Tracks: Changeling (6:35), My Evolution (6:47), I’m A Refugee (4:02), White Matter Recess (4:24), Everyone’s Charade (5:19). You are the Peacemakers (4:33), Song of Aleppo (10:08), Silence (4:58), Write Your Name (4:22), Help Me (4:21), Silence For Humans (14:26)
Casey McPherson’s latest Alpha Rev album, Cas.e Sessions Volume 1, sees the extremely talented singer and multi-instrumentalist tackling music-making in a unique way. Modeled loosely off Neal Morse’s groundbreaking Inner Circle concept, the Cas.e Sessions membership program finds Casey making one song per month, creating a mini documentary about its creation, and presenting it to the members. After receiving positive feedback and seeing that the songs meshed together fairly well, he decided to release season 1 (2016) of the Cas.e Sessions music as a new Alpha Rev album.
Some might call this album pop, but I see it as prog in the vein of a band like Muse. There are a lot of similarities between this and Muse, such as the melodies and vocal lines, but this is a unique album that clearly comes from the heart. One might call this group of songs eclectic, but they work really well together, even though they were all written separately as a single project per month.
Yes, the title is an exaggeration. Perhaps it should be “albums no one admits to listening to or liking”! I’m sure there are plenty of others who like some of these albums. In fact, a few of these albums sold quite well. But reviews tended to be tepid, mixed, or worse. And in certain circles (yes, I’m looking at you, Rolling Stone magazine), most of these albums were either panned or scorned. Or they were simply ignored. (Deep question: “If Chris Cornell makes an album with Timbaland and no one listens to it, does it really exist?”)
The bottom line, I suppose, is that these albums tend to not fit comfortably into the larger body of an artist’s or band’s work. It might be that the album simply isn’t as good as other albums; or, it tended to be dismissed or downplayed because of apparent shortcomings or actual flaws. But, for me, these are often the most interesting albums, even if they are not the best albums. Just as really great people become more human and thus more fascinating when their flaws or failures are revealed or recognized, great artists reveal something in work that is “left field” or somehow not considered to be 10/10 material. (And, yes, I do consider ABBA to be a great band. Really. I’ll explain why soon enough.)
An outstanding performance by the boys from Norway. Even through tricky time signatures that require lockstep coordination of playing, Gazpacho delivers an emotional and beautiful show. Jan Henrik Ohme’s vocals are spellbinding – delicate and tremulous one minute, powerful and commanding the next. While he’s caressing the microphone, his bandmates play their hearts out. Songs I thought I knew take on new meaning and accessibility. This set is a perfect introduction to someone curious about this somewhat enigmatic and definitely magical group.
As light as Gazpacho is dark, Glass Hammer has been riding a high for the past few years – Ode To Echo and The Breaking Of The World are both instant classics. Double Live features the best cuts from those albums, as well as a terrific rendition of the epic “The Knight Of The North”. Steve Babb and Fred Schendel have been together so long they are telepathic onstage. Aaron Raulston is excellent on drums while Kamran Alan Shikoh has matured into an astonishingly inventive guitarist. Carl Groves is the best male vocalist GH has ever had, and Susie Bogdanowicz steals the show with her performance. No fancy camera work here – the music and performance are strong enough to speak for themselves.
This is a fine collection of Spock’s Beard tracks. The first disc features the best of the “Neal Morse Years”, while disc two has six tracks from Beard versions 2 and 3 (featuring Nick D’Virgilio and Ted Leonard) and a new epic featuring a big reunion of everyone. You might think that losing your lead vocalist and sole songwriter would mean the end of a band, but the Beard is nothing if not resilient. The songs from the post-Morse era certainly hold their own against anything from the first six albums. I wish they had included “The Great Nothing”, but there’s only so much space on a compact disc! Of course, long-time Beard fans want to know how the new epic, “Falling Forever” stacks up. To my ears, it’s a pleasant listen, but not particularly memorable. It’s clear that Neal’s path has diverged from the Beard’s, and each camp has its own strengths that don’t necessarily mesh into a powerful whole anymore. The DVD features performances from 1997’s Progfest interspersed with contemporary interviews of the band. It’s illuminating for the hardcore fan, but not essential.
