Flying Colors - Second Nature Album CoverSecond Nature, Flying Colors’ sophomore release, is representative of everything the band does well.  Its balladic, singable songs are also technical and complex, characterized both by their boldness and their uplifting refrains.  This is one of 2014’s definitive releases.

Second Nature
Artist: Flying Colors
Label: Music Theories / Mascot Label Group
Time: 9 tracks / 67:00 minutes

Somehow, though it’s only been two years, it seems as though a much longer period of time has passed since Flying Colors debuted their self-titled release in 2012.  The band, initially formed by producer Bill Evans, retains its initial lineup of seasoned veterans Steve Morse (Kansas, Dixie Dregs), Neal Morse (Transatlantic, Spock’s Beard), Dave LaRue (Dixie Dregs, Joe Satriani), Mike Portnoy (Transatlantic, The Winery Dogs, ex-Dream Theater), together with singer/songwriter Casey McPherson (Alpha Rev, Endochine).  The band initially returned to the studio on May 12 of 2013 to begin writing the followup to their debut, and – as July 29th’s official announcement proclaimed – their sophomore production is certainly “chock full of all the prog, pop and rock goodness you’ve come to expect.”  Fueled by the zest and technical cohesion that have together come to define the Flying Colors project, the band’s dynamic new album, Second Nature, will officially hit the music world at the end of September (UK, the 29th; US, the 30th), adding 9 new songs to their repertoire and further building upon their monumental success. 

Second Nature begins with “Open up Your Eyes,” a standalone epic.  The track is twelve-and-a-half minutes long, the first third of which is an overture all of its own.  The first 4:00 minutes of instrumental pontificating establish the themes that the rest of the song will utilize throughout its duration.  Until Casey’s voice enters at the 4:00-minute mark, the song is distinctly a Neal Morse composition, and wouldn’t be out of place on the second disc of Transatlantic’s The Whirlwind, though Steve Morse’s and Casey’s guitar playing are conspicuously different than Roine Stolt’s.  As the wash of acoustic guitar and Portnoy’s quarter notes on the bass drum supersede the overture, suddenly “Open up Your Eyes” truly begins to sound like a Flying Colors tune: boisterous, memorable vocals, undergirded by technical orchestration.  LaRue’s bass is restless and driving, tied closely to Portnoy’s steady time-keeping.  The song navigates through the avenues established in the introduction, meshing prog-heavy moments with sweeping guitar harmonies and half-time balladic sections, overlaid with Neal’s synth and Portnoy’s counter-rhythms.  Casey sings the majority of the lead throughout “Open up Your Eyes,” with a brief insert by Neal, and Steve’s first solo meticulously cannibalizes and transforms the melody, re-assembling it into a soaring guitar lead.  The final seconds of the track comprise a furious technical passage: synth and guitar riffing between downbeat bass stabs, guided through the tension by Portnoy’s impeccable fills.

“Mask Machine,” the first track to be released online from Second Nature, borrows the harsh rock guise of “Shoulda Coulda Woulda” off of the band’s eponymous release, not to mention the fact that both tracks bat second on their respective albums, offloading the band’s propensity for explosiveness at the beginning of each record.  The band also released a single version of “Mask Machine” on August 27th that was remixed by Mark Needham (The Killers, Pink, Imagine Dragons), shortening the 6:00-minute track into a sharper, more radio-friendly chunk.  Dave LaRue manages this composition, both via his fuzzy and elongated bass intro as well as his strong, driving presence throughout the track.  The breakdown is a flurry of signature Portnoy rolls on the whole kit, syncopated guitar hits, and then Steve’s solo: a rapid series of chromatic ascensions, the conclusion of which falls into tight unison with Portnoy’s bass drum and toms.  Overall, “Mask Machine” is huge, bombastic Flying Colors, an energetic, straightforward rock tune that is an obvious choice for the Second Nature single.

“Bombs Away” is structured principally on LaRue’s shoulders once again, pairing his funk bassline with panned guitars.  I like this one a lot, partly because all represented instruments have separate and distinct voices in the mix, each allowed to breathe through spacing and diversity.  A standout lyric here, traded between Neal and Casey – “Suckin’ on Cheez Whiz, lost in the business” – paints the song in the light of authenticity: a quest for original expression in an industry largely absorbed with recycling.  “Bombs Away” also features another fantastic Steve Morse guitar solo, as well as a harmonic synth-and-guitar breakdown that could be a direct transplant from Kansas’ Leftoverture.

“The Fury of My Love” is Second Nature’s first ballad, a carefully measured and well-structured love song, and one of my favorite pieces on the album.  “I’ll never go halfway,” Casey insists, mollifying the fears of a hesitant lover, insisting on an all-or-nothing approach to their relationship.  With the exception of bridge lyrics that are somewhat cookie-cutter, the writing retains the succinct and expressive nature that it took on the band’s debut album.  Beds of vocal harmony from the whole band support Casey’s lead on the choruses, and Steve takes advantage of the spaces in the mix to fill them with fantastic lead parts.  Overall, “Fury” is a strong, emotive track in the vein of Flying Colors’ first release, and is almost invariably the song that gets stuck in my head for hours afterward.

“A Place in Your World” again recalls Kansas for Neal’s organ-based introduction, before ultimately settling into a solid, Boston-esque classic rock groove for the verses.  In fact, a good portion of the guitar and organ work on this track channel Tom Scholz.  Casey and Neal share the duty of lead vocalist, and the bass-led breakdown features Portnoy at the microphone as well.  Steve’s hybrid finger-tapped/picked solo is complemented by Casey’s harmonizing guitar parts, demonstrating the solid musical chemistry that these two artists share.

