Tuesday, 8 May 2012

Flying Colors- Flying Colors CD Review

Good afternoon all. Coursework and viva preparation have managed to get in the way of any beer reviewing recently, but I've been listening to a lot of music to lighten the atmosphere and so I felt another album review would be appropriate. The last one seemed to go down well judging by the number of views, so hopefully you'll all enjoy this one despite my usual posts being more focused on fermented beverages. Mike Portnoy, former drummer for the progressive metal band Dream Theater, has been rather busy since he... parted ways with his esteemed cohorts of 20+ years, collaborating with a number of musicians, forming new bands and generally exploring the styles of rock music that shaped his approach to playing and composing during his formative years. One of these new groups is Flying Colors, a band that has no doubt provoked many invocations of the term "supergroup" since their announcement earlier this year. In all fairness, a quick glance at the line-up might be enough to justify the use of this dirty word- Neal Morse (Spock's Beard, Transatlantic), Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple) and Dave LaRue (John Petrucci, Jordan Rudess, Joe Satriani) feature on keys, guitar and bass respectively, with Portnoy handling drums and newcomer Casey McPherson being tasked with vocal duties, although each band member also contributes backing vocals and instrumental additions in varying capacities. The fact that every member- bar McPherson- has worked with each other on numerous occasions in the past suggests a degree of musical familiarity that could take this project to another level entirely. Their debut album was released March 26, 2012 on Provogue Records, and the review is after the pic....

The first track, "Blue Ocean", starts off with a small section of informal studio chatter and laughter before the producer wishes the group "good luck", which sounds like a new band having a bit of fun and inviting the listeners to join in on the action. It's an interesting opener, and certainly more interesting than just kicking out the jams straight away. Coincidentally, this intro style and the subsequent shuffling snare drum build-up from Portnoy are very similar to the start of "Highway Star" by Deep Purple, although I'm sure this is purely superficial and not intentionally related. The song builds around this drum pattern, with Messrs Morse and Morse trading off licks on their respective instruments before McPherson gives us a taste of his very capable vocal style. Despite being more conventionally structured than his previous work, Portnoy maintains his percussive flair with plenty of off-beat accents and embellishments, adopting more of a Neil Peart role than in recent years by driving the song forward yet keeping the rhythmic elements vibrant with unusual fills and half-time allusions. These aspects are present in virtually every song on the album, but crucially they don't interfere with the instruments at the forefront and so are welcome additions. Another album theme that is introduced in this song is that of the epic, anthemic chorus- every track delivers pseudo-orchestral, harmonised vocal lines over whole-note ringing guitar chords and impeccably arranged backing vocals, yet the sheer power and conviction present means this dimension never gets old. Morse delivers a tasty solo that alternates between Dixie Dregs-era chicken pickin' and chromatic jazz-inspired shred runs, gradually built up using the intro as a template for development. The fading out of the elements towards the end of the song gives us the opportunity to hear the acapella harmonies introduced during the mid-section, acting as a fitting end to this first taste of Flying Colors. As first tracks go it's certainly up there with the best, as every member has a chance to shine (except maybe LaRue, who does get his own slap-bass interlude during "Forever In A Daze" that delivers more funk than DT's similar passage on "Breaking All Illusions" from their most recent album) without letting things become over-indulgent and incoherent. 

The album is noticeably absent of heavy, visceral tracks, with "Shoulda Coulda Woulda" being one of the only ones that fulfills the criteria with a bombastic opening, dirty classic rock riff and a stellar high-gain guitar solo from Morse. Even the post-solo transition to the rhythm section sans-guitar doesn't decrease the energy, and the rhythmic allusions from Portnoy during the final moments show why he's still held in such esteem in the drumming world. "Kayla", a personal favourite, is a powerful ballad that begins with a floating medieval guitar passage before segueing into 7/4 time for the verses, awash with Morse's arpeggiated chords and tonewheel organ stabs from the other Morse. The guitar solo on this track is particularly interesting- taken in two halves, it recalls the medieval feel of the intro for the first half and then, after some impressive round singing from the group, it introduces more unusual phrasing and some impressive alternate picking runs to create a pleasing dichotomy. Incredible stuff- I can imagine it would be an amazing experience live, as would the majority of the tracks on this release.

Honorable mentions include; "Love Is What I'm Waiting For" a song that evokes naive, Beatles-esque psychedelia with robust vocal harmonies, dreamy post-chorus minor chord progressions and a chugging yet surprisingly variable beat; "All Falls Down", with the "War Inside My Head" style frenetic drum intro, darker vocal style and pounding double bass- the shortest song on the album (and possibly the most overt display of technicality), but still a very good burst of metal-tinged rock to break up the softer tracks; and "Infinite Fire", where the band finally relents and lets the progressive nature of its components come through to indulge in a 12 minute epic that actually flows very well, resisting the urge to add unnecessary passages or to over complicate things, but still managing to create an ethereal musical experience with excellent replay value.

The problem with "supergroups" is that the initial excitement of hearing a number of technically proficient and  highly-revered musicians sometimes doesn't always last- in the past I've been known to incessantly listen to a release from a new "supergroup" only to lose interest a few months down the line, so I can't honestly say how long this group will hold my interest. All the makings of a great band are there, and they've shown with this release that they can craft dynamic, accomplished songs that, most importantly, are memorable and surprisingly powerful- both musically and emotionally. If they can maintain that level, or even go beyond it, they'll definitely be around for a long time.

Arbitrary rating: 8.5/10

Track Listing:

01. Blue Ocean
02. Shoulda Coulda Woulda
03. Kayla
04. The Storm
05. Forever In A Daze
06. Love Is What I'm Waiting For
07. Everything Changes
08. Better Than Walking Away
09. All Falls Down
10. Fool In My Heart
11. Infinite Fire

Favourite Tracks: Kayla, The Storm, Forever In A Daze, Love Is What I'm Waiting For, Infinite Fire

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