• Posted March, 2012

    Photo by Joey Pippin

    When you mention the Progressive Rock genre to a baby boomer, bands such as Yes, Todd Rundgren’s Utopia, early Genesis, King Crimson, Moody Blues, Pink Floyd and Emerson, Lake and Palmer easily come to mind. Today, bands such as Transatlantic, Spock’s Beard, Dream Theater would be the top of mind names in today’s prog rock genre.

    Imagine, if you will, putting together members of – oh, let’s say – each of today’s dominant prog rock bands (with a couple of highly talented and successful artists in for additional flavor) and put them under the superior talents of a world class producer.  Do you think such a band would pass the “fan test” of acceptability?

    If so, you would be absolutely correct.  In fact, it would do so with Flying Colors.  Wait, I mean Flying Colors the band and not a figure of speech or expression.

    To say that Flying Colors is the new prog rock super group would not be an overstatement in the slightest.  Consider who makes up this incredible band:  Steve Morse (Dixie Dregs, Deep Purple),  Casey McPherson (Alpha Rev, Endochine), Dave LaRue (Dixie Dregs, The Steve Morse Band), Mike Portnoy (Dream Theater, Transatlantic) and Neal Morse (Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic).  Put this nuclear powerhouse of musical talent under the incredible production talent of Peter Collins (Rush, Alice Cooper, Bon Jovi, Indigo Girls, Suicidal Tendencies) and one is assured of an explosion of awesome creativity resulting in sound of epic proportions.

    I received my review copy of the debut Flying Colors CD last month and have been savoring it ever since.  I won’t repeat my thoughts about that album but you can read the Boomerocity review here.  That said, as stoked as I am about this album, imagine my “stokedness” when the opportunity presented itself to interview the keyboardist for Flying Colors, the multi-talented Neal Morse.

    I called Neal up at his Nashville area home.  Immediately friendly and engaging, our conversation got off to an incredibly upbeat start.  We began by discussing how the group’s debut album was different for him than all of the other projects he has been involved with.

    “Oh, well, there are a lot of things on Flying Colors that are completely unique from my life and career. One of them is it’s the first time I’ve ever been produced – like ever! I’ve always been the producer or collaborator on everything that I’ve worked on.  The Transatlantic stuff it says ‘Produced by Transatlantic’.

    “So, that was a trip – to have some English dude (Peter Collins) on the other side of the glass going (speaking in a bang-on British accent), ‘Oh, yes, can you try it again? Maybe, perhaps, with a bit more feeling?’ – you know, that whole kind of thing. He was very funny. He’d go, ‘Alright, chaps, this one’s for England and the Queen’ and stuff like that. It was really a lot of fun. He had a lot of really great opinions. It was much more collaborative all the way through than anything I’ve ever done before, either.

    “For example, the lyrics were all Casey, Peter and I – we all got together when Casey came to Nashville to do his lead vocals.  We talked about every lyric. That never happened before. With Spock’s Beard, I pretty much wrote everything. We’d change it a little bit but I don’t think we ever changed any lyrics – hardly ever. Transatlantic was really the same. They just let me say whatever I wanted to say.

    “So, this (Flying Colors) was really unique. Casey was different. Working with a singer like him was really cool – really different. And Casey is very particular about lyrics in a way that has kind of changed me. Casey likes to have imagery in every line. He wants to have something cool and different about everything that he sings or else he’s not into it.

    “I’m not really like that. I’ll have the imagery and cool things but sometimes I sing stuff because I like the way it sounds. I don’t look into the lyrics with a magnifying glass that these guys both did. That was an interesting and cool learning experience for me.”

    With that all being said, I asked Neal if it was hard for him to let go of the control of the production and creative process.

    “Sometimes. There were a few times when it was difficult to let go. But I’ve learned from some of my other collaborations that the whole thing becomes a process of letting go. You have to stay kind of unattached – especially when there are so many cooks in the kitchen.  For me, as a Believer, I felt that God wanted me to do this project. So the last thing I would want to do is squelch someone else because I felt that God wanted me to be there to work with them and their gifts. So, it was really interesting and very cool.”

