Album Review: Flying Colors – Second Nature (2014)

Flying Colors’ debut album in 2012 left me with very high hopes for their second release. It was refreshing to hear prog institutions Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy attempt something a bit more mainstream, and to be exposed to great musicians I’d never heard before such as Casey McPherson. As much as I loved the 12-minute ‘Infinite Fire’, it was the shorter, poppier tracks like ‘Kayla’, ‘The Storm’ and the ballad ‘Better Than Walking Away’ which really made that album special to me. Looking at the track listing for Second Nature, I noticed that the songs, for the most part, were above 6 minutes (with two songs around 12 minutes) and I was worried that Mike and Neal had had more of an input to make the album proggier. I love prog as much as the next man (well, depending who the ‘next man’ is…) but having loved the different side of Flying Colors in comparison to Dream Theater and Transatlantic et al. I went in with apprehension.

It is clear from the first part of ‘Open Up Your Eyes’ of the Morse influence particularly: it’s reminiscent of one of his longer tracks with a soaring, harmonised lead section. It does quickly take another direction, when Casey starts to sing, and definitely sounds like Flying Colors. That said from the short instrumental sections it seems that this album is going to be proggier than the first. That’s not such a big deal, I guess with the amount of Portnoy/Morse albums compared to the amount of Flying Colors albums out there I wanted something a bit different. Objectively judged as a track, however, ‘Open Up Your Eyes’ is a good, uplifting song, if not slightly forgettable amongst the swathes of 10-15 minute tracks on my iTunes.

Portnoy makes his presence very clear on the next track ‘Mask Machine’, actually a very good song, and the first single from the album. Yet I feel that in recent times, Portnoy has accumulated a select bank of drum fills which he pumps out wherever possible. This wouldn’t be too much of a problem if they were used in moderation but at least once per album he cranks them out and it’s starting to get a little bit tiresome and predictable. He’s one of the best drummers in the world technically, but it seems like he’s run out of imagination a little bit. Casey McPherson really gets to shine on ‘Mask Machine’, particularly towards the end where he sings the final verse with extraordinary frenziness, completing a vocal crescendo which permeates the song.

As I’ve listened to the album a few times, the next run of songs, despite all having a distinct melody, seem to blur together. They’re all nice songs, but to me seem somewhat average compared to some of the songs from their debut. It’s strange, because when I listen to them on their own I enjoy them a lot more than when I listen to them together on the album. The problem with a lot of them is that they’re slightly too long, so that by the time the end comes I’ve forgotten that they were a lot better at the start. ‘One Love Forever’ is a perfect example: the beginning of that song is fantastic; it’s different, folky and catchy, but the ending goes on for far too long. ‘Bombs Away’ has a great chorus, but again I think it could be a minute shorter, the same with ‘A Place In Your World’ – I feel like the chorus is overdone a bit.

‘The Fury Of My Love’ is a good one, it’s a lot more Casey-driven and has a strong chorus. This is me having just listened to it on its own, but in the album it definitely feels somewhat forgettable. This is a strange experience that I’ve never really had with an album before; usually I like to listen to albums in their entirety to get the full impact of the music but that doesn’t seem to be the case with Second Nature. I’ve listened to all the songs on their own spread throughout the day and they are actually all worth getting into. Maybe I’m alone in feeling this, but if you feel the same, I’d recommend sticking with them.

The last two tracks ‘Peaceful Harbor’ and ‘Cosmic Symphony’ are definitely the standouts on the album. ‘Peaceful Harbor’ definitely feels like it wouldn’t be out of place on a Neal Morse solo album, but I have such a soft spot for a good Morse ballad that it’s more than welcome on this album. It’s also a fact of life that all the best songs have a gospel choir at the end (‘Unwritten’ – Natasha Bedingfield, anyone?) and it makes this wonderful song twice as elevating. The final track, despite starting in almost the exact same way as ‘Lost Without You’ (I think unintentionally because it serves no musical purpose), seems quite unconventional for a longish prog song which I like. That’s what I liked about ‘Infinite Fire’ and they’ve done it again.

When I listen to the individual tracks on this album, I’d probably give it a 7 or 8 out of 10, but based on the expectation that I went into it having and the album as a single entity, I don’t think I can award it that highly. There are some great moments, and the musicianship is fantastic. Steve Morse and Dave LaRue (guitar and bass) are the understated heroes on the album, knowing when it’s their turn to step forward into the limelight. Unfortunately Mike Portnoy has a huge presence (as usual) on this album and sometimes that can detract from the song. On the best tracks, namely the last two, he is playing drums to fully compliment the song which is infinitely more effective.

Standout tracks: Mask Machine, Peaceful Harbor, Cosmic Symphony

6/10

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Album Review: The Slip – Eisenhower (2006)

“Well the world is only a stage
And I’m just a man
With a sound caught in his throat
And a pick in his hand”

This is quite an old album – it was released in 2006 – and a couple of years ago I heard it and absolutely loved it. The other day it suddenly came back to me when I caught a whiff of something that must have reminded me of that time. It was a surreal moment but I went home straight away and put it on. It’s just as good as I remember it and I thought I’d share it, because I don’t think it’s very well known.