Phenomenal growth from this band. As mentioned in the interviews included in the Blu-ray, the first album had the members somewhat tentative about critiquing each other, while during the recording of Second Flight they were much more collaborative. This is set is a terrific performance that showcases the talents of each member. Casey McPherson is a very confident frontman, and an amazing vocalist. Steve Morse’s guitar work is jaw-dropping good, and Dave LaRue almost steals the show with his bass solos. Mike Portnoy is, as usual, controlled chaos on the drums. Neal Morse plays more of a supporting role in this group, keeping in the background for the most part. “Cosmic Symphony” and “Mask Machine” are highlights, while the segue from “Colder Months” into “Peaceful Harbor” is one of the most beautiful musical moments I’ve ever heard. The quality of the Blu-ray is top-notch, both in sound and video. An excellent choice for the prog fan who enjoys the likes of Boston, or even classic Journey.
Which brings us to the big release of the year: Rush’s R40 Live. I have every live DVD Rush has released, and this isn’t the best performance. But there is something so special about this show that it will probably be the one I return to most often. There were times I caught myself thinking, “Gosh. they are looking old!”, but then I had to remind myself they’ve given of themselves so generously for 40 years. 40 years! How many bands have kept the same lineup for that long, and are still talking to each other? ZZ Top is the only one that comes to mind. The fact that this show is from Toronto makes it even more moving.
This is a top of the line production, with every possible camera angle a fan could ask for. The sound on the Blu-ray edition is outstanding; there are two surround mixes to choose from: front of stage or center of hall. The show itself is masterful – it is a trip back in time from Clockwork Angels all the way to “Working Man”.
The animated intro is hilarious – I had to go through it practically frame-by-frame to catch all of the visual puns. Every album and tour is name-checked somewhere in it. The initial stage set is very elaborate, but as the band goes back into their history, you can see workers slowly dismantle it. At the start of the second set, Alex is front of a huge stack of Marshall amps, and we’re transported to the 1970’s. By the time of the encores, Alex and Geddy are down to single amps on chairs in a high school auditorium.
My only quibbles are selfish – I wish there was at least one track from Power Windows/Hold Your Fire, and I don’t know why the bonus tracks at the end couldn’t have been inserted into their proper places in the concert video. Other than that, it’s a very good setlist.
What comes through most clearly as the concert progresses is the love and respect Alex, Geddy, and Neil have for each other. They look like they’re having the time of their lives, and they’re so glad to have several thousand fans along with them. Thanks for the ride, boys. It’s been a great one.
At risk of annoying those who waded through my New Year’s Day post on my favorite prog/rock albums of 2014, I’m (re)posting my #1 pick from that list, as I think it stands alone just fine as a review. And because I think so highly of this album. Oh, and because I don’t post nearly enough on this fine blog, so maybe this can count toward my post total! By the way, a recent issue of PROG magazine (Issue 51 2014) raved about this album—but didn’t get into the lyrical content as I do below.
“Second Nature” by Flying Colors. Every once in a while—perhaps once every few years—I hear an album that I listen to again and again…and again: Jeff Buckley’s “Grace”, “OK Computer” by Radiohead, and Soundgarden’s “Superunknown” come to mind. I’ve now listened to this album 75 times or so (according to my iTunes), and I’ve not tired of it at all. Not even close. If anything, I like it more than ever, and I’m confident I’ll be listening to it for years to come. There are numerous reasons for my obsession with “Second Nature,” but I’ll note just a couple of big ones. It begins with the album title, “Second Nature,” which certainly references that this is the group’s second studio album and the fact that making music, for these five masters, is second nature.
But it finally points to the intertwining, overarching theme of the album, which is that of spiritual awakening, ascent, and transformation, the movement from putting off the “old nature” and putting on the “new nature,” spoken of by Paul the Apostle in his letter to the Ephesians (4:22-24). The arch can be seen in the opening and closing lyrics. “Open Up Your Eyes” is a song of self-examination and spiritual assessment:
Dream, empty and grey
A story waiting for a place to begin
Hands, laying all the best laid plans
But where do we leave our mark
In this life?
