Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade: Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy

Neal Morse & Mike Portnoy: Prog Artists of the Decade (2012-2022)

Progarchy has been here for a decade now. So, we’re celebrating in this October anniversary month by looking back at the past ten years.

Already in this series, “Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade,” we’ve had two strong cases made for Steve Hackett and Steven Wilson. Undeniably, two guys named Steve loom large over the past ten years of prog.

Indeed, those are two eminent artists. Hackett looks back to the golden age of prog’s birth. He draws upon the best of Genesis to make new music and also to keep the Genesis legacy alive. Wilson is a next generation prog polymath whose creativity has exploded over the last decade and given us all many hours of ecstatic listening.

All the same, I am going to have vote for the dynamic duo of Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy as the team whose energy has been unmatched in productivity and prog excellence. The two Steves, prolific as they are, are still no match for the dazzling output from the two men who, ever since they respectively left Spock’s Beard and Dream Theater, have delivered an astonishing stream of recordings for our enjoyment.

I myself have spent more hours over the past decade listening to the many albums that Morse and Portnoy have been involved in—more hours of albums than the two Steves combined. And I have no hesitation in ranking them together as my ten-year pick, despite the mighty works (both concerts and albums) of the Steves of prog.

Two decades ago, Morse left Spock’s Beard. But it was with Momentum (2012), a decade ago, that his output began to dominate my playlists. It was a decade ago that Progarchy started up, as we founders rallied around a shared love of Big Big Train in order to get the word out online about the new birth of prog happening with a new generation after Pink Floyd, Genesis, Yes, King Crimson, Rush, and all the other greats who shaped our formative years.

That Morse solo album included Portnoy on drums. I couldn’t get enough of it, and the solo section on the powerful title track will be forever burned into my mind with its dazzling keyboards by Morse—and Paul Gilbert’s mind-blowing guitar solo. For me, it definitely announced the dawn of a new interstellar age of prog glory, with Portnoy’s kick drums propelling us forward at warp speed overdrive.

But that Morse and Portnoy dominance of my playlists was foreshadowed by the release in that same year, just a couple months earlier than Momentum, of the stunning supergroup debut of Flying Colors’ Flying Colors (2012). That entire album is a masterpiece. My two favorite tracks are “The Storm” and “Infinite Fire,” the latter of which ranked right up there for me with the greatest of Yes. Yes, “Infinite Fire” was reminiscent of Yes because it induced the same ecstatic prog experience when listening to it. And with the Steve power of another Morse adding his guitar into the music, the cathartic axe-work on “The Storm” delivered prog positivity to the max, with a song capable of turning any bad day around on a dime.

Morse and Portnoy went on to apply their indispensable talents to powering Transatlantic’s Kaleidoscope (2014) and The Absolute Universe (2021) into new galaxies of prog. What’s truly amazing is that these two albums could stand on their own to rule the past decade. But sandwiched between them we have an incredible series of albums exhibiting unmatched creativity.

Indeed, Flying Colors itself gave us two more stunning albums, with Second Nature (2014) and Third Degree (2019). But the Neal Morse Band, under another dynamic duo pseudonym, gave Morse and Portnoy another pretext to record albums together. And these NMB albums arguably overshadow the two Transatlantic and the three Flying Colors albums, because Morse and Portnoy shine even brighter, as they step to the forefront even more than they would otherwise do within the supergroup dynamics of the Transatlantic and Flying Colors.

The NMB albums are four in number: The Grand Experiment (2015), The Similitude of a Dream (2016), The Great Adventure (2019), and Innocence & Danger (2021). Stepping back and looking at the sweeping ambition of these four albums, it is unbelievable how much they draw upon the epic prog heritage of epic-length tracks, while still further taking that classical genre to new levels of excellence. Again, just these four lengthy albums could lay claim to dominance of the prog achievement of the past decade of music. But placed alongside Transatlantic and Flying Colors, I think they supply definitive proof that Morse and Portnoy deserve the title of Prog Artists of the Decade (2012-2021).

Morse and Portnoy have a shared love and mastery of the greatest music of decades past. Proof positive may be found on their Cover to Cover albums. Check out their Cov3r to Cov3r Anthology (vols. 1-3), which includes the exuberantly playful discs Cover 2 Cover (2012) and Cov3r to Cov3r (2020) added to the joyous original.

Once upon a time, I would argue for Neal Peart as the GOAT. But listen to all of the above albums, and then you will realize how Portnoy extends that noble heritage of the savvy prog group drummer into an unmatched variety of ensemble collaborations.

Over the past decade, Portnoy is apparently the hardest working drummer in show business. Of course, he always has time for working with Neal, as when the two of them snuck in their work on Sola Gratia (2020). This shows us again, Portnoy’s humility is pretty much the archetype of the drummer’s Platonic form. He seemingly has no ego, always willing to play on what is officially called a Neal Morse solo album or a Neal Morse Band collaboration. But Portnoy is clearly the indispenable other half of Morse’s past decade of output. What’s amazing is that Portnoy is happy just to play drums and let his playing speak for itself.

Let Portnoy’s discography of collaborations conclude the case I am making in this post. Consider his unmistakable sound as part of Adrenaline Mob (three albums: 2011, 2012, and 2013); as part of Metal Allegiance (three albums: 2015, 2016, and 2018); as part of Sons of Apollo (two albums: 2017 and 2020); as part of BPMD, American Made (2020); with John Petrucci, Terminal Velocity (2020); with Liquid Tension Experiment 3 (2021); and as part of The Winery Dogs (three albums: 2013, 2015, 2017).

That’s fourteen more albums of Portnoy added to the fourteen I already mentioned above! 28 albums over a decade? Sounds like we have a winner here, an equal partner with Morse who more than carries his weight in every collaboration.

Morse and Portnoy have been the dominant artists in my past ten years of listening. The stats from my Apple Music app tell me so. So here’s my Progarchy salute to congratulate them both. Other bands and other artists come and go. But these two have left a permanent mark of excellence. And I get the feeling that they are working away together on even more new music. Excelsior!

11 thoughts on “Progarchy’s Artists of the Decade: Neal Morse and Mike Portnoy

  1. Gabrielle Sherwin

    They are like twins. So different in ways but always together. I buy all their albums and Transatlantic and Flying Colors albums automatically when they come out, Neal is a genius. And Mikes drumming unmistakable. They truly deserve your award.


    1. Daniel P Schmidt

      So true. They are the best of the best. Every time I listen their music especially their most recent album innocence and danger, it’s like listening to it for time. Always fresh and new. The last song on the album, beyond the years is 31minutes of pure genius. Thank you for such great music.


  2. Malcolm Pryor.

    Correct selection. Two absolute geniuses, who remarkably, seem to still love working together after so many years 🙂

    I travelled for 18 hours (from Melbourne Australia) to watch them perform at Morsefest 2022 and I was not disappointed!


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  5. Daniel P Schmidt

    So true. They are the best of the best. Every time I listen their music especially their most recent album innocence and danger, it’s like listening to it for time. Always fresh and new. The last song on the album, beyond the years is 31minutes of pure genius. Thank you for such great music


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