For fans that yearn for founding member Mike Portnoy to return to Dream Theater and the long-held desire of the lauded drummer to revisit particular songs with deep personal resonance, the seven-year itch has now been well and truly scratched.
Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress
Words: Andy Rawll, Pictures: Eric Duvet
This was the only UK show of a six-month world tour by a band specially assembled by Portnoy to do justice to the songbook he still cherishes. As such, expectations at the suitably ornate Koko were high and the atmosphere was as rabid as it was reverential.
Better still, as the debut date of the tour, beyond the five-song suite that compromises the advertised ‘Twelve Step Suite’ centrepiece, no-one knew which Dream Theater songs would book-end this long-awaited and much-heralded performance. What was clear, as revealed in MetalTalk’s interview with Mike (here), was that none of the most personal of Portnoy-penned songs – ‘A Change Of Seasons’, ‘Honor Thy Father’ or ‘Best Of Times, – would feature in the show. ‘Images And Words’ was similarly shunned, no doubt for the same reason as ‘…Seasons’, to avoid overlapping with Dream Theater’s current tour setlist, which is currently centred around those two works.
As it turns out, these factors resulted in the perfect solution in terms of sheer theatre and musical scope by focusing on a single album, in this case the widely acclaimed ‘Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From A Memory’, to complement the suite. This enabled fans to revisit the hypnotic countdown that opens the album and leads into the powerful ‘Overture 1928’ instrumental with sense of ‘Strange Déjà Vu’.
Almost twenty years on from its conception, this remains one of the most powerful segues ever recorded by Dream Theater. It also provides an early proof-point for the Shattered Fortress band to test their prog mettle, which they do with flying colours (well the drummer, at least).
In recruiting respected NWOBPM band, Haken, as the Shattered Fortress band (with the obvious exception of drummer Ray Hearne) and adding the phenomenal Eric Gillette (quite literally, the very best the band could get) has resulted in a band with three guitarists. While this is testament to the otherworldly skills of John Petrucci, having three mortal men to replicate his kind of magic does at times clutter the sound as it does the stage. In truth, it’s Eric that does the bulk of the heavy lifting, lead-wise, with Charlie Griffiths and Rich Henshall focused on the heavy riffing and doubling-up when required.
Just like John Myung in Dream Theater, Haken bassist Connor Green is technically supreme and equally enigmatic in his stage presence, citing “hot drinks and hanging out with his cat” as his interests on the band website.
Keyboard player Diego Tejeida has perhaps the most challenging role. Not only does he have to double the tortuous hyper-speed lines created by Petrucci and mastered by Gillette, he also has to summon the broad range of sounds, styles and moods that constitute the DNA of Dream Theater music. On the former, he’s a revelation, effortlessly recreating the most bonkers sequences from the warped imagination of Jordan Rudess with a broad smile on his face as if it’s no big deal. On the latter, even the honky-tonk piano interlude in ‘The Dance Of Eternity’ was executed with aplomb.
Finally, Ross Jennings has the enviable task of not being James La Brie. The Canadian’s high-pitched, almost operatic vocal style is anathema to some, but to many his soaring tenor is the signature of Dream Theater’s sound. What is certain is that without him, they’d sound like a completely different band. Ross does not have the same upper register power of Jimmy The Cheese or his breathy, rich croon that works so well on the slower songs, however he’s got great range and control and delivered the iconic melodies with confidence and passion.
With their musical muscle all present and correct, the band launched into the ‘The Mirror’. Although not formally part of the suite, it is generally acknowledged to be thematically related, with the lyrics referencing the issues of alcoholism, so it is often referenced as a prelude to the twelve-step piece itself.
‘The Glass Prison’ is the first song in the suite that encompasses the first three steps of ‘Reflection’, ‘Restoration’ and ‘Revelation’, and a particular favourite from the fine ‘Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence’. The lyrical arc that traces Mike’s journey to sobriety, from the first step of ‘Revelation’ to the twelfth of ‘Responsible’ is cohesive and masterfully constructed. The five component pieces are certainly worthy as separate musical pieces, given that they were composed over a seven-year period, but when played as seamless suite, they mesh together magically.
