Flying Colors – (eponymous 2012) – an album review

When the preeminent Progressive Metal band decides to hand you your walking papers rather than take a break, you might reasonably expect your career to take a bit of a nosedive. Not Mike Portnoy, though. He finishes up a tour for Avenged Sevenfold (of which he was never a proper member), records more albums with Neal Morse, and then co-founds not one but two fully fledged all-star ‘supergroup’ bands (not to mention other projects coming soon): metal heads The Adrenaline Mob, and prog rockers Flying Colours, the latter of whom we’re going to look at today.

tl;dr Version: Well, let’s see: It’s Progressive Rock featuring Mike Portnoy, Dave LaRue, Mike Portnoy, Steve Morse, Mike Portnoy, Neal Morse, Mike Portnoy, Casey McPherson, and Mike Muthaf@#$ing Portnoy! Now, how many more reasons do you need?

‘Splain, Lucy Version: Okay, to be fair, it’s not all about Mike Portnoy. I happen to be a fan of three out of four other people on that list, and I’m willing to give the new kid a try, if they are (sorry, Casey. Just teasing). It’s just that, I’ve been avidly following Dream Theater since Images and Words was new, I was also a big fan of the Liquid Tension Experiment, and my favourite Neo Prog band has almost certainly been Transatlantic. So you might say I’ve been following Mike Portnoy’s storied career with some interest for some time, and this is the current project that holds the most interest for me (no insult meant to Russell et al. I’m doing a review of Omerta shortly after this).

Boring Version: I could retell some of the series of events that lead to the formation of this project, but I think it’s much cooler to imagine that the stars aligned and they were all drawn to the same sun-blasted cathedral and began fusing into one celestial being. Or at least, I prefer to think that, when Steve, Neal and Dave learned that a world class drummer was out of a job (yes, Mike left of his own free will, but he certainly had help packing his bags there), they probably started wondering what it might be like to be in a band with Mike, little realizing that he was thinking the same thing, and as any fan can tell you, when Mike starts getting ideas, things start to happen.

Now, the exciting thing for me isn’t that Mike got a new band. It’s that Mike got a new PROG band with: Dave LaRue of the Dixie Dregs, who is a bass player of ‘considerable’ skill, style and taste (a man whom I would basically love to put in a machine and drain of all skill and talent, merely so I can be half as good); Steve Morse, also of Dixie Dregs and the high profile replacement guitarist of both Deep Purple and Kansas, a guitarist with few peers, as the latest G3 tour should amply make clear; and Neal Morse, whom Portnoy fans and Neo Prog fans in general know well as the heavyweight composer behind early Spock’s Beard and of Transatlantic, whose skills as a vocalist, lyricist and multi-instrumentalist are, to understate it badly, ‘thoroughly adequate’ (sorry, I can’t resist the urge to tweak the man, though I consider him a strong influence). If I could play keyboards half as good as this guy, I wouldn’t need a band to play my music for me.

Which just leaves us with this project’s X-Factor, and the one who, to my mind, is the one on which this album’s success will rest heaviest. I hope I can still be forgiven for not knowing Alpha Rev, and thus Casey McPherson, but I’ve heard some of this new album already (CHEATER!) and can’t help but think he sounds really good. He’s also a multi-instrumentalist, which is always a good sign for me with vocalists, as I like to know someone has skills besides screaming, moaning, and wiggling their bum before I develop a mad obsession with them. We’ll see how long I can maintain my objectivity after this review. Let’s get to it.