    Knowing that some of the Boomerocity readers are big Transatlantic fans, I had to ask Neal what he felt Transatlantic fans will like about the Flying Colors disc and what they might think is noticeably different between them.

    “Well, I think Flying Colors is really different from Transatlantic. I think what they’ll like about it is the musicality of it, the playing – the players are all amazing.  Everybody seems to dig Casey’s voice a lot. I think anybody who loves good music is going to like it. So far, it’s getting outrageous reviews. There’s a lot of interesting music. Infinite Fire is the prog epic of the album even though it’s not as long as anything Transatlantic has done. It’s got a certain epic quality to it.  I think they’ll enjoy that. A lot of the songs are really strong. I think anybody who loves good music will love it.”

     Long ago I gave up on asking artists what their favorite song on their latest album is so I didn’t ask Neal that question.  However, I did ask him if he could point to only one song off of Flying Colors that could be listened to as a sample before one were to decide whether to buy it, what song would he point them to?

    “I guess I would pick Kayla. I think it has all of the good Flying Colors elements. That was Casey’s verse and then we collaborated together on the chorus. I think I did the bridge part and then Steve Morse constructed his solo. Of course, we all worked and shaped the whole thing. I think it’s a nice piece.”

    With such a great debut album, fans will naturally want to catch these guys live.  From what Neal shared, we may have to be a bit of a wait.

    “We’re trying to (organize some performances). It’s really between Steve’s Deep Purple schedule and Mike’s Adrenaline Mob and other projects and them finding a window. So far, they haven’t been able to find one, which is kind of a bummer. We’re hopeful. I’m just praying about it and am hopeful that something will happen. If it’s supposed to happen, then it will happen and it will be great. Right now, we’re watching and waiting to see what the record will do, do interviews and support the release and just hoping for the best.”

    As Neal unashamedly let be known early in our conversation, he is a Christian.  His solo work has been predominantly religious in theme.  For those of you who think that Christian music is still relegated to the old Southern Gospel quartet style of singing, think again.  Neal is among the best and most innovative singer/songwriter/musicians in that market.  He has worked with such stellar CCM musicians as guitarist, Phil Keaggy.  I’m a huge Phil Keaggy fan so, naturally, I asked if he and Phil were going to work together again.

    “We talk every once in awhile. We’ve been trying to get together to work on something. He’s pretty busy and I’m pretty busy but we’d love to. He’s amazing! I’ve been working on The Making of ‘One’ DVD – my inner-circle, my subscription thing – with some Phil Keaggy footage in there.”

    Staying on the subject of Morse’s faith, I wondered what the reaction has been to the proclamation of his faith and how his faith has affected his work and creativity.

    “It’s been amazingly positive. I think God’s put me in a pretty unique position to be able to sing some very straight forward Christian lyrics to largely secular audiences. I think that’s extraordinary. How many people get to do that?  They eat it up!  My friend put it a good way. He said, ‘If you feed them enough music that they love, they’ll swallow Christ along with it and not even realize it.’ It’s been an awesome thing.

     “I’m always praying for the Lord to show me what he wants me to do with whoever he wants me to do it with. It’s just that daily walk of faith. There isn’t really any ‘how-to’ – I’m always testing the waters, praying, writing songs, seeking the Lord, and I don’t always know what He’s doing or how He’s going to do it. Sometimes it’s hard to make decisions about what to do. I don’t really operate that way so much as I try to trust that what He’s giving me is the right thing and I just keep moving forward with that. It’s an adventure. It’s a great adventure!”

    My pre-interview research on Neal led me to interviews and CD reviews within the Christian press.  As might be expected, when one doesn’t espouse a particular theological nuance, one “sect” or another will express their displeasure and place their labels on the person they disagree with.  Not surprisingly, I found reaction to those interviews and reviews that indicate Morse has suffered the same treatment.  I asked him about that.