“Lost Without You” is the album’s most straightforward and simplistic track, predicated on Neal’s piano and Steve’s guitar part, which channels Andy Summers (The Police).  This song finds its home in the Journey-esque, half-ballad-half-anthem type of composition that Flying Colors does so well, thematically pondering lost love (with the suggestion of lost life – “So cold, now / I’m still bringing flowers to the grave”).  Frankly, if there’s a throwaway track on Second Nature, this is it.  That’s certainly not to say that “Lost Without You” is a bad song or a piece of subpar writing.  But if the album’s tracks were sinking passengers and the band could only save 8 of them…  Regardless, Casey’s lead vocals are superb, and Neal, Steve, and Mike all provide strong backing support throughout the track.

“One Love Forever” has an overall celtic vibe, combining acoustic guitar with droning organ and accordion.  In terms of time and meter changes, this track is the most interesting piece of writing on Second Nature.  Working between 3/4 and 4/4 on verses and choruses respectively, “One Love Forever” also features an anthemic, distinctly Neal Morse riff that works its way through a number of time changes during the final segment of the song.  Vocal harmonies are especially strong on this track as well, and the ending is a strong junction of organ and guitar descent, structured around LaRue’s bass stabs and Portnoy’s cymbal work.

“Peaceful Harbor” is another ballad, opening with atmospheric patches on the keys and Casey’s mournful “oohs,” before the entrance of a solitary acoustic guitar.  Dynamically, the verses build to Steve’s expressive guitar solo, which borrows from the melody as it soars above the rest of the mix.  Casey and Neal trade lead vocals on this track, and are also joined by a gospel choir for the inarticulate but powerful refrain at the song’s conclusion.  “Peaceful Harbor” is an absolutely beautiful piece of writing, though the fact that it dwells on the same chord progression throughout the entirety of its 7:15-minute duration speaks of possible expansion.  I don’t say that as a complaint though, because “Peaceful Harbor” is a gorgeous and uplifting composition that adds dynamic weight to the latter half of the album via its lush, well-rounded presence.

The album’s second epic and final track, "Cosmic Symphony," serves as the pairing bookend to “Open up Your Eyes.”  This single-track suite is, overall, the strongest composition on the album.  It is a microcosm of everything Flying Colors does especially well: long songs infused with musical technicality, paired with singability, powerful writing, and superb musicianship.  Part One, “Still Life of the World,” begins with the rumble of thunder and an eerie piano riff that will cycle through all three segments of the suite, and provides LaRue a moment after the first verse to take a bass solo in the upper register.  Part Two, “Searching for the Air,” features Neal at the helm of lead vocalist as well as a live string section, which assumes the piano introduction and – together with LaRue’s rolling bass and Portnoy’s even drumming – provides the bed for one of Steve’s stronger, more technical solos.  Part III, “Pound for Pound,” is my absolute favorite composition on the entire album.  Bluesy and sentimental, Steve Morse’s playing throughout this final movement recalls some of Jimi Hendrix’ or Guthrie Govan’s more pensive work.  This final movement of the “Cosmic Symphony” lingers in the initial blues-rock sentiment, building gradually on Portnoy’s restless toms and Neal’s rock organ.  As Casey’s vocal leaps the octave, the gospel choir returns for the revelatory, liberating climax.  The track ultimately settles back into Neal’s piano lead as the band fades away, nicely tying together the epic’s ending and pervasive theme, and ending the albumwith satisfying resolution.

Second Nature is undeniably a strong sequel to the band’s first release.  It is masterfully performed and produced, and retains all the fervor of a live performance – something that is exceptionally difficult to capture in a studio recording, and exceptionally rare in this era of canned-and-processed music.  I love this album’s sound, its heart, and its intentions.  But I do think it is overtly progressive in its presentation, which – on any other record, by any other band – wouldn’t normally be a complaint (Too much prog?  Impossible!).  However, the deviation from the more pop-driven sound of their first record into more progressive music seems to detract somewhat from the clarity and character that Flying Colors established.  The biggest example of this is Second Nature’s opening epic, where the first 4:00 minutes are essentially a Transatlantic composition.  While I love the technicality, the sound, and the idea of an overture, as well as the masterful way the band expand upon the themes, I think that approach better suited to Neal’s solo work or the next Transatlantic album.  It’s fantastic prog, but it isn’t really Flying Colors.  What especially set the band apart at their debut was the fact that they were writing prog-flavored pop – not that they were a prog band with a pop sound.  That was the first album’s selling point: while Flying Colors was certainly virtuosic, it was also catchy and simple, harnessing a definitive pop-rock charm that was enriched by the incredible musicianship underneath.  Furthermore, Second Nature has no “Kayla” and no “The Storm.”  There are plenty of singable, catchy moments, and the multilayered nature of the album impresses more and more upon me with each successive listen; however, the band’s debut album (especially its first four tracks) immediately grabbed and hooked me on the Flying Colors project.  In sum, while Second Nature builds on the foundation, and while it doesn’t fail to meet any of its own staggering ambitions, it didn’t begin to inspire me the same way the debut did until my third or fourth listen through.

Take all of that with a grain of salt, because this is a great album.  It’s not excessive to the extent of Topographical Oceans, and it’s nowhere close to the diminished disappointment of 90125 either.  I think this album simply suffers from the sophomore syndrome that the majority of followup releases undergo: trying to retain the magic of the debut while seeking to expand into new territory.  However, the bottom line is that Second Sound is both expressive and explorative, is as much the conjunction of fun and familiar flavors as was the band’s first release, and – unsurprisingly – it does melodic prog really well.  This is one of the definitive albums of 2014, and a strong second showing from one of the best musical acts of this decade.

Don’t miss Second Sound’s official release at the end of this month.

Justin Carlton