Monday, March 12, 2012

Flying Colors - Another Supergroup Comes Through

Back when we were kids, being called a supergroup was the kiss of death. Assorted heavies from various bands would occasionally gather, record a few quick jams, and then disperse before angry band mates, or vicious label heads could bring down the axe. This was the musical equivalent to the office party affair -  behind closed doors, drunk, and sloppy. Usually not a thing to be proud of in the light of day.

Fast forward to the second decade of the new millennium, and the term is gaining respectability and steam, shining like this year's new model more often than not. Them Crooked Vultures, The Raconteurs, and Black Country Communion are just a few of the so called supers that have turned the once dooming moniker into a respectable flagship of sorts. As often as not, now that they can operate in the light of day, and with proper supervision, supergroups are putting out great albums, and performing great shows - one example of the good that has come with the new music business model.

Flying Colors members (Mike Portnoy, Steve Morse, Neal Morse, Dave Larue, and Casey McPherson) had never been in the same room before they gathered to begin recording their eponymous debut. In fact, in the words of guitarist Steve Morse, "We were a bunch of control freaks, who had to see if we even liked each other!"

I spoke with the legendary guitarist about a week after I had gotten my first listen to the band's new record, and even on a day in which Morse had to give a clinic to a few hundred at a Canadian music store, then perform before 3,500 fans at his day job with Deep Purple, his excitement was palpable. The always affable guitarist spoke of the thrills of being honored to aid in the education of young musicians, and the ever present joy of his almost 20 years with one of rock's longest living institutions, but his focus on Flying Colors had him beaming.

"Bill Evans (executive producer) had been trying to get us together for several years, and we finally all had time to get together and see what we could make happen. We ended up with a lot of amazing musicians making some amazing music!"

Flying Colors is an an astounding record. It covers a tremendous amount of musical territory as you would expect from a band containing some of the most prolific, and prodigious musicians of the last few decades, but I was caught unaware by the strength of the songwriting, of the songs themselves.

Blue Ocean, the opening cut, begins with Dave Larue's percolating bassline, and he's joined by keyboardist Neal Morse (Spock's Beard, Transatlantic, solo) and guitarist Steve's intro, that sounds like a spirited fusion number - not at all out of place for two fellows who had never met, but had graced some of the most ambitious progressive rock records of their time. About a minute in, they are joined by singer Casey McPherson (Endochine, Alpha Rev) for a soulful first verse that leads to an expansive pre-chorus that is on its own more melodic than most radio hooks these days, that then literally explodes into an anthemic chorus that will blow away even the most jaded of ears. This is extraordinary ear candy. Less than two minutes into the album and the writing is on the wall. This is not just a supergroup, this is a super album. A seven minute single that never sags, never slows down, and only grows is a heck of a way to start an album. You could stop here and be glad you spent the money.

Steve Morse has been a fixture of the rock guitar world since 1977, when he and his band Dixie Dregs introduced the world to Southern fried fusion. He had garnered his first Grammy nomination with their hit album, Night of the Living Dregs, in 1979. He has maintained a highly successful solo career since 1984, with a brief foray into hard rock with Kansas for two albums in the late '80s. In 1994, the guitarist showed that he had not only blinding musical skills, but also the heart of a lion, as he took on the task of replacing one of rock's most revered figures, Ritchie Blackmore, in the seminal British metal band Deep Purple. Eighteen years later, Steve is still playing sold out shows with Gillan & company, and will enter the studio towards the end of this year to record his fifth album with the band.

About his busy schedule for 2012, Steve had this to say, "Well, I've got a lot going on, it's really just a matter of what I know and when I know it! I'm finishing up the Purple tour until the end of February, and I'm working on a G3 tour with Joe Satriani and another yet to be named guitarist. There's a new record and more dates with Deep Purple towards the end of the year, but I am hoping to do some shows with Flying Colors, depending on everyone's schedules and availability."

Cut two is Coulda Woulda Shoulda, a powerful arena styled rocker that has the band firing on all cylinders, and singer McPherson belting over the top quite ably. This guy could of easily been swallowed up by such a massive wall of talent, but he takes every tune and owns it. When Portnoy picked this relative unknown as frontman, he made a truly inspired choice.

Kayla is another huge slab of audio bliss, moving through territory that suggests '90s Seattle early on, but it quickly escalates magnificently, with the tactile skills of the best of prog and radio ready rock of the past. By the time the chorus hits, I was shaking my head with a severe case of respect for this blissful collision of talents. Steve Morse's dazzling solo is split into two by a marvelously inventive vocal chorale - the solo's first half is a beautiful re-encapsulization of the tunes melody, the second half a death defying trip of elegance and speed. Then it is back into the instantly hummable chorus, and a classic is born.