    “The people in the secular world that I’ve offended and the people in the Christian that I’ve offended – they just, basically, don’t have me come or they just don’t come to my concerts. There have been some people who have wanted to work against what I’m doing but they do it all behind the scenes; they talk to other people and every once in awhile I find out about something but it’s pretty rare. Usually I just give it all to the Lord anyway so I’m like, ‘Well, that’s interesting. I’ll pray about that.’ You know what I mean? There isn’t really much that I can do about those things except give it over to Him.

    “But, I haven’t encountered very much. A little bit sometimes but, like I said, it’s kind of a hush-hush kind of thing. A lot of times people are actually very kind. They’ll visit me and be very kind to me. Then, as they’re leaving, they’ll give me a book on Christology, giving me the message – in their view – that they’re wanting to help me to have the ‘correct view’.  I appreciate that. Operating in love is the premium thing.”

    While we wait to see what kind of touring Flying Colors is going to do, Neal certainly isn’t letting the grass grow under his feet as he has some interesting things in the hopper.

    “I’ve got a new album in the works that will be released in the fall. It’s going to be called Momentum. Also, we’re going to have a Cover to Cover Part 2 that’s coming out in May. Gotta keep things going!”

    You can keep up with Neal Morse and Flying Colors at the following websites:

    www.nealmorse.com     http://flyingcolorsmusic.com

  • March, 2015

         

    Among prog rock fans, when they hear the name, “Neal Morse,” bands such as Spock’s Beard, Transatlantic, or, more recently, Flying Colors come to mind. Of course, really hard core prog rockers think of Neal Morse as an amazingly prolific artist in his right. 

    That hold on the mind share of fans of the genre will grow stronger with the release of Morse’s latest solo project, “Grand Experiment,” a project that is as bold in its approach to creating as it is in its musical brilliance.

    I recently called Neal (my second interview with him) at his Nashville area studio to chat about “Grand Experiment.”  After a bit of small talk, I asked him if the album pre-prepped or was this a “winging it” kind of project.

    “Most of my albums are 90% there - before I fly people in to record them. Sometimes a little less, maybe, sometime even more. The “Testimony” album, Mike just played to what I had already recorded on the computer at that time. They vary. I think the one album that we messed with a bit more. Some albums we shaped more than others when Randy, Mike and I got together. 

    “Generally, yeah, it's pretty mapped out. I like to kind of feel like I've got enough really strong material before I commit to going in that far. But this time I felt to take more of a risk and not prepare really anything and just get together with the guys and see what happened. I think that's why this one seems to have a real fresh sound and feel to it. It can really all be accredited to the band.”

    Is it fair to say that this album is a prog improvisation project or is that a fair way to describe it?

    “No, I don’t think so. I don't think it will come across that way at all. I think it comes across like a really strong, fresh, prog project with some rock and pop songs in there too. I think it comes off like a Neal Morse album, though, with a different twist and a lot of other singers. It's very accessible - in fact maybe even more accessible than some of my other albums.”

    It stands to reason that this approach had to have some surprises so I asked if there were any using this approach.

    “For me, the whole album is a surprise, really. Many different things happened that surprised me. ‘The Grand Experiment’ song surprised me by how good it came out. I had that chorus and that riff that I was playing on keyboard.  I think of it as kind of a piano and organ riff. Eric (Gillette) started playing it heavy and we started  playing a little faster. Then Mike had this idea, he was just sloshing away on the drums going, ‘oh yeah, it'll be awesome !’ and adding his ideas to it.

    “I'm thinking, ‘Okay …’ You only know if it is anything ‘til it all kind of comes together with the words and everything. I was still seeing how it was all gonna turn out ‘til we put it all together and I went ‘Wow! This really came out really special!’ That's part of the adventure and the mystery of creating in a group. That's why I think groups are so cool is that stuff happens that you would never expect and you would never create on your own.”

