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Flying Colors - Third Degree (Album Review)

Friday, 18 October 2019 Written by Simon Ramsay

You don’t have to be Master Yoda or a tightrope walker to understand that, in most areas of life, balance is everything. Such a notion is particularly true when it comes to musical collaborations, as evidenced by this eagerly awaited return from melodic-prog supergroup Flying Colors. 

Striking a pleasing equilibrium between conflicting aesthetics in the group, and offering a fine blend of their previous record’s best attributes, ‘Third Degree’ is a superbly produced effort where classy songcraft and instrumental work combine to great effect.

It would probably be easier to negotiate a universally loved Brexit deal than to get this in demand quintet together on a regular basis.

Drummer Mike Portnoy and vocalist/keyboard maestro Neal Morse are both prolific enough to make Dave Grohl resemble a lazy bum, while guitarist Steve Morse is usually busy playing in Deep Purple.  

As such, it’s been five years since the trio—alongside bassist Dave LaRue and frontman Casey McPherson—released ‘Second Nature’, a sophomore record that, although laudably progressive and tightly woven, was overly moody and not as much fun as their spirited debut. 

Thankfully, ‘Third Degree’ finds the band really enjoying themselves as they serve up a cracking cocktail of songs that offer a diverse mixture of stylistic and emotional flavours. Best of all, though, the soaring melodies here are stronger, sharper, more immediate and memorable than those on ‘Second Nature’.

Geronimo might be Flying Colors’ finest moment yet as west coast Steely Dan grooves give way to an infectious, up and at ‘em hook. Love Letter, meanwhile, is ELO partying with the Beach Boys down at Kokomo, Cadence’s renaissance regality swells to a momentous swaying refrain and heavenly ballad You Are Not Alone finds Casey’s delivery at its most delicate. Such cuts highlight how, in spite of their abilities, these virtuosic musicians never overplay for the sake of it and instinctively understand that every note has to serve the song. That said, there are also plenty of synergistic twists, turns and textures to satisfy the faithful.  

LaRue’s powerfully melodious basslines propel Guardian down a highway of endless anthemic optimism, and Crawl is 11 epic minutes of earworm refrains and sky-bursting instrumental fireworks. Throughout, Morse’s six-string consistently paints sublime pictures and Portnoy’s arsenal of percussive strokes feel typically invigorating. Only a detour into pixie-dance acoustic territory, featuring ill-advised pseudo-scatting, is misguided on the otherwise beautiful Last Train Home.   

Where ‘Third Degree’ truly triumphs over its predecessor, though, is in finding the right equilibrium between Morse and McPherson’s contrasting approaches. Where the latter’s writing is born of an angst ridden alt-rock mindset, the former’s vintage influences and spirituality render his compositions more classically tuneful and positive. Here the two seemingly opposed styles work well together, with hope playing off intense doubts and fears on both individual tracks and, more interestingly, the album as a whole.  

Beginning with two of the band’s heaviest numbers, Loss Inside batters out a pulverising riff and tortured chorus that apes early Muse, while More feels like Led Zeppelin’s Kashmir hurtling through space on a Wagnerian battleship. Both initially appear tonally dislocated from what follows, until we realise they’re scene setters for an album that begins in a broken place but finds redemption over subsequent tracks.  

Although ‘Third Degree’ is by no means a conceptual effort, its thematic journey out of darkness and suffering offers a well rendered yin and yang dynamic, resulting in an album that leaves the listener feeling quietly triumphant and revitalised as its final notes fade away. 

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