Metal Mondays – Interview with Max Portnoy of Next to None

Next to None
, “A Light in the Dark” (Inside Out Music)

Tracks: 1. The Edge of Sanity (9:40), 2. You are Not Me (4:55), 3. Runaway (4:59), 4. A Lonely Walk (5:32), 5. Control (9:59), 6. Lost (6:13), 7. Social Anxiety (3:44), 8. Legacy (3:56), 9. Blood on My Hands (8:15), 10. Fortune Cookie (Bonus Track) (4:14), 11. Deafening (Bonus Track) (4:21)

3655066_origNext to None are an intriguing teenage prog metal band that play like musicians twice their age. After spending late spring touring with Haken on their American “Restouration” tour, Next to None released their first album on June 29 of this year. It did remarkably well, hitting number 13 on the iTunes metal charts for its first day. The band members are:

Max Portnoy: drums

Thomas Cucé: keyboards, vocals

Ryland Holland: guitars

Kris Rank: bass

Seeing as Max Portnoy is Mike Portnoy’s son, there is the obvious comparison of Next to None’s music to Dream Theater. While that is a fair comparison, as the music often resembles that of DT, a more interesting comparison is to Slipknot, a metal band that N2N sites as a major influence. In fact, N2N can be described as Dream Theater meets Slipknot, minus the often horrible, depressing suicidal lyrics of Slipknot.

For their first album, Next to None decided to make a concept album, which is entirely refreshing coming from the younger side of prog and metal. The album is about a guy with a mental illness struggling to decide what to do with his life. While deciding what to do, he loses control, and the rest of the album looks at the character struggling to cope with the gravity of what he has done. The way in which the concept is presented demonstrates a great deal of maturity on the part of these young musicians.

The music itself, which features guest appearances by Neal Morse (mellotron) and Bumblefoot (of Guns N Roses), traverses the wide range of prog metal. There are heavy metal songs, complete with some screamo and traditional singing, to quiet, piano driven songs with softer lyrics (“A Lonely Walk”). Some listeners might be turned off by the screaming, but it isn’t overdone, and it certainly fits the concept. It is used to emphasize the increasing insanity of the main character. Furthermore, Cucé is actually quite good at the screaming – it isn’t the type of screaming you would get from a doom metal band, but rather the type that Avenged Sevenfold employed on their early albums.

The musicianship on this album is superb. Max Portnoy is incredible on the drums, which comes as no surprise. He has been playing since he was 5 years old, and he currently attends a music school. Having Mike Portnoy as a father probably doesn’t hurt either. Thomas Cucé’s keyboards add a nice layering to the music, as well as wonderful piano in the quieter parts. The keyboard solo in “Control” is awesome, reminiscent of Jordan Rudess’ always fun solos. Ryland Holland is excellent on the guitars, and it was a blast watching him play live. Kris Rank’s bass is superb as well. One of my favorite songs on the album is “Lost.” At the midpoint of the story, the lyrics and the music perfectly reflect desperation. The music is driving, pounding, and the guitar solo sounds like something John Petrucci would crank out.

I really am blown away by the musicianship in this band. These guys aren’t just good for teenagers, they are excellent musicians period. They are better than many metal bands that have been around for 20 years. There are a few points in the music where the band sounds like it could use some polishing (which can only come from the experience of touring, recording, and learning on the job), but those are few and far between. Plus, the band is gaining that experience with every chance they can, playing live shows often.

Progarchy got the chance to sit down (via email) with Max Portnoy to discuss the band and their new album.

Progarchy: Can you give a bit of background on the band.

Max Portnoy: I met Ryland and Kris in first grade and we have been friends ever since. We always used to jam but we never knew a singer to form an actual band. It was about fifth grade when we met Thomas who was the first kid we knew that would sing, so we took him on board and formed Next To None.

Progarchy: Dream Theater’s influence upon your music is clear, for obvious reasons, but what other bands, artists, or musicians influence your style as a band and as individuals? Are your influences strictly metal, or are you drawn to a wide range of music, progressive or otherwise?

Max Portnoy: My favorite band is Slipknot. I’ve been listening to them my whole life basically, my dad showed me Vol. 3 when I was 4 years old and I loved them ever since. And lately I’ve been listening a lot to Meshuggah. So to me I think I come from a more metal oriented background.

Progarchy: Some might see the release of a concept album as a first record, particularly for musicians as young as yourselves, as a very bold move. It appears that “A Light in the Dark” truly stands as a single album, not merely a collection of songs, which is becoming increasingly rare these days in the music industry. What drove you to create a concept album as opposed to more standard heavy metal tracks? 