    As for whether or not the lyrics and been pre-written, Neal said:

    “The words were not entirely created when we shot the video. We couldn’t use any of Mike’s video footage, hardly, of him singing because he hadn’t written the words – his little after parts in the verses – he hadn’t written those. So he was mouthing the wrong words in the video so we couldn’t use any of the shots.

    “We shot that at Morsefest and we were still in the middle of overdubbing and we weren’t really done with all of our parts yet. It was amazing that it all came together as well as it did because it was kind of very spontaneous.”

    Within a group, the dynamic is such that members don’t always receive a change in the formula of what has worked in the past. I asked Morse if there was any resistance to this freewheeling approach.

    “I think Randy (George) and Mike (Portnoy) were totally into it. I think Bill (Hubauer), maybe, was a little uncomfortable. He would say to me, ‘I know you worked like this before,’ because I

         

    have with Flying Colors and, to some respect, Transatlantic is that way, too. A lot of adventure going on. 

    “Bill usually maps things out. He’s a pretty organized sort of guy, too. I don’t know, man, you’re sort of flying an airplane by the seat of your pants and you’re not sure how you’re gonna land!”

    Neal and the guys always come across as having a lot of fun making their records and videos, coming across as being quite crazy, sometimes. I asked if the zaniness took place in the studio as much as it does on the videos.

    “Mike, himself, is a nut! He ranges from a very high powered New York business man to, like, a two year old child within minutes. He can be really intense and really serious and super driven. Then, the next thing, he’s standing on the table making noise like Jerry Lewis or somebody. You kinda never know what you’re gonna get! 

    “I’m probably a little more staid in the studio. Playing live, I’m more animated. I think I enjoy that maybe a little bit – not that I enjoy it more, it’s just a different experience. I love being in the studio, as well.”

    What was the most fun for Morse and the band working in this manner?

    “Well, it was either breakfast or dinner. I’m not sure which. But I would have to say dinner, I think. I love recording at home, ‘cause my wife and son cook these amazing meals. That’s definitely a fun part. Recording “The Grand Experiment” was awesome. That was a very fun one to do. Some of the extra tracks were really fun. I really enjoyed recording “The Call,” you know, with all the different changes and all the things that were thrown into that one. That was a gas. It’s a hodge podge of hard work and the most fun you’ve ever had in your life at the same time.”

    As for negatives to using this approach, Morse said:

    “Well, sometimes I wasn’t sure if what we were doing was good enough. And there were times I was doubting. That’s not a good place to be.”

    Did any of those doubts materialize?

    “No, they didn’t materialize on the album. You know, once it all came together, it becomes great and how it should be. A lot of things work themselves out. When you’re collaborating, you’re trying things. It’s like you’re traveling, and you go down a road, and maybe some people in the car are like, ‘I don’t know. Maybe we should turn back.’ But, eventually, you arrive. You get there. And we definitely got there on this record.

    When I asked Neal if there were there any epiphanies or “lightbulb moments” regarding previous albums while you were working on this album, he said:

    “No, I don’t think so. There were a lot of things that we thought about, and when we started to do it, I thought, ‘Oh yea, this is really going to be special.’ I really don’t compare things too much. 

    “A lot of times, I’ve forgotten what I did before. People actually tell me, ‘Oh, that sounds like something you did before.’ I don’t really think about what I did before very much. So I need people around me to keep me honest, so to speak. 

    “When we came up with the a cappella beginning, Eric, Bill, and I just started singing that in the room. That was a real special moment. I was like, ‘Oh, yea, what a cool way to open the record.’ I can’t remember if I’ve ever opened a record with a cappella three-part vocals on anything I’ve been involved in. I was just really happy about it. I think the beginning of the album particularly has a great, fresh energy.”

    I asked Neal if he was taking anything from his “Grand Experiment” method of album making to future projects.

    “I try not to hold on to methods. It’s easy to think that, because something worked once, we should do it again. Sometimes that’s good- you know, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. For example, I’ve used Rich Mouser to mix for years, because if you love it, why change it? 

