solid bass work. The bass playing is deceptively simple at the beginning, given how complex it becomes from about 3.10 onwards.

By and large, my preference for this project is for Casey’s vocals, since I feel they’re a little more contemporary than Neal’s. But it’s on tracks like this that Neal’s voice really shines, since it brings a slightly more vintage sound than Casey’s does.

I love the groove that underlies the ‘I surrender’ section, and the combination of LaRue’s bass and some brilliant vocals from Mike Portnoy, make that one of my favourite moments on the album. I really enjoyed the simple video for this track too, which just shows how much fun these guys are having whilst playing this music.

6. Lost Without You

Similarly to the opening of ‘The Fury Of My Love’, I really loved the piano, and it was complemented by some intricate cymbal work.For me, this song was most reminiscent of Alpha Rev, which I loved. The dynamics of the track are excellent and it peaks and troughs in all the right places. The vocal melody and lyrics are really well thought through, and I particularly enjoyed the sincerity of verse 2, and the way it drops to piano and falsetto vocals at 3.30 before kicking in again with the full band.

7. One Love Forever

This track was a bit of a surprise to be honest! I wasn’t expecting a song with such a Celtic, folky vibe, and I’m still not entirely sure whether I feel that it fits on the album. It’s certainly got something of a Steve Morse Band feel about it, and it’s a perfectly fine song, with some nice time signature changes. I enjoyed the 3/4 verses, with the straight 4/4 chorus, and I loved the way it built to a nice 5/4 section before the outro, with the shifting accents. I just felt that it jars a little with the songs that surround it. But it may grow on me in time.

8. Peaceful Harbor

This is definitely one of the best songs on the album. The intro immediately took me back to the moment when I saw Flying Colors live in London in 2012 and Casey delivered a haunting rendition of Leonard Cohen’s ‘Hallelujah’. I was gutted to have missed their only UK date this time round, but I’m sure that this song would have been a highlight of the set.

The song is well structured, with some inventive melodies and chord progressions, and it has an almost hymnic quality in places. I loved the guitar work throughout this track, underpinned by a gentle hammond. And there were numerous moments that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand on end. The latter half of the song is, in many ways, a cross between Dream Theater’s ‘The Spirit Carries On’ and Pink Floyd’s The Great Gig In The Sky’. The guitar solos resembled classic John Petrucci (back in the day when he remembered how to play with heart, rather than just speed!) and the gentle female vocal at 4.25 leading into the huge choir sound was amazing.

I read somewhere that Mike Portnoy felt that the absence of an outside producer on this album meant they didn’t have to trim the fat so much, and were able to let the songs breathe a little more. I do think that is a real strength of this album; it would have been a crime to trim this track down!!

And if the album had finished there I would have been perfectly happy… But I’m glad it didn’t:

9. Cosmic Symphony

This song is a great ending to the album. The thunderstorm and drumbeat made me feel like I’d momentarily switched to a Michael Jackson record, but the piano motif and Casey’s vocals – which fit ever-so-slightly-uncomfortably over the groove – were beautiful. And Dave LaRue’s 30 second bass solo from 1.28 was a fantastic bridge between the verses.The first 3 minutes of the song are like a slow and steady gradual build, and as the ‘Still Life of the World’ section comes to an end, the crescendo has a Muse­-like quality, which gives way to a nice 5/4 – 6/4 section, for which Neal’s vocals and bluesy keyboards are perfectly suited.

The transition between the ‘Searching for the Air’ and ‘Pound for Pound’ sections is brilliant, with the opening motif being reworked in a slightly menacing fashion, to provide a base for some manic guitar and bass playing.

Then from 6.15 until the end it’s pure, beautiful Alpha Rev. The vocal line has a slightly loose, rambling feel, that fits nicely with the poetic lyrics. And the climax of the song is brilliantly done, with Casey kicking the vocals up an octave, a segue into a beautiful guitar solo, and the return of the choir to underlie an epic ending.

I felt like this track could have carried on and on – there could have been more sections, further explorations of the themes, and I would have lapped them up. But the decision to bring it to a close under the 12-minute mark was probably a very good one, and has left me wanting more. This is the track ‘Infinite Fire’ should have been, and I am so glad they had another stab at it.

All in all, I think this album is a step up from the first one. And any qualms I had about a more progressive direction have been well and truly undone. My hope is that if the band can continue in this vein, combining strong progressive musicianship and brilliant song writing, they may be able to make a big contribution in popularising a genre often considered bombastic, pretentious and inaccessible.

Now I sincerely hope the band’s manic schedules will allow for a longer tour and, in due course, a third album!

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