There is reference to original sin, echoing Eliot’s “Four Quartets”: “Torn, wearing the disease you mourn/Like a deep freeze it burns.” And then the promise and the hope is proffered: “Open up your eyes and come awake/You will be created now”—itself a reference, I’m quite certain, to the Apostle Paul’s various exhortations to rouse oneself from spiritual slumber and to be made a “new creation.” The language of redemption and salvation are shot through the entire album; in many ways, this is the most open and covert Christian album I’ve ever heard (up there with early King’s X), and the approach is perfectly balanced and executed.
“Mask Machine” laments the layers of deception inherent in the dominant, de-sacralized culture, “With love for sale and gold for dirt/I’ll worship every fleeting aching.” The song “Bombs Away” furthers the lament and confesses the sad state of the first and fallen nature: “Run by my instincts/I’m high on the freeway/And I’m scared I’ll come down.” But there is a recognition of the vocation to transcendence: “I’d love to be found” and, “I need to find a way beyond.”
The next four songs, “The Fury of My Love”, “A Place In Your World”, “Lost Without You”, and “One Love Forever” are love songs—but for whom? Or Whom? There is a certainly ambiguity in the first two, as if nodding to the face that earthly love is itself a reflection of heavenly love: “Singing I surrender/I surrender/Tearing all the walls away/I’m giving you a place.” but by “One Love Forever” the ambiguity is gone, replace by clarity and knowledge of the God-sized hole in the human heart: “One love forever/For one consuming hole inside/One love forever/… One love for all time/Is calling/Our eyes contain eternity.”
The final two songs, “Peaceful Harbor” and “Cosmic Symphony”, mark the apex of the redemptive ascent: arrival and contemplation. And the music, amazingly, more than matches the rather mystical topic at hand. “Peaceful Harbor” is a soaring, ecstatic hymn: “I’ll look beyond/With this bedlam behind me/And I embrace the sky/My soul will cry/May your wind ever find me.” The final song is both prog heaven and, well, a hopeful glimpse of heaven: “I’m searchin’ for the air but I’m stuck here on the ground … And when I get to walk the streets/Without this burden on my feet/I know I’ve been called home…”
The monumental final, three-part track, “Cosmic Symphony,” is deeply emotional but resolute in nature. Once again, Eliot comes to mind (“Preludes” and “The Hollow Men” in particular), with references to scarecrows and cigarettes, with descriptions both abstract and apocalyptic: “Shrinking violet wounded by her mother/Old men sleep while porcelain screams take over/And the wolf disguises her undying lover.” There is a recognition, it seems, that redemption comes through acknowledging our limits in this temporal realm: “I’m searching for the air but I’m stuck here on the ground now…” But the conclusion, again, is one of hope in the world beyond: “And when I get to walk these streets/Without a burden on these feet/I’ll know I’ve been called home…”
Secondly, as indicated, the music perfectly carries and conveys the rich lyrical content. We all know that these guys can play anything; what is especially striking to me is how they play as a band, for the sake of the music. There are no solos for the sake of solos; everything is at the service of the songs. Steve Morse, who I’ve been listening to for 30 years now, continues to amaze with his ability to play with such precision and economy, yet with such soulfulness. See, for example, his solos in “Peaceful Harbor” and “Cosmic Symphony”. Morse is always distinctly Steve Morse, and yet he has an uncanny—humble, really—ability to serve the music at hand (I also think of his masterful work on Kansas’ criminally underrated “In the Spirit of Things”). Neal Morse and Carey McPherson have apparently mind-melded as vocalists; at times it is hard to say who is singing, nor does it matter. The amount of energy and love they have poured into this album is obvious. Dave LaRue is the epitome of virtuoso bass playing that is rooted and melodic; his brief solo near the beginning of “Cosmic Symphony” is a piece of sheer beauty—again, at the service of the song. And Mike Portnoy’s playing is so very tasteful, with all sorts of meticulous detail.