For me, that first and the following track ‘This Dying Soul’ from the dark ‘Train Of Thought’ opus are particular high points. Yet, the frenetic ‘The Root Of All Evil’ that follows remains one of the best and melodically strong tracks on the rather flabby ‘Octavarium’ and sets up the reflective and Floydian ‘Repentance’ track from ‘Systematic Chaos’. This is significant as it includes the ninth step dubbed ‘Restitution’, for which Portnoy recorded sobering confessional voice-overs from iconic artists from the prog community, such as Steven Wilson and Jon Anderson.
Live, this was accompanied by video footage of each speaker as their statement of contrition was relayed and was powerfully moving. Ironically, in the context of the ‘Black Clouds…’ album, the final song, ‘The Shattered Fortress’, is not the greatest, but as part of this song-cycle, live it acquires a resonance and clarity as it carries the cumulative emotional burden of the preceding songs.
It’s remarkable that a series of songs with a common lyrical thread, but from such a span of time, should meld so well and acquire such emotional heft when played contiguously. This was a triumphant vindication of Mike Portnoy’s musical vision and his hard-fought journey to attain and sustain sobriety.
In celebration of this miraculous performance, the encore returned to ‘Metropolis’ for the second part of ‘Scenes’ and ‘Home’ with its insistent middle eastern riff before powerful instrumental, ‘The Dance Of Eternity’, teed-up the perfect finale of ‘Finally Free’.
These scenes will live long in the memory and I doubt that I will need a hypnotist any time soon to remind me that I was there. Although, unlikely to be confirmed until once the tour cycle is complete, a video release of one of these shows would provide perfect closure to this chapter of Portnoy’s musical and personal journey, providing a great permanent record of how good this really was. In the meantime, if you have the opportunity to attend one of the one-off shows, just go.
NEXT TO NONE
Mike’s mini-me son Max and his band, Next To None, provided enthusiastic although occasionally wayward support to the main event, and somehow combined the aggression of Slipnot, the melodic assertiveness of Linkin Park and progressive pomp of Dream Theater.
Preposterously young, but already blessed with phenomenal musical and compositional capability, it’s hard not to warm to their unflinching commitment to their art.
In fact, their new album, ‘Phases’, scheduled for released on Inside Out on 7th July, is a significant advance on their 2015 debut, ‘A Light In The Dark’, with burgeoning virtuosity, dynamic compositions and razor-sharp performances, with short punchy songs like ‘Pause’ and ‘The Apple’ and extended, eclectic work-outs like the excellent ‘Kek’.
Live, some of the nuances of the song arrangements were overcome by youthful exuberance. Equally, it was a bold and not wholly successful move to unleash their dense new twenty minute opus, ‘The Wanderer’, on an unfamiliar audience. Yet, they left the stage to sound acclaim, clearly having won new admirers with their unique brand of prog Nu-Metal and had a blast in the process.
MetalTalk’s Andy Rawll caught up with Max Portnoy a few days before the show to find out more about the new Next To None album ‘Phases’ and the Shattered Fortress tour. Andy also spoke to Poppa Portnoy earlier this month and you can still access that extensive and exclusive interview here.
WHO’S NEXT? MAX PORTNOY PROVES THAT THE APPLE HASN’T FALLEN FAR FROM THE DREAM THEATER FAMILY TREE
How would you compare your new album ‘Phases’ to your debut, 2015s ‘Light In The Dark’?
“‘A Light In The Dark’ was the first time we had done a full-length album and we got out of the studio and started writing new material more or less straight away. We definitely took a more heavy route for this new album and I would even say that it’s even more progressive than the last one.
“It’s got a lot of heavier riffs with a lot of the songs going to really low tunings, like F# and D. Thomas does a lot more screams on this album and we combined it with a more progressive approach with different time signatures and shredding sections and throwing in tons of dynamics too, because we didn’t want it to be all in your face, all the time.”
Did your new guitarist Derrick, who replaced Ryland, who left the band to continue with his studies, influence this heavier sound?
