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: 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

Album Review: Anathema – Distant Satellites (2014)

“And it makes me wanna cry

We’re just distant satellites”

I am only a very recent addition to Anathema’s fanbase. My brother told me to listen to ‘Untouchable Part 1’ from Weather Systems and I was instantly hooked. Although it could easily be argued that they are formulaic, what a formula! I’ve never listened to a band who could move me so quickly and so often with their music. The crescendos, the amazing vocal powers of Vincent Cavanagh and Lee Douglas, and the lyrics often dealing with dreams, light, love and loss all combine to create a near perfect combination.

Their most recent album, Distant Satellites, begins in a similar way to the previous one: with a two part song. This time it’s ‘The Lost Song’, a song that seems to be structurally very similar to ‘Untouchable’ in that the first part crescendos into an epic finale and is then followed by a softer, mellower second part. This may cause a problem for some people, diehard fans expecting something new, perhaps, but ‘if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it’ I say. It’s a great opener to the album and ‘Dusk (Dark Is Descending)’ follows it sublimely with great vocal harmonies and a typical Anathema crescendo (I have a feeling this word will be used a lot…), although I do find it harder to get into. Some Anathema songs are favourites after one listen, but others do take their time before I can fully enjoy them. This is no bad thing, merely a (probably quite inane) observation.

‘Ariel’ is my favourite song from the album, and one I can’t wait to see live. I love the opening piano melody and the softly sung vocals, “I found you in the dark”, which will later be majestically shouted (during that crescendo, believe it or not), a point in the song in which I always have to stop what I’m doing, clench my fist and join in. This is what good music is all about, who cares if structurally it’s similar to many other songs, I can lose myself in the moment and feel the power of the music. The call and response between Cavanagh and Douglas towards the end of the song is truly the high point of the album.

‘The Lost Song’ is then concluded in part three, which is the weakest part. Snugly fit between the superior ‘Ariel’ and Prog Awards’ Anthem of the Year ‘Anathema’ it often passes by almost unnoticed on the album. ‘Anathema’ is a terrifically moving song, Cavanagh’s heart-wrenching cries of “I loved you” tell a story of a broken relationship. Simple yet incredibly powerful lyrics and dark, melancholic music combine to make what can only be described as an emotional powerhouse of a song.

“But we laughed
And we cried
And we fought
And we tried
And we failed”

Unfortunately here the album takes a downwards turn. ‘You’re Not Alone’ has never rubbed me up the right way and I often find myself skipping it. It is slightly discordant and very fast paced, which makes it seem a lot longer than 3 minutes 27 seconds. It doesn’t go anywhere and adds little to the album as a whole. ‘Firelight’ is another short track, and this time an instrumental. It serves more of a segue and introduction to ‘Distant Satellites’ and after the cacophony that is ‘You’re Not Alone’, it’s a nice respite and even conjures up imagery when you listen to it with ‘firelight’ in mind. It flows into the title track which begins with an electronic drum beat. I think, in moderation, electronic drums can be very effective. Marillion infrequently use them to great effect, and even Dream Theater in their last couple of albums have started to utilise them. It’s a good song and the drums that bring in the second half are another highlight of the album for me. As a drummer I enjoy a good syncopated rhythm and it’s refreshing as up until this point, drummer Daniel Cardoso’s playing has been fairly vanilla. I understand there’s a time and a place for mad drumming, but the odd crazy fill here and there doesn’t detract from the music (I’m looking at you too, Ian Mosley).

‘Take Shelter’ is a really beautiful song and a fitting album closer. Musically it is very subtle at the beginning and in true Anathema style it builds and builds and leaves the album on a joyful, optimistic high. Lyrically however, it is quite dark.

“Golden summer skies
Shadows form and dance and die”

A soaring, orchestral melody ends the song not leaving the listener wanting more, but leaving them completely fulfilled. ‘Soaring’ is the right word to describe this album, and Anathema’s music. The musicians play their respective roles perfectly, much like Marillion; they play what is necessary and can step into the background if they know it fits the music, but are all very talented, above all the singers. Filled with emotional ups and downs, Distant Satellites is a very well constructed album, and despite not being perfect, one feels satisfied after listening to it through. I’m seeing Anathema in Manchester this Tuesday and expect to be well and truly emotionally drained afterwards. If they can move me the way they do on record, I can only begin to imagine what they can do live, in a room surrounded by people feeling the same.

