Album Reviews

Issue 2014-059

Flying Colors - Second Nature - Round Table Review

Flying Colors - Second Nature
Country of Origin: USA
Format: CD
Record Label: Mascot Records
Catalogue #: B00MNU9SWG
Year of Release: 2014
Time: 66:20
Info: Flying Colors
Samples: Flying Colors website
Track List:
Open Up Your Eyes (12:24), Mask Machine (6:06), Bombs Away (5:03), The Fury of My Love (5:10), A Place in Your World (6:25), Lost Without You (4:46), One Love Forever (7:17), Peaceful Harbor (7:01), Cosmic Symphony (11:46)
Nathan Waitman's Review
Flying Colors is a supergroup of sorts involving five highly talented members. First of all we have Steve Morse and Dave LaRue of Dixie Dregs fame on guitar and bass respectively. Then there is Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy of Transatlantic as well as a host of other bands and projects on keyboards and drums respectively. Bridging the gap between these two duos is the band's secret weapon, Casey McPherson on guitars and vocals, from the pop/rock band Alpha Rev. Casey McPherson is what makes this band truly unique, giving the music a more modern and mainstream flair with his incredible voice and songwriting abilities. It helps to reign in the over-the-top progressive rock tendencies of the rest of the band to create something truly unique and special. The band showed what they were capable of on their self-titled debut album in 2012, but this new album, appropriately titled Second Nature, shows that their debut was only the tip of the iceburg. They have expanded and further developed their sound and have created a modern pop-prog masterpiece.

The album opens in true progressive fashion with the epic Open Up Your Eyes, which is surely the most progressive piece on the whole album. Beginning with a sweet piano melody played by Neal Morse, the band kicks in for a grand overture to set up this track and the album as a whole. This opening section feels like it could come straight from Transatlantic's The Whirlwind. When Casey's vocals kick in, though, there is a whole other ingredient brought to the mix that sets this track apart from the works of Transatlantic. I love everything about this track, from the quirkier instrumental sections, to the great bridge sung by Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy, to Dave LaRue's funky bass playing, to the triumphant Steve Morse guitar solo, leading to a grandiose finale where Casey's voice is at its best. I felt like the band's debut album was still trying to discover what it wanted to be. The brilliance of Second Nature is that the band seems to have decided to just embrace who they are and play what they feel compelled to. It doesn't matter if it leans more towards prog, pop, or modern rock. The great thing about this band is they can be all three. They can start with a purely prog epic, follow it up with a straight forward hard rock song, and then have a pure pop ballad. It is music uninhibited by genre and labels. All that matters is that it is good songwriting by talented musicians.

The album continues with Mask Machine, a more straightforward rock song that sounds like it takes its inspiration from Muse. There is a great section towards the end that has a more laid-back groove with some cool Beach Boys style harmonies. Bombs Away has an addictive funky groove to it with another great vocal from Casey. The Fury Of My Love is a beautiful pop ballad full of emotion and intensity. A Place In Your World is a fun song, perhaps in the style of the poppier moments of Spock's Beard. Neal Morse gets a chance to sing lead vocals, giving a good amount of variety amongst Casey's vocals. There is also a Beatles-esque vibe to the song, especially in the harmonies and in the Mike Portnoy sung bridge. Lost Without You is another heartfelt song with a more modern pop feel. The next track, One Love Forever, is a unique one for the band, and one of the most fun moments of the record. It sounds like a mixture between acoustic folk music and an Irish jig. The middle section features Neal Morse again on vocals in an almost Spanish flamenco style. It is a great track that shows the diversity of this band and the different sounds they are able to come up with.

The final two tracks of the album show the true heart and soul of this band. They aren't really very proggy in their style, but they show why this band is so special. They include amazing heartfelt vocals by Casey McPherson, and beautiful melodies that stick with you and touch your heart. Peaceful Harbor is like a breath of fresh air. I love how Casey sings the first verse, Neal sings the second verse, and then they come together and sing the third verse together. The music is inspiring with a great soaring guitar solo and an epic finale with a full gospel choir. I love the haunting melody chanted by Casey, and later sung by the gospel choir. This is powerful music. The finale is a very interesting track called Cosmic Symphony. It is of epic length, but not in a symphonic prog style like the opener is. Instead, there are three clearly defined sections in a more pop, laid back style. The track begins with the sounds of a storm, before Neal's keys come in amongst a simple drum beat. Casey's vocals are at their emotion-filled best, making this section work as it builds. I must also mention Dave LaRue's impressive bass-work that plays amongst Neal's keyboard melody. This shifts into a more jazzy, Neal-led section. This is one of my favorite sections of the album with some great jazzy keyboard playing by Neal and a great groove with drum and bass. This leads to the last section of the track, that features some incredible jazzy guitar work from Steve Morse. This section also features Casey McPherson's best vocal performance to date. He clearly feels every word he is singing. His unique vocal tone is a perfect fit and leads to the triumphant finish before the song closes with the same keyboard melody and sounds from the storm heard at the beginning.

