On the rare occasion when you come across a live album that does its subjects a serious disservice, you’re forced to wonder if the band was cornered into releasing a place-holder between studio albums or if the unflattering footage is indicative of their overall live persona. Not so with this high-quality release from Flying Colors. In fact, the only way to dislike it is to also dislike its studio counterparts – and if that’s the case, then I don’t know what to tell you (you can read my review of Second Nature here). Flying Colors are as fresh, energetic, and… well, colorful as they were the first time around. They continue to utilize all the tools in their toolbox, perhaps with even more proficiency on this second journey, and remain true to the pop-powered-prog guise they set out to establish. Filmed on a great stage before an appreciatively “rowdy” audience, Live at the Z7 is an invigorating collection of the band’s best material to date and serves as an impressive benchmark for Neal, Mike, Steve, Dave, and Casey to surpass on their third, as-yet-in-the-future foray.
As on their first live release, Live in Europe, Flying Colors sound as professional and polished onstage as they do in the studio – this despite the band’s own confession that they were still learning the tunes at the time of Z7’s filming. Part of this cohesion is due to the band members’ virtuosity; the rest is due to the high-caliber crew who back them behind the scenes: director Bernhard Baran, executive producer Bill Evans, and a superb team of engineers – Rich Mouser, Jeff Fox, Tom Price, Jerry Guidroz, and Arne Lakenmacher. Filmed in Pratteln, Switzerland at the Konzertfabrik Z7 during the eighth show of 2014’s Second Nature tour (the album had been out for only one full week at that point), the Z7 production utilized 24 cameras and state-of-the-art audio technology. The band’s website includes this colorful description of the DVD/Blu-Ray’s surplus of audiophile listening options:
You can choose where you listen from in the Z7. The Audio Menu shows you a map of the venue, and you can hang at the front of the stage, or right behind the soundboard (where Rich Mouser plies his trade). In each place, you’ll get a completely different 5.1 surround mix. And possibly Rich’s untouched Strawberry Daiquiri. (Rich, are you gonna drink that?)
In another first, you can listen to an audio-only version of the show on headphones—but still experience a full 5.1 mix. We’re calling the technology, Headphone Surround. Mostly because we’re not contractually obligated to be creative until the next album. We mastered it at 24-bit / 48kHz, which you can grab directly from our label.
We also did a separate mix and master at 24-bit / 192 kHz for insane audiophile quality. And you can snag it from snooty digital audio providers such as Pono. (It’s 8GB of just audio. That’s more than the entire DVD of Independence Day – plus the extras where Will Smith figures out that Bill Pullman was switched with Bill Paxton about 2/3 through the movie. Google it.)
From the gorgeous vocal overture, borrowing from the bridge of “Mask Machine,” to the finale (which concludes with the full rendition of Second Nature’s single), to the encore performance of “Infinite Fire,” this concert contains the best Flying Colors material. Noticeably absent are the less-than memorable latter tracks of the self-titled debut. Furthermore, the only composition from Second Nature that did not make it into this concert was (in my opinion) its weakest tune, “Lost Without You.” In other words, Live at the Z7 is all meat and no fat.
The sequence of three songs which begins the second audio disc of the concert and falls at the approximate middle of the set is, for me, the well-orchestrated highlight of the show. First, the semi-acoustic rendition of “One Love Forever,” which features gorgeous three-part vocals from Casey, Mike, and Neal, and even some cowbell. Immediately following this tune, the rest of the band abdicate the stage for Casey to perform a solo rendition of “Colder Months” (the singer-songwriter’s tune that initially inspired Mike Portnoy to suggest McPherson as candidate for the role of Flying Color’s lead singer), which then transitions beautifully into “Peaceful Harbor” – arguably the most anthemic and powerful song in the setlist.
Songs from the band’s debut album mesh nicely with the newer material: “Kayla,” “Shoulda Woulda Coulda,” “Infinite Fire,” and “The Storm” all return to the active setlist with fury and precision. The lattermost number felt somewhat hurried by Portnoy during the first chorus, but thematically set the stage for “Cosmic Symphony,” which opens with the rumble of thunder and Neal’s eerie riff on the keys. The Z7 crowd shows appreciation for each member of the band at the appropriate times: LaRue for his bass solo on “Cosmic Symphony” and the extended jam on “Forever in a Daze”; Portnoy for the flourish at the finale of “Shoulda Coulda Woulda;” Steve Morse for his furious guitar insert at the conclusion of “Cosmic Symphony’s” first movement; Neal for his left-hand-in-the-air organ solo on the encore performance of “Infinite Fire.”
Complaints? I don’t have many. Portnoy is a character, so you’ll watch him throw sticks and make faces, but his inventiveness, precision, and charisma are undeniable assets. A bigger (but still minor) quibble for me is that Casey primarily doubles Steve on guitar licks, which perhaps offers beefier sound, and simply sits out of more complex runs. The dual-guitar, Boston-esque harmonization he and Steve do works really well, but Casey’s abilities as a guitarist are such that he could perhaps contribute additional counter melodies or rhythmic textures to further complement the live arrangements.
That being said, Neal Morse projects remain some of the most precise and uncluttered prog I’ve had the pleasure to experience. Often prog artists (for those of you who still try to insist that Flying Colors isn’t technically a prog band, I don’t know what you’re smoking) fall into the trap of stacking layers and layers of synth simply because they can – simply because they have six members who should be doing something. Not so with Flying Colors: the band retains its crystal clear sound, efficiently utilizing each of the voices and instruments at its disposal, and carefully blending symphonic progressive elements with more traditional pop sensibilities. Live at the Z7 – with its impressive audio capturing technology, removed from the wizardry of the studio – serves as prime evidence of this fact.
Second Flight: Live at the Z7 will hit global markets on 13 November, distributed via Music Theories Recordings and Mascot Label Group, and will be available on LP, CD, DVD/Blu-Ray, 4k, and in all digital formats. The DVD/Blu-Ray also includes four music videos as bonus content – “Kayla” from Flying Colors, and “Mask Machine, “The Fury of My Love,” and “A Place in Your World” from Second Flight – in addition to quality packaging. For fans of the band looking to revisit tunes they love with the infusion of live fervor, or for those who are simply looking for something new to listen to, this is a straightforward and exciting live concert to try.