Flying Colors received almost ubiquitous acclaim upon the release of their stunning debut album, garnering a wealth of positive reviews and a top-selling live album in the process. Always clear that the album was more than just a side-project despite the fact that the artists involved all have plenty of commitments elsewhere, Flying Colours have now returned with another nine tracks of eclectic, increasingly progressive music. It is of course easy to talk about ‘second album syndrome’ (a concept I swear journalists made up in order to give themselves something to talk about) but if the band felt anything other than excitement when they entered the studio I’m damned if I can detect it. Indeed, ‘Second nature’ is a sparkling, life-affirming body of work that sees each of the musicians involved stretching their artistic muscles and really settling into the role of playing with one another. There’s a fluid grace to the songs, even when the band are rocking out as they do on ‘mask machine’ that suggests that the band have already reached that rare stage where they can anticipate one another and the wealth of changes and richly textured material highlight the band’s confidence in one another. Packaged with beautiful, Hipgnosis-referencing artwork (courtesy of Hugh Syme), ‘second nature’ is a delightful album and one that certainly benefits from close and repeated listens.
Opening with a twelve-minute epic that appears to pass in the blink of an eye, ‘second nature’ immediately sets about drawing the listener in to the band’s unique world. Combining evocative piano work with soaring guitars, Mike Portnoy’s ever-rewarding drumming and Dave LaRue’s intimate bass, it’s a full four minutes and numerous shifts in tempo and mood before vocals even appear and when they do it’s over a funky, throbbing, sensuous backdrop made up of acrobatic keyboard lines, stabbing guitar and Mike’s pounding beat. Employing increasingly awkward progressions and time signatures, the band effortlessly show off their musical skill and the band’s innovative qualities and yet, at the same time, the music flows beautifully and never feels overly complex or difficult to follow and the result is a kind of hybrid King Crimson and Radiohead with perhaps a touch of Spock’s beard thrown in for good measure. The melodies are, without doubt, where the song stands tall – they’re beautifully constructed and stick firmly in the mind which is largely a result of Casey McPherson’s rich, emotive vocals, and the band complement one another beautifully. In contrast ‘mask machine’ is a heavier beast, shorter and sharper (although it still packs a hefty six minutes run time) and ideally played on a road trip to some far off and mysterious place. With hints of Muse mixed up in its DNA (via distorted bass, the taut stomp of the drums and a vast chorus), ‘mask machine’ is a radio friendly pop song filtered through the deviant minds of Glenn Hughes and Jimmy Page and it is a brilliant example of how pop music can be both intelligent and heavy whilst still being as catchy as hell. A sexy, blues stomp, ‘Bombs away’ sees Steve Morse calling back to the mother ship with a sleazy, greasy guitar line whilst the multi-layered chorus is more in line with Neal Morse’s recent solo work – it’s an interesting juxtaposition and it works far better in principle than in theory. In contrast to the previous two, guitar-driven numbers, ‘The fury of my love’ opens with Neal’s piano work as Casey employs a melody that would be better suited to opening a James Bond movie (try humming ‘for your eyes only’ along to the verse) only for the piece to hit a sky-scraping chorus complete with Beach Boys harmonies, soaring strings and an unusually restrained performance from Mike. It’s a simple, glorious pop song, and its simple structure provides a nice breather before the complex guitar work and syncopated drums of ‘a place in the world’ sends the album shooting off in a whole new direction once again.
Opening with Mike’s subtle, varied drum work, ‘Lost without you’ is another gorgeous pop song which trembles under the weight of a huge, rich chorus and the band’s stunning musicianship. ‘One love forever’ is perhaps the most surprising track on the album with a textured, folky feel on the verse that seems a million miles away from the band’s normal sound and yet, strangely, it perfectly fits into the album sounding neither forced nor out of place, especially as the song segues into a pure progressive workout towards its conclusion. With the album drawing towards its conclusion, the track lengths slowly increase and the seven minute ‘Peaceful harbor’ with its Jeff Buckley-esque introduction, stately solos and heart-stopping orchestration, is something of a cross between progressive rock, Jeff Buckley and the sort of huge, grand-standing hymns William Blake put his name to (‘and did those feet’). You can imagine this being a pinnacle of the band’s live performance and it probably would be if it wasn’t for the dark, towering conclusion of ‘Cosmic symphony’ which draws upon all of the band’s strengths over a ten minute, three-part epic that perfectly encapsulates the band’s many qualities
Flying Colors are perfectly named. Theirs is a huge palette and they draw at will from numerous sources to build their epic castles in the sky. From huge bruising bluesy riffs (‘bomb’s away’) to monumental progressive workouts (‘open your eyes’) via the occasional string-laden ballad (‘the fury of my love’) the band deftly combine it all into one gorgeous, seamless whole that is unarguably exciting, life affirming and memorable. It is an album you’ll happily pick up from time to time safe in the knowledge that every time you hear it you’ll catch on to some new element that previously passed you by. A wonderful sonic journey, Flying Colors are best summed up by the elegant art that adorns the cover – a band taking the listener on an adventure across land and sea by balloon – taken hither and thither by the whim of the wind. It’s a compelling image and one that will return to you as you let the music perform its magic.