Second Nature is an incredible statement from a band that makes no apologies about who they are. It is a great mixture of all the different styles that the band members bring to the table. Every track sounds very different, and yet the band never loses their specific identity. That is what makes for a truly special band. I had the pleasure of seeing them live on their very short recent tour, and their chemistry on stage added even more to these already amazing songs. The combination of styles, the heartfelt emotion and passion of the band, and the high technical skill and song-writing ability all combine to create a truly magical musical stew. Every member of this band is a master at what they do, so it is truly an accomplishment when the sum is even greater than the parts. It is very interesting to see what a band's chemistry can do for the music, and, in this case, it has created something truly special that I hope will continue into the future on other releases and tours.
John Wenlock-Smith's Review
I could take the lazy way and write "astounding, get this now" but you deserve a bit more than that I think, Just why do I think this is astounding, what makes it so absorbing and why do I rate it so highly.

Firstly let's set the scene, this is the second Flying Colors album after their eponymous debut in 2012, it similar in style however there is a definite progression and more emphasis on the progressive elements this time around, the album both opening and closing with lengthy epic pieces is a clue to this progression.

In between those bookends are a veritable, well seven further slices of a very tasty pie indeed, again the emphasis is not so much on the virtuosity of the individual members but rather more on what the song needs, although having said that the musicianship on display here is exemplary, imaginative and at times breathtaking especially the incendiary guitarwork of Steve Morse alongside the inspired keyboards of Neal Morse.

That said that this is very much a "group" effort and everyone is reaching for greater heights, what is different here is that vocals are now not the sole domain of Casey McPherson as Neal Morse is featured on parts of several songs which adds to the overall effect.

What never ceases to amaze me is the prolific nature of these guys, they are all busy with other bands and projects yet together weave some definite magic and very strong songs, this is no fatuous supergroup playing on its reputation(s), Instead these guys make music that is intelligent, sophisticated, believable and above all both relevant and worthwhile.

This isn't as immediate as its predecessor but it's arguably as good if not better, there is a greater variety of music here and several "classics" that I will revisit many times.

For me the absolute standout track is "Peaceful Harbour" which is to my ears an absolutely brilliant song, emotive, powerful, beautifully constructed and performed and with one of Steve Morse's finest ever guitar breaks, it's a song that has the power to move you, it's too good for mass consumption almost as it has a class that outshines virtually everything currently in the charts (not hard I know) but it is an amazing song that if a wider audience heard it it could be a massive "power ballad" crossover hit.

There is a definite Beatles influence here in the harmonies and phrasing again not that that's a bad thing either but ultimately it belongs firmly and squarely as Flying Colors and this is an evolving sound, more assured and focused than their debut it's a step up (and that debut was awesome by any standards), this is just even better.

To be honest I could wax lyrical about this but instead you would be much better off listening to this for yourself as there isn't a duff track on here at all, as I say for me standouts are Peaceful Harbour, A place in your world and One love forever, but all is good, great even.

So I urge you to beg, purloin or whatever (but do it legally please) to hear this for yourself. I think it's one of the best things I've heard this year in a year already chock full of some great albums already.

Really have a listen for yourselves and see what you think, personally I think it's invariably going to be high up on my top ten albums of the year. Yes, it's that good, truly.

Over to you.
Eric Perry's Review
Often a sequel to a successful film falls flat and can't reproduce the magic of the first one, even when the original cast are the same, the same writers are used and the production values are increased. It happens frequently in music too -- 'that difficult second album', which either loses in the strain to hit the success of the first, or it merely retreads over the same ground and falters as a result.

Of course there are execptions to everything and it's clear from the start that Flying Colors' latest effort Second Nature matches the power of the impressive debut, and for much of its nine tracks, it succeeds in eclipsing it too.

Following the eponymous debut, in 2012 it was clear that the returning cast of Mike Portnoy, Neal Morse, Casey McPherson, Steve Morse, and Dave LaRue would have to bring their "A Game" to stand a chance of showing their fans that there was much more to come from a group that fits the supergroup mantle. Without doubt though, musicians of this calibre bring their "A Game" with consumate ease to the table and show so many many in their genre how it's done.