I’ll first say that it isn’t prog, it’s more like straightforward indie-rock, but if you’re open minded then I think you’ll enjoy it. It has a great mix of upbeat and melancholic tracks, the latter of which I prefer, particularly ‘If One Of Us Shall Fall’ and ‘Suffocation Keep’. I was first turned onto the band through the video game Guitar Hero, on which ‘Even Rats’ appears, which is one of the album’s best and most instantly accessible songs. In fact most songs are enjoyable from the first listen, only a couple might take a few listens or rub people up the wrong way. I can’t say I really like ‘First Panda In Space’ which is a jazzy, experimental interlude that leads into ‘The Soft Machine’ – a good, punchy indie-rock song.

There’s something about this album that feels different to most ‘standard’ indie albums, and I can’t put my finger on what it is. Perhaps the often witty and interesting lyrics, or the fact that I listened to it at a particular point in my life. Who knows, all I can say is that I highly recommend it if you’re looking for something different, accessible and fresh.

Standout tracks: Even Rats, Suffocation Keep, Life In Disguise

7/10

Album Review: Haken – Restoration [EP] (2014)

“Escaping the past
By embracing the future.”

I, as I’m sure like many others, really got into Haken last year with the release of The Mountain and then made my way through Visions and Aquarius – two albums which I actually prefer to The Mountain (which isn’t to say it isn’t mind-blowing). I absolutely love Haken and was ridiculously excited when I heard they were releasing more music, even just a 3-track EP. Three tracks which in this case roughly equate to 34 minutes of music. My anticipation was high, and as it turns out, completely justified.

‘Darkest Light’ starts this EP like a aural punch to the face – Haken aren’t wasting any time and they’re not messing around. It is clear from the first few bars that the song is going to be quite dark, which makes sense as the songs from Restoration are based on songs from their early demo Enter The 5th Dimension, easily the darkest of their work. ‘Darkest Light’ begins in exactly the same way as ‘Blind’ from Enter The 5th Dimension and follows a similar pattern for a time, but it is so clear how much they have matured as a band. The musicianship on ‘Darkest Light’ is phenomenal, and while it is probably my least favourite track on the EP, it is an instantly satisfying, complex track that feels much shorter than its 6:44 running time.

If all the crazy, discordant, prog metal madness appeared in ‘Darkest Light’, which I feel is remeniscent of ‘Portals’ from Visions, ‘Earthlings’ satisfies the mellower (I use this word lightly) and more atmospheric side to Haken, as seen on tracks such as ‘Deathless’ and ‘Because It’s There’. The song starts slowly, a complete contrast to the previous one, with a clean, slightly evil sounding guitar arpeggio. Ross Jennings enters, subdued, and really shows off his (and the rest of the band’s) versatility, which is made yet clearer on the next track. The track is reserved and quite long, but never feels as if it’s dragging. There are nifty robotic vocals, and Richard Henshall and Charlie Griffiths (guitars) make great use of their instruments, while never being over the top. There is no huge payoff to the song, but it doesn’t need one. It fits the tone of the EP perfectly and is a great addition to their repertoire.

Now the track any self-respecting Haken fan has been dreaming about since the announcement – ‘Crystallised’. Oh boy, it’s a good one. I felt like the very beginning drew on Visions; quiet, atmospheric sounds then suddenly the band explodes in with a soaring intro riff. Then, as suddenly as they came in, the tone changes completely. There’s no overture, it’s straight into the verse. It reminds me of Dream Theater’s ‘Breaking All Illusions’: after the epic “searching out / reaching in…” there is suddenly a ‘pixie dance’ section. I love it, and I love Haken’s adaption of the technique. The lyrics in the chorus also feel reminiscent of Visions: “Someone’s calling me / echoes of a childhood memory”.

A classic Haken instrumental section follows a short bridge which makes use of the electronic ‘broken’ drums used on ‘Because It’s There’ to great effect. There’s an incredible keyboard solo and tricky off-beat rhythm guitar parts. They definitely have a distinct sound although it’s clear who their inspirations are – I think every band should aspire to this. Another Haken staple follows – the acapella section. This is where the song really starts to get amazing. The folky, almost mediaeval style guitar part after this is my favourite moment on the whole EP. It’s just damn cool, there isn’t really a more eloquent way to put it, and fits perfectly. The vocal harmonies continue as the music comes in and the theme is repeated, but not overdone. At the risk of comparing to Dream Theater too much, I instantly thought of the little guitar lick in ‘Octavarium’ at around 17:40 (just off the top of my head). The theme continues on into some “las”, which may sound cheesy on paper but trust me – you’ll love it. Ross Jennings is a stunning vocalist and really stands out in this section.

Who would Haken be, though, if they didn’t snap you straight out of that into another amazing, discordant instrumental section? This time every musician gets to stretch their legs and show off their amazing prowess, particularly new bassist Connor Green. I love that Haken can go from deathly serious in a song like ‘Earthlings’ to adding humour into a huge instrumental, flitting seamlessly between styles.

I always anticipate the ending of a huge prog song such as this, and let me tell you, I was not disappointed. It’s an absolutely perfect ending; the lyrics are amazing.

“The moon will rise
The night will fall
I hold your hand
But you let go.
The sun will shine
The snow will thaw
All things must pass
Into the unknown.”

Beautiful and so god damn epic. ‘Crystallised’ is easily on a par with ‘Celestial Elixir’ and ‘Visions’ and it is clear that Haken have so much more to give. Bring on album number four!

9/10