In short, this is, for me, a magical album. Thank you, Flying Colors!
Time flies when you’re having fun listening to great music! 2014 brought in a bumper crop of excellent music in general, and prog in particular. Here are my favorites of the year:
10. Robert Plant: Lullaby And …The Ceaseless Roar
Mr. Plant returns to his folk roots of Britain, and delivers a thoroughly enjoyable set of songs. A couple rock out, but this is mostly an acoustic tour de force that transcends any musical trends of the day.
Lunatic Soul: Walking On A Flashlight Beam
This album didn’t garner the rave reviews of his first two, but I still think anything Mariusz Duda produces is far better than 90% of anything else out there. “Treehouse” may be my favorite song he’s ever recorded.
John Bassett: Unearth
This album opened my eyes to entirely different side of Mr. Bassett’s talent, and I love it. I hope he does more music in this vein – thoughtful, melodic, acoustic pearls.
John Wesley: Disconnect
Mr. Wesley has been Porcupine Tree’s secret weapon when they play live, and on the side he has been quietly making extraordinary music of his own. Disconnect is his best ever, and it features the inimitable Alex Lifeson on “Once A Warrior”.
It took me awhile to get into this album, but it was definitely worth the effort. It is a beautiful package, from the artwork and lyrics to the music itself. The subject matter is very dark, but listening to the entire album is a cathartic experience. It also has Jan-Henrik Ohme’s strongest vocals to date.
North Atlantic Oscillation: The Third Day
Their third album, and the third one to make one of my best-of-the-year lists. Soaring vocals, gorgeous string arrangements, a wall of sound that is indescribably exhilarating. If Brian Wilson produced Catherine Wheel, it might sound as good as this.
A marvelous steampunk trip through metaphysical dimensions. Robin Armstrong’s imagination knows no bounds, and his musical talent matches it.
Flying Colors: Second Nature
Wow. No “sophomore slump” for this band. One of the many Neal Morse/Mike Portnoy projects that are active these days, Second Nature is an outlet for the more melodic side of their talents. Throw in the genius guitar work of Steve Morse, and this is an irresistible set of songs.
Their Mountain album was my favorite of last year, and the only reason this isn’t number one is because it’s only 34 minutes long. I admit it – I’m greedy for more Haken music!
With Kaleidoscope, Stolt, Morse, Portnoy, Trewavas finally become a real group. On earlier works, you could tell which bits were Neal’s, which were Roine’s, etc. Every song on Kaleidoscope is stamped with Transatlantic’s distinctive sound, and it is a glorious one.
Flying Colors’ sophomore release, Second Nature, may very well be the best album of 2014. If it weren’t for Big Big Train’s English Electric, I would say this may be the best album of the past ten years. It is that good. Seeing the band live only confirmed this suspicion for me. Many times, so-called “supergroups” don’t turn out to be so super. While the idea of putting some of the best musicians in the world in the same band sounds like a recipe for success, the results are often the opposite. I find it easy to believe that egos could often get in the way of making fine music. Not so with Flying Colors. This band combines some of the greatest musicians in the world, and they fit together as band members perfectly. In fact, for several of them, this band may be some of their best work. With Second Nature, the band has an album and a tour under their belts, and they have developed a good relationship.
For those of you unfamiliar with Flying Colors (like I basically was about a month ago), the band is made up of :
Mike Portnoy – drums, backup vocals (co-founder of Dream Theater, member of Transatlantic and The Winery Dogs)
Neal Morse – keyboards and vocals (Spocks Beard, Transatlantic)
Steve Morse – lead guitar (Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple)
Dave Larue – bass (Dixie Dregs)
Casey McPhersen – lead vocals and guitar (Alpha Rev)
The talent in this band certainly is not lacking. The same can easily be said of their new album. When I first heard it a few weeks ago, I was blown away. Then I listened to it again. Wow. It has been played basically every day since then. I went back and listened to their first, self-titled, album and their live album, and I was thoroughly impressed. I knew I just had to see them live.