Max Portnoy: We liked the idea of a concept since nobody really does it anymore, and it really makes your album feel like a story and not just a collection of songs.

Progarchy: Can you also talk about the concept as a whole?

Max Portnoy: There’s a six song concept through out the album about a guy who struggles with mental illness and the mere fact that he’s not happy with his life and what he’s doing with it. The first two tracks he is basically arguing with himself over what is right and what is wrong. Track 4 (A lonely walk) he comes to a cross roads. By the end of the song he has convinced himself that he needs to do something with his life. Track 6 (control) he loses control of himself. Tracks 8 and 9 (Legacy and Blood on My Hands) are after the incident when he reflects on what he has done.

Progarchy: How would you describe your process of writing lyrics and music?

Max Portnoy: We get together on the weekends and we jam and someone would bring up a riff and when we hear something we like, we write around it. Sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t, but basically we just try to have fun when we get together, which makes the whole process very enjoyable.

Progarchy: Can you talk a little bit about your collaborations with other artists on this album?

Max Portnoy: Well, we saw Bumblefoot performing at the Progressive Nation At Sea Cruise and we were blown away, and we really wanted to work with him. We were very lucky to have him on board.

When we were recording ALITD, the last track was A Lonely Walk and we weren’t satisfied with the sound of the mellotron, and after re doing it several times we realized that we wanted it to sound like Neal Morse’s mellotron, and then we asked ourselves… “Well, why don’t we ask Neal himself to do it for us?”

Progarchy: I know you probably get asked this question a lot, but… how extensive was Mike Portnoy’s involvement as producer for “A Light in the Dark” and your subsequent tour?

Max Portnoy: Well, the truth is that MP is touring most of the time, so when he is at home he doesn’t really do much drumming related stuff and we focus on just having quality family time. But he got involved once we were ready to record everything and it was basically written already. I would say that his most important contribution to the album was driving us back and forth to the recording studio, hehehe.

Progarchy: What was your experience touring with Haken like?

Max Portnoy: It was  incredible. We learned so much, from how to soundcheck and how to kick ass on stage and then how to interact with the fans. They are an amazing group of musicians and probably one of the top representatives of the genre right now. We can’t thank them enough for the opportunity to tour with them.

Progarchy: How do you manage or balance creating music, practicing, recording, and touring with your high school responsibilities?

Max Portnoy: Well, my high school is actually a music school so when I’m not at home jamming in the afternoons, I’m putting in 6 hours of playing at school every morning… and since music is one of my biggest passions, it actually makes me want to go to school.

Progarchy: What’s next for Next to None?

Max Portnoy: We plan on touring as much as we can with as many musicians as we can. Hopefully we can successfully promote this album for the next year and then we can begin to work on our next album.

Progarchy: For the last question, would you share your favorite albums and/or bands?

Max Portnoy: In no particular order:

Vol. 3 – Slipknot

Train Of Thought – Dream Theater

Ride The Lightning – Metallica

Progarchy: Thank you so much for taking the time to do this interview with Progarchy. We wish you nothing but the best of success on the start of your career, and we look forward to seeing what the future holds for you and Next to None!

A special thanks to Inside Out Music for setting up this interview!

Check out “A Light in the Dark.” In a year that is jam packed with awesome new metal music, either already released or due to be released later this year, Next to None stand out as an incredible new band intent on making great music.

Max Portnoy and me at the first show of Next to None’s tour with Haken.

Haken Live in Detroit, with Next to None – 4/25/15

Saturday night, I had the awesome opportunity to see Haken, along with the brand new band Next to None, as well as Tiles and Imminent Sonic Destruction. It was a busy night, to be certain. While you may be familiar with Haken, you may not have yet heard of Next to None. Well, get prepared to be amazed. This band is made up of 16 and 17 year olds, with Max Portnoy as their drummer. And, yes, this is the incredibly talented son of Mike Portnoy, who is accompanying the young rockers on their very first tour. You are probably already guessing how awesome a show this must have been.

Tiles with Mike Portnoy

Taking place at the Token Lounge, a very small venue that has been around since the early 70s, in Westland, MI, the show opened with the Detroit native band, Tiles. I am not very familiar with the band, but I have heard some of their music. I must say, after hearing them live, I will definitely need to investigate them further. Their vocalist, Paul Rarick, astounded me with his range and style. All of the musicians were fantastic, and they got the show off to a fast start. The highlight of their set, however, came when they invited Mike Portnoy onto the stage to play none other than Rush’s “Spirit of Radio.” Oh. My. Gosh. Portnoy’s drums were indistinguishable from Neal Peart’s, and Rarick sounded, I kid you not, exactly like Geddy Lee. It was incredible!