Dave Larue has been a member of the Steve Morse Band since 1989, and has along the way managed to play, tour, and record with such stalwarts as Joe Satriani, and various members of Dream Theater. His playing on every cut keeps this record separated from the great majority of recent modern rock releases - his soloing, and comping on Forever and a Daze is a beauty to behold, but a close listen shows him to be the perfect foil for the lethal drumming of Mike Portnoy throughout the entire record. They obviously possess the chops to leave behind the casual listener, but they incorporate their huge technical skills in a way that simply adds to the song - they never riff just to be riffing, but you can find endless examples of sheer instrumental wizardry on every cut.

Morse added this about Larue's contributions, "Dave kind of served as the tiebreaker - if there were a couple of options on the table as to direction, he was the decision maker. This really served to make things more efficient."

Neal Morse is almost something of a secret weapon on this record - his exceptional compositional skills, his perfect application of keyboard skills and tones, and his exquisite background vocals add a vast array of tastefulness and elegance to the proceedings. Though he and the band's other Morse had never met before this project, they sound as if they have played together forever. In fact, they meld together so well that the realization that the band laid the basic tracks in just nine days has me shaking my head at the immensity of the aggregated talent on display. Neal's role is slightly less out front, but his work lifts the project to angelic heights.

Everything Changes sounds like a wonderful piece of cinematic soundtracking. This sounds like The Moody Blues hired Cat Stevens to help write a single, and The Beach Boys came along to sing. I hate to make such easy comparisons, but this is a great marriage of ingredients. McPherson's elegiac vocals soar with an amazing ease, I constantly catch myself realizing that he's being gymnastic in a way that makes one miss Daltrey as a young man. Then Steve Morse blows in with a solo that is both gorgeous and slashing. Morse has been playing great guitar for over 40 years, but this record is his finest moment. His writing, his playing, and his soloing have never been quite this consistently spectacular.

This is an album that I cannot wait to hear translated to the concert stage. It is so dynamic, and so full of exciting twists and turns that I can only imagine that the live shows will be incredibly majestic.

After the beautiful balladry of Better Than Walking Away, the band rips into the hard rocking All Falls Down, that marries metal to prog and fusion in a way that finally works. Portnoy is firing like a cannon, and the band chases his whip start glory with a metronomic precision that is still melodic, and graceful.

Fool In My Heart carries a soulful pulse that suggests a bit of Stax soul, along with some sophisticated chord changes, and maybe even a dose of Mercury poisoning - Freddie Mercury that is, and that's a compositional comparison I have never made. This is a song that has taken a few listens to conquer, but has been well worth the wait. In an album of such immediacy, it is kind of hard to come across a number that takes a few listens to get one's arms around, but that speaks more towards the sheer brilliance than to any shortcomings of any of the tunes. I'll be listening to this for months to grab every morsel that it has to offer, but even as a one night stand, it is quite awesome.

Flying Colors is an album filled from beginning to end with great writing, songwriting, playing, and production. Though it is certainly understandable for the individuals involved to have initially worried about the ability of any room to hold such a wide variety of ideas and egos, it turns out that while everyone plays to the full capacity of their talents, there is also an amazing amount of listening, compromise, and cooperation at every turn. Infinite Fire is a twelve minute opus that wraps the album up rather neatly. It is as immediate as anything on the album, yet is as complex as the early days of progressive rock, when Yes, Genesis, and Gentle Giant were inventing a new genre. I can't but think that any member of any of these bands would nod appreciatively at Flying Colors.

To this point, I have failed to mention the spectacular work of producer Peter Collins. Best known for his work with Rush, Queenryche, and Gary Moore, Collins was brought in by Bill Evans because he is a powerful producer, one with firm ideas and no fear. Sonically, the album is near perfect, but even perhaps more importantly, Collins corralled the egos, and kept the musicians focused and fixed on the end result, which could not have been much better to my ears.

Yes, it would appear that the word supergroup is no longer a dirty word. In fact, it is a word that is coming to mean something quite cool to these ears. Flying Colors passes, with indeed, flying colors. It's going to be a tough record to beat on the critics lists at the end of 2012. I can't wait to see these guys take this show on the road. Prepare to be amazed.

Great thanks to Steve Morse, Steve Karas, and Peter Noble - you guys are the best for a reason.

Flying Colors will be released March 27 on Music Theory Recordings of the Mascot Label Group.

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