2012’s eponymously titled debut album from Flying Colors (that’s ‘colours’ for UK readers) was the result of yet another of workaholic drummer Mike Portnoy’s projects gathering together musicians with whom he’d like to work. Adding his old sparring partner Neal Morse (Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic) to Deep Purple guitarist namesake Steve Morse, plus bassist Dave LaRue (Dixie Dregs, Steve Vai) to the relatively new talent of singer/guitarist Casey McPherson, they came up with an interesting sound. Combining melodic rock and songwriting to more extended (some may say prog) pieces, the quintet were keen to present as not so much another side project but as a functioning band. Taking the limited opportunity within their busy schedules, they managed to get out and play live and now find themselves back in the spotlight with a new album.
Pieced together over a year and a half the record made the most of modern technology and writing via Skype, whilst there was also the occasional get together at Neal Morse’s or Mike Portnoy’s homes as well as doing their own individual thing (and no doubt the takes transferring back and forth via the cyber highway).
It develops from what Portnoy called the “blind date” of the debut album to a record which shows the five are genuinely getting to know each other musically and appreciating how they can work together. They’re not getting married, but the evolution of a musical relationship isn’t too far off an analogy. The chemistry from the first record and the live dates has resulted in a much more satisfying record where a few boundaries have been nudged and there are some genuinely exciting moments. Acting as spokesman for the band, Portnoy has responded to the notion that the album has a proggier path to be a decision which was “not conscious at all. Direction was never discussed. We just did what we do.” Taking on their own production duties may have led to the music having the chance to extend a little more without an external hand to rein them in, yet for that main part the songs are manageably listenable without losing direction.
"Second Nature is an album full of quality writing, great Portnoy drum fills and allows each player the opportunity to showcase their musicianship"
Yes, they do stretch out beyond the ten minute mark with the opening Open Your Eyes which is a great introduction. Compositionally and arrangement wise its perhaps the most ambitious piece, taking a leaf from Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy’s Transatlantic work, particularly when Morse gets a hold of a verse midway through the track. There’s also the three part Cosmic Symphony which closes the album; maybe not as successful as the former as it moves through its different sections, with an emphasis on a more relaxed and atmospheric vibe.
As well as extended tracks, there are the more straightforward rock tracks. Mass Machine has been out as the lead track or what we used to call a single, possibly guilty of almost being a case of the band looking to write something which might be suitable as a single…..maybe? Alongside, we get the melodic A Place In Your World all guitar riff led with some keyboard injections and a chance for Neal Morse to take a lead vocal with an AOR friendly chorus while The Fury Of My Love starts as piano ballad and a chance to indulge in some Beatle style harmonies which they have the habit of referencing now and again.
As pleasant and impressive as the album has been in the main, things get a bit more interesting as we hit the final straight. With keyboard parts which call to mind Jethro Tull at times, One Love Forever reverts to standard chorus only to be lifted by some catchy keys and a flurry of typically Portnoy drum fills. However, it’s Peaceful Harbor (‘harbour’ for British readers) which throws in a curveball and what a delivery it is. Opening with a strange falsetto wail and a low key verse sung against what sounds like an unplugged electric guitar, the second verse sees Neal Morse in full on spiritual mode and absolutely in his element. As a tremendous singer, his opportunities on this record are limited yet when he does sing, boy does he makes it count. Typically transcendent Morse – the verse beginning with “Love like heaven’s wind” and lots of alliteration, with fear freezing our steps and scars turning scarlet but as he sings about love filling the sails on the journey to find peace, the lump is starting to rise. Steve Morse delivers a tastefully composed solo and the band kick in, and backed by the McCrary sisters on backing vocals. It becomes an almost gospel invocation as it closes out and only the hardest of hearts and the emotionally retarded could fail to be moved in some way. Forget Enya, music like should provide the soundtrack as Frodo departs the Grey Havens for the Undying Land. It’s what Mike Portnoy would call ‘epic’ and played live would have him stood thrashing the bejesus out of his kit.
Second Nature at almost seventy minutes, is an album full of quality writing, great Portnoy drum fills and allows each player the opportunity to showcase their musicianship. Vocally, it shifts gear when Neal Morse adds his inspiring tones to proceedings, but is nonetheless a record about which Steve Morse has commented quite rightly : “the more you listen, the more you hear.” Shame about the spelling though.