Blue Ocean opens with studio crosstalk, which lightens the affair up for anyone waiting on the edge of their seat to be surprised by some humongous opening riff that couldn’t possibly live up to their expectations. It also serves to make it clear that this stuff was recorded live off the floor with a real band of real players, and isn’t a mere studio product where ever part was recorded in isolation and tweaked to within an inch of tis life to make it great. When the song itself starts, there’s a nice group vibe, as the bass and drums set down a groove that the guitar and keys vamp in unison over. Casey’s vocal in the verse is good and he certainly sounds rich enough, but it isn’t until the chorus when Neal takes over on vocal that the sky seems to open up and the full power of this fully operational Deathstar is demonstrated. Then we have Neal and Casey swap parts, and you realize that it’s not going to be some big egofest. Going into the bridge, Mike switches to a Stewart Copeland vibe on drums, and the band essays a little heavy chorus vocal, which sounds lovely. The instrumental itself is precisely as intriguing as you would hope, especially after they switch from the many groove to a very Dixie Dregs kind of vibe. One more pass at the chorus, and then those groovy choral vocals singing the song title with a bit of flange escorts the song out. Nice.

Shoulda Woulda Coulda opens with a huge drum intro and massive, crunchy guitar and bass locking into a nice hard rock vibe, certainly heavy enough to be classed metal by 80s standards. The vocals here are unusual, in that Casey’s take on hard rock isn’t typical squealing and growling. He manages to put a highly individual take on the song, which is mainly an exercise to give the band a chance to exert some sweat and capture some of that Prog Metal grandiosity. I particularly like how Casey finishes the song with a nice, long wail, with just enough grit in his voice to make him interesting. For those wondering how Mike will get by without DT, this is the first clear sign of him finding a new way to do what he does best.

Kayla opens with a pretty medieval guitar figure, followed by Casey singing a ballady bit that suits his voice nicely. This is definitely the radio-friendly hit, but it’s got a LOT of stuff going on in it, including some classical progressions cleverly worked into the composition without sticking out. It’s a perfect piece of progressive pop, and I would dearly love to hear this get some airplay. It also has a nice medieval (vocal) round in the midst of the instrumental section, where the voices swirl in and out of each other beautifully. The producer behind this project is Peter Collins, and it’s in this song that his touch really shines through. If this song doesn’t get the attention it deserves, I promise you, I will flog it myself until people have heard it.

The Storm sounds for all the world to me like classic late 80s/early 90s rock, with a great verse and chorus and lush production. I could be cynical and say it’s a throwback, but really, with the last half dozen years of early 80s nostalgia, I personally can live with a little late 80s plus-perfect organic hard rock production values. The bridge to the instrumental has this curious mix of Duke-era Genesis and Keith Moon drumming that just hits a spot not heard much in Neo Prog. The vocal harmonies in this one feel really good. It’s another radio-friendly number, which makes it clear that this isn’t just going to be a chops-fest with wankery set to high. All of the playing skills serve the songs

Forever In A Daze has a great funky bass line and more of Portnoy’s best Stewart Copelandesque hi-hat work, but the song doesn’t hold still. This is another piece that has a lot going on it in, and yet it’s a mere 3:521 in length, so you know they’re not overplaying it. Dave gets to demonstrate some scary slap bass chops, which Steve recapitulates like a champ. The chorus has a kind of Blink-182 vibe, if they were produced by Peter Collins.

Love Is Everything I’m Waiting For opens with piano, acoustic guitar and vocals in a rhythmically choppy bit that leads to a wall of chorusing vocals that give away their mutual Beatles influence without feeling derivative. The guitar solo falls into Queen territory, which is quite amusing and very well done. All in all, I don’t really know what this song is, but it’s fun and deserves to be heard. If only radio were as interesting as it used to be, this tune would be a shoe-in. Sudden stop.

Everything Changes opens with a mountain of soaring guitars playing something akin to an aire in 6/4 , followed by an acoustic passage for the verse that plays it quiet and clean, followed shortly by a lunch chorus that brings back some of that soaring guitar. This tune does a number of thihgns as well, with a bridge to the instrumental that stays in 6/4 but pumped out on Wurlitzer makes it sound like a different tune entirely. Then the guitar comes flying in, and we’re reminded that Steve morse is one of the most overlooked monster guitar player son the planet. If you have to replace John Petrucci with anyone, you can do worse than to choose his hero. All in all, a gorgeous tune that has a certain amount of epic scale, even though it rings in at a mere 6:48, even with the soaring, classic Yes-like outro section.