“That was in our mind already, but luckily when we met Derrick, he was totally into it as that’s he likes to play anyway. He’s exactly the type of player we wanted. We wanted someone that could do all the low-end parts and still shred really fast. So the fact that we found someone right away who wanted to do the same stuff that we were doing, was close by and got along with us – literally everything we wanted – was really amazing.
“He joined after the bulk of the album was written, but he was able to join in on the last two songs on the album, ‘Denial’ and ‘Wanderer’, and give a little bit of influence and change some of the riffs in the other songs. At that point, the album was already fully written, so we’ll get him for the whole process next time.”
Tell me about the decision to produce the album yourselves.
“With the first album, we had my Dad produce it with us. That was awesome as it was our first time in the studio and it was good to have someone with us who was experienced to show us how to record an album.
“With this new album, the four of us recorded and produced it. It’s really interesting. We started with the drums, which were recorded at Neal Morse’s Radiant studios in Nashville and then we came back to Thomas’ home studio and then just recorded and produced everything there ourselves. It definitely prolonged it as we had so much time to focus on it because we weren’t in someone else’s studio.
“We wanted to do it self-produced, because we had a strong vision of what we wanted; where we wanted to do the progressive stuff but with the super hardcore Metal edge to it. If we had brought someone else in, they would have possibly changed that and made us stick to just progressive Metal or all Metal and we wanted to be able to do both on this album.”
You then got Adam [‘Nolly’ Getgood] to mix the album. So did you just hand over the completed recording or had he got involved in pre-production?
“He just joined in once everything was done and we gave it to him to mix. We were really excited to have Nolly help us out with the album because we’re big Periphery fans. Thomas was already a huge fan and he’s talking about how it’s his favourite mix. So when we were able to do this it was super-cool for us and he did an amazing job. He’s a super-nice guy so it was great working with him.”
One of my favourite tracks is ‘Kek’, which is a really dynamic song with the piano breakdown which then goes all nutso and screamo. I understand that that was the last song that you came up with?
“‘Kek’ is definitely the weirdest song on the album, both musically and lyrically too. It could have been an instrumental, but then it has the piano part at the end with loads of vocals and that’s one of my favourite vocal sections on the album.
“Then, when we came to writing the lyrics, we had no idea what to write because the music was so out there and it would’ve felt weird singing about something really serious. So we ended up writing about King Kong.
“It was fun. It was good to not be so serious all the time with a song where we could just relax and have fun. We’re definitely proud of it and there’s all these inside jokes, with the samples we used.
And ‘Kek’, the title, what does that refer to?
“That’s a World Of Warcraft reference. Me and Thomas are both big WoW fans, so when we needed a name for a trolly song, we said ‘let’s go with ‘Kek’ as it translates to LOL in WoW terms’.”
Let’s focus some more on the lyrics. There the song ‘The Apple’, for which you contributed lyrics referring to your background and your Dad’s legacy?
“‘The Apple’ is about all the crap that we get pretty often. It’s either people claiming nepotism or just hating on us because we have Mike Portnoy backing us and being a supportive Dad and some people are really angry about that for some reason.
“It was just something that always kind of bothered us, as if you don’t like the music, you don’t need to listen to it. We’re not asking you to. The thing that we’re addressing in that song, mainly in the first verse, is about me and the whole nepotism thing. Me and Thomas wrote this together, and there’s also a lot of stuff that people are saying that’s band related, that Thomas wanted to go over in the other verses.”
Looking at Thomas when he’s performing, he seems a pretty intense guy and his lyrics in the ‘grief’ song cycle on the album are pretty dark.
“You probably wouldn’t expect it, but he’s the craziest, funniest person in the world. He’s always goofing around and always random and funny. He’s a ton of fun to hang out with, but when we get to do our music stuff, we do get all serious. So, he’s the complete opposite of what you might expect.”
You’ve got the song ‘The Wanderer’ that’s just about twenty mimutes – what inspired you to go for a classic full length prog epic song like that?
“Originally, we had the idea of adding a big song at the end of the album that had ideas from all the preceding songs. That way, when you listen to the album from start to finish, that track wraps up the entire album and reminds you of everything, so you should feel that there’s a good conclusion to the album. Going into the song with that idea, we kind of knew that it would get stretched out pretty long and writing it just turned out naturally to be almost twenty minutes.
