It has now been nearly a month since I’ve had a new album featuring either Mike Portnoy (drums/vocals) or Neal Morse (keyboards/vocals) to talk about. Thankfully just before I had to write them off for being total slackers I received the new Flying Colors album, and so was saved from an erroneous conclusion. So I jest slightly but do so only to point out the incredible frequent output of those involved on ‘Third Degree’ and are members of this very special band.
With Dixie Dregs members Steve Morse (guitars), and Dave LaRue (bass), and Casey McPherson (vocals/rhythm guitar) rounding out the band, there’s not a member of the band who is also not a member, or collaborator, with three or four other bands as well. With such an amount of other projects vying for their attention, one could ask just how much they were able to put into this, the supergroup’s third album. Well, it’s been 5 years since their last studio release, and even with some members already having multiple releases so far this year, it was clear from the first listen that they still put everything they have when it comes to putting out a Flying Colors album.
FC has always been as much about writing catchy, accessible songs with strong melodies, as it has been writing incredible prog music. This is shown from the very beginning with the first two songs, “The Loss Inside” and “More,” which was the first single and video released. “The Loss Inside” kicks the album off with driving the guitar before the melodies start to creep in, and is certainly one of the more attention-grabbing openers I’ve heard recently. “More,” which has a rather colorful blacklight lit video, is a bit longer than the previous song but is likewise driven by heavy guitars and Mike’s thunderous drum work. They stretch out a bit in the middle with an addictive keyboard-laden instrumental movement before a quiet, vocal dominant section is heard. It, of course, comes full circle, and the driving rock is brought back before the end, with time for one of Neal’s signature key solos, and the vocal harmonizing that the band is so known for.
The music gets a bit more towards straight prog with “Guardian,” which features an excellent extended instrumental break where the band lets loose their considerable chops and reminds the listener that prog is still very much on the menu. This brings us to what I consider the album’s highlight, the 10 minutes “Last Train Home.” Easily my favorite song on the album, it encompasses everything that is great about this band and the direction they are taking their brand of prog. Lyrically it seems to be dealing with the journey of the body and soul into the afterlife (I don’t have the lyrics to get every detail), and starts slowly and melodically. This first section really highlights the strength and depth of Casey’s vocal ability, and his ability to move a song along. Several minutes in, however, things start to pick up and get more interesting, the drums pick up speed and frenzy, the keys louder, and the guitar heavier before morphing into a full-on key lead prog mini-epic. Fittingly it is then that Neal takes over as lead vocalist for a verse. Which, being a longtime fan of his, is something that I certainly like. His voice adds a new emotional edge to the song before an acoustic guitar-lead jam with scat singing moves into the next section of the song. Casey takes over vocals again singing ‘standing back you leave alone/don’t be sad you’re going home’ the music lifts the vocals, and the concluding minutes are immensely powerful and effective.
Things are not all driving prog, of course, there are still plenty of moments that are soft and more straightforward songwriting. The second released video for the album is “You Are Not Alone.” The song is, as you might well infer from the title, a more meditative song, and one clearly meant to encourage and give hope to the listener through the many trials of life. Steve’s guitar lines have a more soaring tone to them, and the keys have more the effect of a string section than typical piano sounds. I’m not especially a fan of this style of song, but it is still effective.
I am loath to go song by song for a review, but it happens that the previous song and the final two songs are all ones that need mentioning. Firstly we have “Love Letter,” the shortest song on the album and is a full-on Beatles love fest. Anyone who’s followed the careers of Neal or Mike (and especially their many bands together) know about their love for The Beatles. I can’t comment on the rest of the band, but it comes as no surprise to hear the two of them take extensive lead vocals on it. It is a very catchy and poppy song, and good fun.
The album ends with the 11-minute “Crawl” and is a fitting conclusion to a very satisfying album. Unsurprisingly it contains all the things that made the earlier songs so addictive, strong melodies and vocals, technical prowess, and the ability to make you sing along one moment, and then basking in instrumental excellence the next. Another thing that this song encompasses about the whole album is what a distinct and separate band FC is from their main bands. I never found myself saying “oh here’s a part that sounds just like The Neal Morse Band, or Transatlantic, and The Dixie Dregs.” Now obviously the band’s personalities and writing habits come through, but you can’t say that anyone of them dominates the rest, or takes away from the other members, and that is a very strong statement for a supergroup to make and have.
In a year that is already filled with great progressive rock releases Flying Colors have released an album that just adds another album to that growing list. ‘Third Degree’ is an incredibly addictive, fun, and powerful example of modern prog done right. All the band members shine and show off their skills, but none overshadow the others, and the album feels like a pure and total band effort. It will likely be featured on many a best-of list at the end of the year, and should more than please fans of their earlier work, and any prog fan looking into them for the first time.