Better Than Walking Away walks in quietly, more acoustics and electric piano and light hammond organ, followed by some gorgeous vocal harmonizing. This tune has a sort of classic Elton John feel, though it doesn’t stand out too obviously unless you’ve spent a fair bit of time listening to those classic early 70s albums. More gorgeous guitar playing from Steve, and some very effective, understated playing from Mike and Dave. Steve sneaks in some more Brian May-type guitar harmonizing, and then the vocal harmonies return and you get a sense that this is a band that could really have a great future, because they really have a great sound.

All Falls Down rocks mightily, with a true New Wave of British Metal vibe, complete with lydian mode guitar playing and double kick, plus that cod opera background basso profundo vocalizing that would be great for my old bass player’s range. It’s ever so slightly precious and silly, but it sounds fantastic. The song also gives Neal a chance to show off his keyboard chops before he has to make room for Steve. The song is basically a metal workout for the band, and Casey acquits himself nicely, even if he never sounds anything like a metal lead vocalist.

Fool In My Heart features Mike on lead vocal, and it’s a good song for him. Nice R&B vamp with a bright, open sound and Casey and Neal harmonizing in the chorus. It’s a rather charming, simple tune, somewhere between the Beatles and, I don’t know, Elton John? The Allman Brothers? There’s a definitely Souther Fried patina to this one, but it’s short, sweet and perfect.

Infinite Fire is twelve minutes long. Can you guess what that means? That’s right, kids, it’s Progressive Rock time. It opens with some space vibe and a bit of squalling keys followed by some soaring guitar that puts me immediately in mind of Transatlantic, which again is kind of a love letter to the 70s, particularly once the verse riff starts. It’s the kind of riff that Dream Theater are always trying to nail down, but it sounds so much easier and breezier than when they do it. The vocals in the chorus are broad and beautiful, and the guitar and bass bridging back to the verse are wonderfully clever and tasteful by turns. That chorus returns in a minute, and it’s uplifting, grand without being overdone, pretty without being cloying. Then we reach the first break, and it goes into a different vibe, much closer to classic Dixie Dregs, which gives the whole band a chance to show off in proper jazz fusion mode. They sound fantastic, like something out of very early Journey. The next break takes us to a section sung by Neal, which once again puts us in Transatlantic territory, with some of his best keyboard playing on the album, definitely hitting that Rick Wakeman vibe for me. Finally, the main chorus returns, and they lay it on thick with a trowel, starting to throw in the kitchen sink, a very Yes-like vocal section, before returning to that grand Transatlantic riff from off the top, but more elegiac this time, guitar soaring and crying. Big, washy finish, as the band sails away on a tide of church organ sounds

For anyone who was looking for this to be exactly as progressive and choppy as Transatlantic, the album might just be a bit of a disappointment. However, the really nice thing about this album is, it really is played magnificently, but it’s strength is in its songwriting, which they apparently managed to bang out relatively effortlessly. I liken it to the Corporate Rock of Asia, Journey, Toto, Styx and Kansas, but I mean that favourably as a guy who happens to really like those bands. I mean, it IS a supergroup, but it’s got its pop sensibilities well in hand. Unlike Transatlantic, which is the perfect band for me, this band may actually get some radio/satellite/Youtube play, and thus might actually have a chance of becoming a true, bona fide, full time working band. I’m not getting my hopes up, but I would like these guys to make another album, just so I can see that it wasn’t a fluke.

I recommend this album. It has a lot of layers that reveal themselves upon repeated listenings, so it’s not going to be something you just play once and put away. It’ll be a perfect album for the summer, which seems to be arriving early around these parts. The album should be out in just a few more days. Go pre-order it, or better yet, go to your record store and request that they order it, because you want this one to get into as many hands as possible.

© 2012 Lee Edward McIlmoyle

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