The album itself begins with the over 12 minute long progressive epic, “Open Your Eyes.” This song combines the musical virtuosity of these amazing artists with McPherson’s haunting vocals. The album quickly shifts gear with the second song, “Mask Machine,” probably the most “radio friendly” song on the album. This song masterfully combines prog and pop rock. The next song, “Bombs Away,” is probably the heaviest song on the album, with an awesome bass line courtesy of Dave Larue. That guy rocks, quite literally. From the heaviest song on the album, we move to one of the quietest on the album, and one of my favorites, “The Fury of My Love.” I identify with this song: it isn’t anger, it’s intensity (listen to the song and you’ll understand what I mean). The next three songs, “A Place in Your World,” “Lost Without You,” and “One Love Forever” are straight up classic hard rock songs. Great guitars, strong keyboards, steady bass, driving drums (it’s Portnoy, what do you expect), and great lyrics. The 8th song on the album, “Peaceful Harbor,” is my favorite on the album, if not my favorite song of the year. Brad mentioned in a comment on another Flying Colors post that “Peaceful Harbor” is like “Dust in the Wind” revisited. I couldn’t agree more. The song starts quietly, in a brilliant fashion, and gradually builds to an epic guitar solo with choral singing reminiscent of Pink Floyd’s “Great Gig in the Sky.” This song is good, true, and beautiful. The album finishes with another prog epic, “Cosmic Symphony.” Made up of three parts (I. Still Life Of The World; II. Searching For The Air; III. Pound For Pound), this song ends the album perfectly. The name of the song is perfect, as it sounds symphonic. In concert, I couldn’t help but sing along with “Pound for Pound.”
One of the elements that I like the most about the music of Flying Colors is the upbeat tempo that it has. I’m no expert on the technical side of music, but I don’t think any of their songs are in minor key. This isn’t really a metal album (although you certainly hear metal elements in Portnoy’s drumming). From the music to the lyrics, you are uplifted the whole time. Furthermore, Flying Colors doesn’t go overboard trying to make their music sound complicated. It seems as if many bands in the progressive genre these days are making their albums overly complicated in studio with so many extra instruments that they can’t possibly go on tour. Flying Colors keeps it simple by only recording what they can play in concert, and they do a fantastic job with it.
As a whole, Second Nature is a masterpiece of progressive rock, as well as AOR rock. This album belongs in the rock annals with the likes of Leftoverture, Journey’s Escape, Moving Pictures, The Grand Illusion, and many other classics of progressive and arena rock. It is that good. This album is, in my opinion, an instant classic, and it pains me to think that so few people will appreciate this masterpiece. This is an album that should be blasted loud to annoy the neighbors (and to hopefully win them over to prog!).
I highly recommend Flying Colors’ new album, Second Nature, to anyone who is a fan of rock. From the guitars, to the keyboards, bass and drums, to the amazing vocals, this album is a must have. You will not be disappointed, as it is one of the best albums made in any genre over the past several years.
Last night, I had the great pleasure of seeing Flying Colors perform songs from their first and second albums live on the second show of their tour. Held at the Arcada Theater in St. Charles, IL (western suburb of Chicago), the show got off to a rather slow start. Two hours slow, to be exact. The concert was supposed to start at 8PM, with seating to begin at 7. That didn’t happen, due to the fact that the FAA is yet another incompetent government agency run by morons and buffoons. Weather might have also played a part in the fact that the band’s flight from California was late, but I blame the FAA. (The Air Traffic Control facility in Chicago was lit on fire by a “disgruntled” employee last week, and they are still recovering.) Mike Portnoy claimed the band hadn’t slept in a couple of days, but it sure didn’t show while they were playing. So, considering the circumstances, it was almost a miracle the show happened at all, so props to Flying Colors for making it happen.
The Flying Colors began playing at 10, but they had a touring band called Bend Sinister, of Vancouver, Canada, open for them at 9 PM. According to the theater people, Flying Colors didn’t inform the theater that Bend Sinister would also be playing. Shoutout to the band manager for a job well done (sarcasm). Bend Sinister’s music can be best described as classic hard rock. They had guitar, drums, bass, keyboards, and a singer with the vocal range of Steve Perry (I’m not kidding, the dude was amazing). They played loud, and were a fairly solid opening act. They finished their act with a cover of Supertramp’s “The Logical Song,” and they did a great job with that. I kind of felt bad for not buying one of their albums to support them, but I’m a poor college student. The bassist gave me a business card after the show though, so there’s that.
