The nature of a remarkable group like Flying Colors is that they are rarely able to tour for any great length of time due to the endless commitments of their members. A progressive rock supergroup, Flying Colors features the combined talents of Mike Portnoy (ex-Dream Theater, Winery Dogs), Neal Morse (ex-Spock’s Beard, solo), Steve Morse (Deep Purple), Dave LaRue (Joe Satriani, Steve Vai) and Casey McPhereson and, for once, the sum is greater than its parts. With two albums and one live DVD (‘live in Europe’) already under their collective belt, Flying Colors have received nothing but praise from the prog and rock community and that trend is unlikely to diminish anytime soon if they continue to produce material of such high quality. Making up for the relative absence of live shows, ‘Second flight: Live at the Z7’ is a chance for fans to witness the band in action as they tear through cuts from acclaimed second album ‘second nature’, their debut, self-titled album and also from the various members’ own back catalogues. The result is a fifteen-track DVD/CD set that can only enhance the band’s already impressive reputation.
Released either as a 2xCD/DVD/blu ray set or as standalone 3xLP it’s annoying to see that LP fans are short changed whilst buying a premium format. With labels like Century media including DVD/CD as standard alongside their vinyl releases, it seems churlish that, in forking out for the vinyl, fans either lose the visual element or have to fork out separately for another edition and it’s hard to understand why a DVD can’t be included. That gripe aside, whichever option you go for is well-packaged and offers a beautifully filmed concert that certainly bests the acceptable, but flawed ‘live in Europe release.
The first thing you notice when launching the DVD/Blu ray is that there is a unique set of audio options, the Flying Colours having come up with a true innovation that offers viewers the chance to choose between sound from the Front of House sound desk and from the front row. It’s an interesting concept and the difference is palpable, with the surround channels appearing far more obviously active in the more aggressive front row mix. In total the DVD offers up three choices – PCM stereo and 5.1 mixes for the FoH recording and 5.1 for the front row. Whichever selection you choose, the sound quality is amazing, but for those with a 5.1 system, the front row mix is simply stunning, one of the best I’ve heard, and it really draws you into the music as guitars pan left and right and different elements take over from one another with far greater dynamic than the more controlled FoH mix. The second thing that you notice is that the filming quality is stunning, even on DVD. Far clearer than ‘live in Europe’ (which suffered from a fair degree of grain) and with a better selection of camera angles in general, it truly puts you in the heart of the band as they power through their stunning set.
As for the set itself, it’s a perfect summation of Flying Colors’ development to date. Arriving on stage to the strains of ‘overture’, the band kick off with a pair of cuts from the excellent ‘second nature’ album. First up is the lengthy, progressive epic ‘open your eyes’, which sees Casey McPhereson leading the band through a multi-faceted piece of music that combines a harmony to die for with the vocal talents of Neal Morse (delivering, as always, a performance that radiates light) and Mike Portnoy. Steve Morse, meanwhile, excels on the guitar, playing beautifully fluid solos over Dave LaRue’s typically fluid bass runs. It’s clear that the band are increasingly comfortable playing with one another and the result is a beautiful live performance that shimmers with a light that was perceptible on the album but which truly blazes here. Next up is the bluesy monster ‘bombs away’ which takes elements of Pink Floyd, Spock’s beard and Muse, throwing them all in a blender to deliver a potent and dark groove that adds just a touch of grit to proceedings. It’s back to the first album for ‘Kayla’, another track that touches on the bombastic prog rock of Muse and early Radiohead for its verse before unexpectedly lurching into a full-blown marriage between Marillion and Queen for the delightfully overblown chorus. Mike Portnoy announces his presence firmly on the drum barrage that opens first album highlight ‘shoulda Coulda Woulda’, a massive hard-rock flavoured anthem that sees the band break a sweat as the audience go appropriately nuts. It’s Flying Colors on fire and it’s hard not to smile as these musical legends attack the song with all the energy of a band on their very first global trek. It’s this life-affirming energy, as much as the wonderful musicianship, that makes Flying Colors such a compelling act.
It’s back to the second album for ‘the fury of my love’, a track that has just the right mix of melody, intrigue and bombast to open a James Bond movie. Its immediate successor on the album, ‘a place in your world’, also follows here, the band giving the bright and breezy anthem greater heft in the live environment as Steve Morse’s guitar gains greater prominence in the mix and, it has to be said, Casey McPhereson sings the hell out of it (as he does with every track here). The track segues perfectly into the wailing guitar of ‘forever in a daze’, and it’s a delight to watch Mike Portnoy pulverise his drums with obvious joy as the band tear into the song. With the energy levels threatening to peak too soon, the band wisely bring things off the boil for several acoustic numbers, the first of which being the folky ‘one love forever’ which sees Mike and Neal come out front to deliver honeyed vocal harmonies that draw comparisons to CSNY and the Beach Boys so beautifully phrased are they. Nominally acoustic, the track still sees the band go nuts at its conclusion with Neal in particular attacking his keyboards with unexpected vigour. It’s followed by a couple of solo acoustic numbers from Casey who, remarkably, fills the stage just with acoustic guitar and his exceptional voice. Memories of Jeff Buckley’s ‘live at Sinai’ abound, particularly on the elegiac ‘peaceful harbour’, in which Casey is joined by Steve. Like Jeff, Casey has that natural ability to make it sound as if a whole band is playing despite a minimal arrangement, and his voice conveys a huge depth of power and emotion. It’s a wonderful moment as the whole band return for the latter half of the song and you can see clearly why these musicians felt that Casey was a man they had to work with.
The last few songs see Flying Colors taking things back to the boil as the concert moves toward its conclusion. ‘The storm’, with its palm-muted opening and ecstatic chorus soaring over the heads of the audience is a blinder, whilst a firm highlight is the spacey prog of ‘Cosmic symphony’ which dips into ‘OK Computer’-era Radiohead and washes it through with hints of Anathema, Spock’s beard and Muse for good Measure. ‘Mask machine’ is a massive anthem that, if released in the mid-nineties, would have blasted its way into the top ten with its glam-infused stomp and distorted vocals. Having sent the crowd into orbit, Flying Colors leave the stage, but there is, of course, an encore in the form of the epic, beautiful ‘Infinite fire’, a track which does a grand job of drawing together all of the band’s many strengths into one stunning arrangement.
I hadn’t intended to write as long a review as this one, but there is something about Flying Colors that inspires greater exposition. Perhaps it’s the obvious passion with which the band play; perhaps it’s the chemistry that exists so clearly between the members or the complex yet eminently accessible music. Whatever it is, Flying Colors are a band that inspire a passionate response and it’s amazing how quickly the DVD reaches its conclusion so engrossing is the content. In short, ‘live at the Z7’ is a potent document of these mighty prog titans doing what they do best – playing live in front of an excited, ecstatic audience. It’s joyous, celebratory music and on stage is precisely where it belongs – a fact that this document perfectly underscores.