    “I try not to predict the future because I never know what the Lord has in store. But I’m pretty sure we’ll do another Neal Morse Band record. If we do, I’d really like to be together when we do some of the overdubbing, particularly the vocals. It was a challenge to get all of the vocal phrasing right when you’re not in the same state. But we did manage to do it through the miracles of modern technology and new cutting things. It was a crazy way to make a record. 

    “After the initial sessions, we were all overdubbing in our respective homes. And sometimes I’d listen to a mix, then I’d text Bill and Eric, ‘Hey, man. I don’t like the phrasing on this line.’ or ‘I’d like to change the lyrics to this line. Eric, can you sing this?’ So he’d sing it, send it to Rich in California who would then line it up and tie it into the master that he’s mixing. Then he’d remix the session, send me an MP3, and I’d listen to it on my phone from whoever knows where I was. I was traveling a lot during that time. I was on vacation with my family and whatnot. So I’d listen to it on my phone and go, ‘Yea, cool, approved!’ or ‘Maybe we should phrase it a little differently…’ Sometimes I would sing things the way I wanted them phrased into the Memos on my phone, and then send it to the guy. There’s a million different ways to sing a line, you know what I mean? The line that we kept texting and e-mailing to each other was ‘This is a crazy way to make a record.’”

    I posited that he must be thankful for the types of technologies that improve affordability and prevent him and the band from settling for something that is less than what they envisioned, he agreed.

    “Yea, it’s a matter of affordability, and also being able to do other things we already have planned. It would take a lot longer if we all had to be in the same place at the same time. Also, we all get to be at home with our families for the holidays. A lot of this took place during the holidays, and that would be pretty rough. So yea, I’m thankful.”

    I asked Morse which song from “Grand Experiment” he would use as the album’s calling card.

    “For me, it’s ‘The Call.’ I think everyone is really well represented on that. It’s real ‘progy.’ It’s got the three part harmonies. It’s got different guys singing lead on different parts, and everybody’s killing it. Mike’s killing it. The instrumentals are great. To me, that’s the quintessential Neal Morse Band song right now. That’s how I feel about it.”

    I tried to pry out of Morse whether or not there was any left over material that from Grand Experiment that would be used for the next album. 

    “We used pretty much everything between this and the bonus disc. There are some other ideas we didn’t get to, but everything that we got to is on the three disc special edition.”

    As for tour plans in support of Grand Experiment, Morse said:

    “Well, we’re doing seven or eight shows in North America starting February 21 in Nashville. We’re doing a few dates in Canada as well. L.A., Chicago, East Coast. And then we go to Europe, and we’re doing nine dates in Europe. So we’ll be out for about three weeks, maybe a little more, which is just right for me. I don’t like to be away from my family that long.”

    And after the tour?

    “I’m working on a piece for musical theater, actually. It’s very different than anything I’ve done before, so I’m hoping to see about getting that on the stage. I’m also writing some worship songs, more singer-songwriter songs. Then, later in the year, there’s probably going to be a MorseFest Deluxe package with both the live albums and the live DVD. The whole MorseFest experience will probably be coming out in the fall. I’m not sure what else will be coming, but I’m sure it will be good. I know there’ll probably be at Flying Colors live this year from the last tour. And maybe some other surprises.”

    Morse fans, no doubt, can’t wait to see what those surprises are. In the mean time, they can indulge themselves in his “Grand Experiment” for a musical extravaganza. 

     

     

  •      

    Second Nature
    Flying Colors
    Label: Music Theories/Mascot Label Group
    Release Date: September 30, 2014
    Review Date: September 28, 2014

    When prog super group, Flying Colors, came out with their self-titled debut album, the critics were united in acknowledging it as being among the most fascinating releases of 2012. Teaming the talents of such heavyweight names as Deep Purple/Dixie Dregs/ex-Kansas guitarist Steve Morse, drummer Mike Portnoy (Transatlantic, Winery Dogs, ex-Dream Theater), Neal Morse (Transatlantic, Spock’s Beard and a prolific solo artist), bass player Dave LaRue (Dixie Dregs, Joe Satriani, Steve Vai and more) with a comparatively new talent, pop singer/songwriter Casey McPherson, the band challenged conventional wisdom about combining virtuoso music and melodic songwriting. Or, as the quintet’s modus operandi was once memorably defined by founder Bill Evans, ‘crafting new-fashioned music the old-fashioned way’.  GuitarWorld.com has premiered an album teaser featuring all five band members here.
     