Stand-out Tracks: Ariel, Anathema, Take Shelter

9/10

Album Review: Marillion – Marbles (2004)

“You’re gone, and heaven cries
A thunderstorm breaks from the northern sky”

As I’m sure is the case with many people, for a long time I was only aware of Marillion with Fish. When I finally discovered Seasons End I became hooked on the ‘new’ Marillion with lead singer Steve ‘h’ Hogarth. Since then I’ve decided that I definitely prefer the material with h (whose nickname, for some reason and much to my mild annoyance, is never capitalised) and although it may seem like an obvious choice, I think Marbles is the best work they have done. It was released in 1- and 2-disc editions, and I do feel sorry for those who bought the 1-disc version, which emits some of the best tracks. I’ve been listening to this album a lot recently so I can get to know it inside out before next year’s convention, but then also have time to stop listening to it so I don’t overplay it just before the weekend, so I felt it would be apt to review.

The album opens with what has become my favourite song of all time – ‘The Invisible Man’. It took me a very long time to get into and fully appreciate this song. It is in no way instantly accessible and it took me multiple listens and a stellar live performance before I finally ‘got’ it. However, seeing the effort h puts into his performance and the emotion with which he sings the final few minutes is enough to turn anyone into a Marillion fan (I have this on authority of the two people I converted with this method over summer). The utter desperation of the song’s protagonist is conveyed brilliantly and no matter how many times I listen to the song my skin prickles with goosebumps. You can truly empathise with the character, who turns invisible, whose wife finds another man to love and no matter how hard he tries he can’t make contact with her.

“I must watch in dread
when he’s cruel to you

I cannot lift a hand

Lift a hand to stop him

I will scream in your ear

As you’re passing by
I will wrap my arms around you
You won’t hear, you won’t feel me
I will walk stride for stride with you
I will try to help
When you stumble
You will stumble through me”

Every other member of the band plays exquisitely, perfectly complimenting the mood of the song without being in any way obtrusive. I do believe, however, that seeing this song live (or at least watching a live performance) is essential in order to get the full effect.

It could be said that Marbles peaks too soon with ‘The Invisible Man’, and if you listen to the next song – ‘Marbles I’ – you may agree. It is a short interlude (there are 4 of them across the album) and, while it’s a nice little piece of music, it isn’t anything to shout from the rooftops about, and by ‘Marbles IV’ I start to wonder how necessary they really are. After the emotional powerhouse that is ‘The Invisible Man’, it’s refreshing that there is a small moment of respite before the rest of the album continues. ‘Genie’ comes next, a shorter and much more accessible pop song with some sublime female backing vocals and a soaring final chorus that serves as a great climax to the song. Yet it feels dwarfed by the much more mature ‘Invisible Man’ that comes before, and ‘Fantastic Place’ which follows. A quiet, understated masterpiece, ‘Fantastic Place’ is another of the many highlights on this album. Steve Rothery’s moving guitar playing compliments the simple keyboard and the lyrics, which I love even though I’m unsure as to their meaning. For me, ‘The Only Unforgivable Thing’ peaks too early. After the church organ intro, there comes a beautiful few bars of ¬†echoey drums and delayed guitar harmonics. While the rest of the song is beautiful, it doesn’t get much better than that for me.

I love the lyrics on this album. There are a series of YouTube videos where h explains his ideas behind some of the lyrics which I really recommend. Knowing what a song is about really helps me get into it, and often it can make you appreciate the song more, if the music compliments them well. I think a good example of this comes not from this album, but from Marillion’s latest, Sounds That Can’t Be Made. The song ‘Gaza’ is about the conflict, but from the perspective of the children and the innocent victims. It takes no side – “There are grieving mothers on both sides of the wire” – and the music is at times harsh and heavy, when the lyrics are about the conflict itself, but becomes quieter when the victims are mentioned, and uplifting towards the end – “With the love of our family, we can rise above anything”. I think Marillion are excellent at this, and it shows on this album.