Imminent Sonic Destruction
Imminent Sonic Destruction

After a short break, Imminent Sonic Destruction played a set. I had never heard of this band before, but they showed impressive skill. It seemed to be a cross between straight up metal, metal core, and prog metal. The singer had a great voice, but he was also fully capable of belting out screams common in more mainstream metal. These guys were clearly enjoying themselves, and they did a great job of warming up the crowd before Next to None and Haken.

I will admit, I was really excited to see Next to None. My first exposure to Max Portnoy came from a video on Mike Portnoy’s YouTube channel of the two of them playing the drum part from Avenged Sevenfold’s song, “Nightmare.” In the video, Max keeps up with his dad perfectly, and he was only 11 at the time. Very impressive, to say the least. When I heard that Max and his friends, Thomas Cucé, Ryland Holland, and Kris Rank, formed a band and recently announced an album coming out through Inside Out Records, I was intrigued, to say the least. After viewing some of their music videos online and listening to one of their released songs, I couldn’t wait to see them live.

MP introducing Next to None
MP introducing Next to None

When they came onto the stage, I detected about three seconds worth of nervousness before they ripped into it. After that, all bets were off. These guys have fantastic stage presence for their age. On top of that, their musicianship is outstanding! Max Portnoy definitely inherited his father’s chops, and the rest of the band play like musicians twice their age. Vocally, Thomas Cucé ranges from regular singing to full on metal screaming, and he does both exceptionally well. Keep in mind, this was also the band’s first performance of their first official tour. Amazing. These guys will go far in rock, and I believe they are the future of the genre. Way to go guys!

Next to None’s debut album, A Light in the Dark, comes out on June 30.

Next to None
Next to None

After several hours of awesome music, Haken finally emerged and played a two hour set! Holy crap. Before the show, I was only familiar with The Mountain and the Restoration EP. On my way out, I bought their first two albums. They played music from all of their albums, as well as the 20 minute “Crystallized” from Restoration. Songs such as “Cockroach King,” “Atlas Stone,” “Falling Back to Earth,” “Shapeshifter,” and the 20 minute encore, “Visions,” along with several other songs I am forgetting, were huge hits with the crowd. Everyone at the show was head-banging along to the music, and the band was certainly all in to what they were playing.


The single most amazing thing about Haken’s performance was the fact that they were playing minus a member – Richard Henshall, who for some reason was not able to make it to the show. I think Ross Jennings, their vocalist, said he was ill, and he really wanted to be there. Despite his absence, their live music managed to sound just like the albums. The crowd, which, to my pleasant surprise, was made up of a large majority of young people around my age, LOVED Haken. After they finished their last song, the crowd started chanting “HAKEN! HAKEN! HAKEN!” for several minutes until the band re-emerged to play their 20 minute encore, “Visions.”

I cannot say enough good things about Haken. They were absolutely fantastic, and their fans were awesome as well. This was my first truly metal concert, and I didn’t know what to expect. But, there were no mosh pits, no shoving, no fighting, or generally obnoxious behavior. Granted, it was a very small venue with only 200 people at the most, but still. It was an awesome experience, and I definitely look forward to seeing them again.

Max Portnoy and yours truly. I promise I was not drunk even though I look like it. That is just the look I get after standing for 5+ hours. Sadly, its not all that different from my normal look.

At the end of the show, I decided to wait around a few extra minutes to buy Haken’s first two albums (I already bought a t-shirt before the show) and see if any of the performers would come out to mingle. Sure enough, a few emerged. I got the chance to briefly meet and thank Ray Hearne, the drummer, and Charlie Griffiths, the guitarist, both of Haken. Both looked completely exhausted, but it was very nice of them to come out and talk to fans. I also spotted Max Portnoy wandering around, and I got my picture taken with him. He seems like a really nice guy, and I wish him and Next to None the best of success on their album and tour. I can’t imagine what it must be like to juggle high school with recording and touring. Props to them.

The one person I really really really wanted to meet was, of course, Mike Portnoy. Unfortunately, that did not happen, but Mike seemed like he wanted to stay out of the limelight. This was Max’s night, and Mike did a great job of emphasizing that by simply being there to support his son. Maybe I’ll catch you at the next show, Mike.

If you are anywhere near any of the venues of this tour, definitely go out and see them. I only paid $18 for my ticket, which was incredibly reasonable, considering we got hours of great music.