    Evans’ mission was to team a pool of virtuoso players, a pop singer/songwriter, and the right producer—to create sophisticated music that was accessible. Over 100 singer/songwriters were considered for the role. Portnoy pitched the idea of approaching McPherson, a member of the group Alpha Rev, whose 2010 album called ‘New Morning’ that dominated the Billboard Top Ten for 17 weeks. After an hour-long phone call with Evans, the band found their man. As Mike had quite rightly hoped, McPherson went on to prove the ‘x factor’ that elevated Flying Colors above the norm.  As Portnoy told Prog magazine: “The idea of having an actual singer – as opposed to a musician that also sang – really opened up a whole other world.”
     
    The UK’s Classic Rock magazine hailed the band’s debut as “fearless”, praising its “Journey-sized choruses” and referencing artists as diverse as The Beatles, the Red Hot Chili Peppers, The Doors, Muse and even Frank Sinatra.  In late 2012, the band toured the United States and Europe, dazzling fans with Flying Colors originals and selections from the catalogues of the five members. The chemistry can be heard on ‘Live In Europe’, a Number #1-charting Blu-ray, DVD, CD and vinyl package recorded and shot in Tilburg, Holland.
     
    Schedules allowing, the protagonists had always viewed Flying Colors as a genuine band as opposed to a mere side project, and quietly yet purposefully they began writing a second studio album. From the first writing session to final delivery of the masters in July 2014, the process took almost a year and half, albeit in four distinct stages: writing sessions via Skype in January/February 2013, another burst of writing and recording at Neal Morse’s house in Nashville, a trip to Portnoy’s home that spawned five additional songs, and finally individual recording/arrangement over the internet throughout the spring of 2014. This time the band opted to self-produce, with Evans, the man responsible for the concept of Flying Colors, reprising his role as Executive Producer and co-engineer. Besides offering a finely tuned set of ears, Evans would remix a track each time an amendment was made, before sending it onto each band member, allowing closer collaboration by the band.  “There was no repudiation of producer Peter Collins,” clarifies Evans, “but the guys had become a family and they wanted to try something different.”
     
    “The first album was very much a blind date,” Mike Portnoy explains. “Although we already had ‘Team Dregs’ of Steve/Dave and ‘Team Transatlantic’ of myself/Neal, it was the first time that the five of us – seven if you include Bill Evans and Peter Collins – had collaborated together as a group. This time there was an existing chemistry, we had not only the prior experiences of making the debut album but also the 2012 tour as well.”
     
    Sporting stunning artwork from the legendary designer Hugh Syme (Rush, Aerosmith, Def Leppard, Whitesnake) and bookended by two tracks of truly epic stature – ‘Open Up Your Eyes’ and the multiple-part ‘Cosmic Symphony’ – the album is every bit as breathtaking as the debut.  Portnoy stresses that the music’s proggier path was “not conscious at all.” The drummer continues: “Direction was never even discussed. We just did what we do. I think perhaps not having a producer to ‘trim the fat’ possibly led to the songs breathing and expanding a bit more.”  Perhaps Steve Morse sums things up best with the statement: “This is an album full of many layers. The more you listen, the more you can hear. It’s an album to keep listening to.”  The complete track listing is: "Open Up Your Eyes," "Mask Machine," "Bombs Away," "The Fury Of My Love," "A Place In Your World," "Lost Without You," "One Love Forever," "Peaceful Harbor," "Cosmic Symphony - I. Still Life Of The World; II. Searching For The Air; III. Pound For Pound."