“Actually, we’re really sad that it’s not quite twenty minutes and it’s only 19:30 or something, because we ran out of CD space and had to cut some lengths on some of the songs. It sucks that we’re so close to the twenty minute mark, but we’re not.
“It was a lot of fun to write and it’s one of my favourite songs as I feel that it shows everything that we can do. There’s tons of dynamics in that song and tons of heavy sections and crazy double bass screamo stuff and then lots of odd time signatures and progressive things. It definitely shows everything that we can do and I’m really proud of it.”
Do you have much time to listen to other music or are you now too focused on your own?
“I always have time to listen to other music. That’s what I do when I’m out of the studio phase. Because when you’re in the studio, you’re working on the songs and hearing the mixes come back, so you’re listening to those songs literally every day at least fifty times over. The second that the album’s done and it’s getting ready for release, I don’t listen to it anymore, because I’ve already listened to it so many times.
“I’m always listening to other music to keep me inspired for whenever we go into the studio next. ‘Avatar’ is a band I’ve been listening to a lot. I saw them live recently and it was one of the best shows I’ve ever seen. And I just saw Tool too and they were just amazing and I still like Korn and System Of A Down.”
Let’s talk a little about the tour. The musicians in Shattered Fortress are mainly drawn from leading UK band Haken and I know that Next To None have supported Haken on a recent tour?
“Yes, that was back in March/April and was great. It was our second time playing with Haken. The first time we played with them was in the US, which was a cool thing as it was their first US tour and we opened for them and that one was for only a week. Then we did the European tour with them and it was our first European tour with Haken and that was about a month long and it was awesome. It was our first time in Europe and it was with people we already knew, as we are good friends with Haken and we shared a bus with them.
“The other band that we were with was The Algorithm and it’s only two guys and they were great. They were tons of fun and amazing live. To be able to play with those guys and hang out with them all day was a really amazing experience for us and one day hopefully we’ll get to tour with those two bands again.”
Looking at your tour schedule, it looks like you’re not doing every date of the Shattered Fortress tour and going back to the US to play with Doll Skin. Is that right?
“Yes, we fly to UK and play in London for the first show and then we have some other European shows and then Shattered Fortress goes off to Russia and all these different places and we’re not joining them for those and then we fly back on July 7th, which is when the album comes out in the US. So we’ll be on a plane when that’s released, which is kind of sad, but we’ve got the internet to stay in touch with everyone.
“July 8th is when we start our US tour, which is about a month with Doll Skin and we’re now getting more stuff booked for August.
“So that’s where we stand right now, doing the Shattered Fortress shows in Europe for about a week and a half and then coming back and doing the US tour for about a month.”
Is there any place you’re looking forward to going to?
Unfortunately, we’re not playing there, but we have a day off in Spain. Shattered Fortress is playing a festival there (Be Prog, My Friend), but we’re not on that show, but we’ll be able to hang out there. That’s the place that we didn’t get to go to with the Haken tour, so it’ll be cool to walk around and see everything. Then for the other places that we went to with Haken, we’re excited to go back there.”
Looking to the future, you’ve got the tour and the current album, but have you already got ideas for the next album?
“I think that we are kind of taking it off for a little bit. I know that Thomas has been working on some ideas to try to get it rolling and I know that in the back of my head I have some directions that I want to bring it in, but I haven’t actually sat down and written anything yet. But I do know what I want to do with the next album.
“I think we plan on doing these tours for a bit and then in a couple of months just getting some ideas together and writing some stuff, but not going right into recording the album. We’ve been thinking about stuff but we haven’t really had a full writing session yet.”
In general terms any new elements or sounds that we might expect. String quartets, for example?
“We actually already have had live strings on the current album on a couple of songs, ‘Kek’, ‘Denial’, ‘Answer Me’, ‘The Wanderer’ and one more, which I think is ‘Clarity’. Any time you hear strings in those songs, it’s really live strings. We have friends who are good strings players, they came into the studio, we mic’d them up and recorded them, so it was fun.”