There are some notible differences this time around and the first is evident in the opener, Open Up Your Eyes which is clearly a move towards a more recognisable progressive sound in the twelve plus minutes running time. Perhaps expectedly, being a group made up of half of Transatlantic it seemed a logical assumption that some of their sound was in there from the start. Open Your Eyes is the first instance where it feels more obviously progressive and begins in true Transatlantic fashion with a lengthy series of linked melodies and hooks that centre around some dynamic interplay between (Neal) Morse's keyboard wizardry and (Steve) Morse's slick harmonic guitar passages. In a style that follows Transatlantic the vocal passages don't begin for more than four minutes of intensity, the often delicate but strong vocals of McPherson calming the storm and providing a tonal contrast to that of Neal Morse's vocals which are rich in drama.

Ultimately there is plenty of excellent vocal quality in this group and throughout there are some of the best examples of voice and harmony to be found. McPherson's voice really shines on this album and matches the diversity that makes up the second Flying Colors sound.

Following the epic bluster of Open Up Your Eyes is a more straight ahead rocker in Mask Machine which explodes in its intensity from the start. Perfect single material, this is a track that has an instant appeal and demonstrates the exceptional Steve Morse on guitar. What lifts the track further is a passage that begins at around the 3:30 mark with vocal layering and atmospheric keys with some sublime, subtle guitar additions. The break in momentum really stands out before the track emerges out of cruise gear to grab you again.

Bomb's Away with its Tom Petty feel chugs along on a spacious guitar groove which relinquishes its minimalist feel to yet more polished rich layers of vocal harmonies and a build up in sound that gives this track a big speaker feel.

Contrasting the noise of Bombs Away comes the power ballad of Fury Of My Love which may fill fans of hard rock and progressive rock with some dread and trepidation and have some reaching for the skip button. But in truth this is a potent and passionately delivered piece of class songwriting that chimes beautifully of unrequited love and rediscovering something that was lost. McPherson's voice on this really sells the song from start to finish and challenges the toughest of souls to experience some leaky eye symptoms. Worthy of a first dance, this is Flying Colors at their best.

Fury is a tough act to follow and yet the single of the album A Place in Your World reaches out and keeps things bouncing along with yet more catchy chorus offerings and tasty melodies. It's more Spock's Beard with a greater slab of AOR in the prog at this point but it has a lot to offer and spices up the variety of this album. Every great record has a toe-tapper and this is the one here. Whatever you want from your music it's impossible to feel anything less than admiration for what this band are capable of.

The passion that Fury has returns in Lost without You and almost matches its logical partner on this album for romantic strength. Its delivery is very much in McPherson's ability to tug the heartstrings. Once again this is a lost love theme.

The Celtic folkiness of One Love Forever has a fresh, Irish jig vibe that mingles effortlessly with yet more hard-edged thump from Portnoy and more Transatlantic qualities from the midsection which hits a particularly familiar groove from that 'other' supergroup. It's the Morse style and whilst it does periodically surface it should not be seen as a critasism as the most part it really is kept in check. Perhaps if the group had more time to work together in the studio rather than collectively bringing their songs to the table this would be less likely to feature. This aside it is possible to see that being on the road has given the group chance to work well as a unit and this will continue to move them into new areas.

From out of nowhere comes Peaceful Harbor, an acoustic knock out punch which builds from the delightful high tenor lament from McPherson into a stratosphere masterstroke of gospel choir and wailing guitar which matches the incredible range of voices that sing so beautifully. This is a hair standing-back-of-the-neck moment and elevates the album from very good to one of the year's finest releases, beating with passion and magnificence. It would be enough to see out the album on such a climactic note yet there is room for one more.

Closing with another twelve minute epic, Cosmic Symphony brings back the prog to the album in three distinct parts that combine well, the latter of three, Pound for Pound perhaps shining the strongest here. The concluding segement delivers in the way all really good prog sounds do, leaning on that favourite trick of the Floyd-like vocal harmony "ahhh" to take the song to its peak of emotional energy and richness.

A sequel to defy all the usual pitfalls experienced by a follow-up, Second Nature is a winner in every area. Classy songwriting, top-class musicianship and memorable songs that have a lasting fondness that will progress into love after repeated plays. The easy critism to level at the album is the connection it has to that other Morse/Portnoy partnership and yet this is a disservice to the massive contributions from the other members of Flying Colors. The album has its more significant prog flavours and yet is accessable and mainstream and has enough to get you some approving nods from your partner in the car. If you are new to Flying Colors to begin with, this is a superb entry to their work.
Nathan Waitman: 9.5 out of 10
John Wenlock-Smith: 9 out of 10
Eric Perry: 9 out of 10
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