Flying Colors finally took the stage around 10, and, boy, was the crowd ready. I don’t remember the setlist, which doesn’t much matter because they ended up playing a song that wasn’t on it. All the songs were from their first two albums, except for one acoustic song done by Casey McPherson from his band, Alpha Rev. He phased that song right into the beginning of “Peaceful Harbor,” and it worked perfectly.
Right from the get go, Flying Colors was rockin’ the roof off the joint. I was so excited to finally get to see Mike Portnoy, my second favorite drummer behind Neal Peart (who else?). After listening to my review copy of Second Nature a few weeks ago, I knew I had to hear more from this band. I acquired their first album (thanks, Brad), and I listened to both of Flying Colors albums almost daily for the past two weeks, until I decided to buy a ticket on Wednesday. They did not disappoint in concert. Everything from Steve Morse’s unworldly guitar work, to Portnoy’s always amazing drum work, to Dave Larue’s steady and technical bass work, this band has it all. I don’t think it is too much to say that this is one of the best “supergroups” ever.
The frustrating part of the evening, both for me and obviously for the band, was the feedback problems they had with their audio system. I think all of the problems were coming from Casey’s amps, as he said a couple of times that he blew a few amps, and the audio guy was on stage half the show messing with Casey’s guitar and amps trying to fix the problem. He never did, unfortunately. But, it was only noticeable on the quiet songs. Despite the setback, the band still performed flawlessly, and they really deserve credit for fighting through yet another setback. The crowd was more than gracious, which I’m sure the band appreciated.
If you have listened to any of the Flying Colors catalogue, you know how amazing these guys are. In concert, they take it to the max. In fact, some of their songs sound even better live, especially “Infinite Fire,” which was the encore, and “Peaceful Harbor.” The beautiful thing about this band is they don’t play loud for the sake of playing loud. Even though I left with about 1/4 of the hearing capacity I arrived with, each instrument could be heard (or felt) clearly and distinctly. It wasn’t just loud noise, like some bands. As a lead singer, arguably the least famous member of the band, Casey McPhersen has an excellent stage presence and a fantastic voice with great pitch and range. He never missed a note. Neal Morse sounded good as well, and he was a whiz on the keyboards. Even Portnoy sang, which was cool to see the drummer do. He talked to the audience a lot as well, explaining their difficulties getting to Chicago. The Arcada Theater has become his “home away from home,” as this was the third show he has played there this year, all with different bands. Dave Larue is incredible on the bass, and he bears an uncanny resemblance to Geddy Lee. Steve Morse is a god on guitar, enough said.
Throughout the night, the band played a good mix of songs from both of their albums. It was probably about 50/50, but they may have played more from Second Nature. I think they opened with “Open Your Eyes,” but I can’t rightly remember. (I’m better at remembering albums, since I usually listen to albums in their entirety and never look at what song is playing. That’s why I love TaaB!) In no specific order, they also played, “Cosmic Symphony,” “Mask Machine,” “Bombs Away” (freakin’ amazing bass!), “The Fury of My Love,” “Peaceful Harbor,” Shoulda Coulda Woulda,” “Kayla,” “The Storm,” “Infinite Fire,” and several other songs I’m forgetting. It was all awesome, and there isn’t a Flying Colors song that I don’t like.
In the end, this was a fantastic concert. The band did a great job of overcoming adversity, especially when the venue was nowhere near sold out. They truly love their fans, because they showed nothing but appreciation to the crowd. In my mind, the only thing holding them back is the airlines, equipment failure, and whoever the hell set up the sound equipment.
Tonight was the last American show, held in Philadelphia. However, for European fans, there are seven more shows in the tour spread out around the continent. My recommendation: go! You won’t regret it. And go buy Second Nature. Great job Flying Colors!