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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