Ocean Cloud Explanation

The epic, 18-minute ‘Ocean Cloud’ ends the first disc of the album in truly magnificent fashion. It deals with Tony Bullimore, a man whose boat capsized and who managed to stay alive in the pocket of air between the sea and the boat, and is at times loud and almost angry,which is contrasted by long periods of ambiance to reflect the mood of the protagonist. It is widely renowned as a progressive masterpiece and I cannot think why it was left out of the single disc release, or why there even was a single disc version if a song as good as this had to be left out.

Another Marbles track (my favourite, actually) starts the second disc and this is where the album takes a downward turn. I’ve never really been able to get into ‘The Damage’; musically it doesn’t really do anything for me, it seems to be a vast change from the general tone of the album up to now. Maybe that’s what they were going for but I’d have preferred a continuation and less falsetto vocals. The idea behind the lyrics is interesting: it serves as a counterpart to ‘Genie’ – they are the same story told from two perspectives, hence the shared lyrics. On an album as long as this I don’t mind two songs having similar lyrics, but on their earlier Afraid of Sunlight album, the songs ‘Afraid of Sunlight’ and ‘Afraid of Sunrise’ are lyrically very similar which I feel is almost a cop-out.

The next three songs, ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, ‘You’re Gone’ and ‘Angelina’ bring the album gradually back up to and beyond par. Steve Rothery and Pete Trewavas (bass) switched roles for ‘Don’t Hurt Yourself’, an upbeat if slightly forgettable song in comparison to some of the others on the album. ‘You’re Gone’ was the first single from the album and the only Marillion song other than ‘Incommunicado’ in the ’80s to reach the UK top ten. This seems plausible as the song is driven by a poppy, electronic drum beat and follows a straightforward structure. I wouldn’t say that this detracts anything from the song, I really like it and it’s a popular live song. Marillion are one of those bands who are able to play a progressive beast of a song such as ‘Ocean Cloud’ and then follow it up with one such as ‘You’re Gone’ and no one would bat an eyelid. As I said in my previous review, this is a big factor in my love for progressive music: there is more often than not no opportunity to get bored. ‘Angelina’ is a slow burner, but a very good one. Almost in the same vein as ‘Fantastic Place’, it could pass by unnoticed, but if you sit down and listen to all the nuances you can take away so much. It’s place in the two disc album sits perfectly, and were it to be followed by ‘Neverland’, the album would finish flawlessly. Unfortunately ‘Drilling Holes’ comes next, which is easily the worst track on the album for me. Much like ‘The Damage’, it doesn’t fit with the rest of the album’s tone and could have been left out without leaving anything to be desired.

A final Marbles track paves the way for ‘Neverland’, my second favourite track on the album and many people’s favourite Marillion song. I can completely understand why. The song is equally as perfect as ‘The Invisible Man’, the only reason I prefer the latter being that it stirs up more emotions in me when I hear it. This isn’t to say that ‘Neverland’ doesn’t bring a lump to my throat, from the opening piano to the final chimes, every note played is placed perfectly. The second half of the song is one huge Rothery guitar solo, arguably his best, complimented with h’s amazing delivery of some Peter Pan-esque lyrics. I highly recommend watching the live version from the Out of Season DVD – just wait for the confetti…

Marillion – Neverland (Out of Season)

As with every two-disc album (I can’t think of one that breaks the rule) there are some filler tracks, but Marbles makes up for these with the killer ones. It says something if Marillion’s three best songs (possibly) all come from the same album. I can listen to this album all the way through any time of day (okay, sometimes I’ll wind through ‘Drilling Holes’) and still get caught up in the emotion of it all. The instruments aren’t intrusive yet all clearly stand out and get their time to shine. The two-disc version is highly recommended in order not to miss out on ‘Genie’, ‘The Only Unforgivable Thing’ and above all ‘Ocean Cloud’. This is Marillion’s masterpiece.

Stand-out Tracks: The Invisible Man, Ocean Cloud, Neverland

10/10