Perhaps Mike Portnoy makes the best analogy when he compares Flying Colors to an “experiment with rats in a laboratory”. Granted, there is some logic to the lineup assembled by executive producer Bill Evans to rush-record this debut.
Portnoy, fresh from the Dream Theater debacle, and Neal Morse, formerly of Spock’s Beard: yep, that makes sense. Deep Purple’s Steve Morse and bassist Dave LaRue, too, seem a feasible tag-team after their sparring in Dixie Dregs. Ultimately, it’s Casey McPherson who feels like the incongruous human ear on the mouse’s back. As frontman of the pop-flavoured Alpha Rev, he’s undoubtedly a killer vocalist, but hardly the hairy berserker we might have expected. Portnoy calls him the ‘x factor’. The fear is that he may also be the X Factor.
First off, a warning: if you’re rubbing your hands in anticipation of a half-hour version of Smoke On The Water played in 6⁄8 time, then you won’t enjoy Flying Colors at all. By the members’ own admission there’s very little virtuosity on show here. Compared to DT’s double-kick gymnastics, Portnoy is practically sitting on his hands, while neither does Morse play anything too jaw-dropping. It’s very much, as they say, about the songs, and for good and bad, this album is all over the place.
It starts brilliantly with Blue Ocean, built on a slinking LA Woman bassline that crashes into a Journey-sized chorus. Shoulda Coulda Woulda is great, too, with a Muse-ish industrial grind and operatic vocal. The Storm is big, emotive, irony-free rock done really well, while Forever In A Daze is elastic and fantastic Chili Peppers funk.
There’s a sense of a band spinning the Wheel Of Fortune and bending their talent to any genre. Trouble is that ‘Pop’ keeps coming up. We can forgive the likeably plonky Beatles pastiche Love Is What I’m Waiting For, but by the second half, the ballads are everywhere. Everything Changes is the kind of song that plays over a dance troupe being culled from Britain’s Got Talent. Fool In My Heart is a benign waft to accompany the credits of a Sandra Bullock rom-com. Better Than Walking Away is just drippy.
These aren’t bad tunes, but they’re pretty forgettable. Flying Colors, then, requires an open mind, some suspension of expectation, and several spins to reveal itself as a fearless and only partially flawed album. They could be heroes, but for now the jury’s out.