Here we are again, folks. We find ourselves at the end of another great year for prog. Sadly, we’ve had to say goodbye to some amazing artists this year, including John Wetton, but we at least have their music by which to remember them.
I know I’ve been a bit quiet here at Progarchy lately due to beginning graduate school this fall. Hopefully things settle down going forward, and I’ll be able to contribute more. For now, here are my favorite albums from 2017 in vaguely ascending order.
2015 turned out to be another fantastic year for prog, as well as metal. Last year, I made a top 10 list, but this year, there has been far too much great music in prog, metal, and rock to narrow it down to 10 albums. Apart from my top 4, there will be no particular order for the rest of my picks. Most of this will be prog, but there is some straight up metal here as well.
The Neal Morse Band – The Grand Experiment
Neal Morse and company have made another outstanding album. “Alive Again” might be one of the top 10 best long progressive songs ever made. It is remarkably beautiful. Mike Portnoy’s drumming is exceptional, as always, and, like last year, this isn’t the last we shall hear of him on this list.
Spock’s Beard – The Oblivion Particle
The Oblivion Particle is my first introduction to Spock’s Beard, and I am heartily impressed. Ted Leonard’s vocals really round out the band. “Bennett Built a Time Machine” is my personal favorite from the record.
Stryper – Fallen
I’m brand new to Stryper, and after listening to their last two albums, I’m flabbergasted. Their new music is better than their original stuff from the 80s. The drummer has grown incredibly, and Michael Sweet’s vocals soar to the heavens. The best thing – Stryper hasn’t given up on their values. They blast metal to honor God.
Lonely Robot – Please Come Home
I was pleasantly surprised by this album. The music has just the right amount of complexity, with a few pop hooks here and there for good measure. The song “Lonely Robot” should be a radio staple, but rock radio sucks.
LEAH – Kings and Queens
The reigning queen of prog metal released a masterpiece this year. A long masterpiece. Her combination of metal with celtic influences works amazingly well. She creates a wonderful sound that no one else really tries to duplicate. Originality abounds.
Dave Kerzner – New World (Deluxe Edition)
The deluxe edition came out this year, so it counts as 2015. Plus, I overlooked the album last year since it came out in December, and for that I sincerely apologize to Dave. This album brilliantly revives classic elements of Pink Floyd, and Kerzner’s voice is eerily reminiscent of David Gilmour’s. This is an album meant to last.
The Winery Dogs – Hot Streak
Wow! AC/DC meets Mike Portnoy! Richie Kotzen’s voice has grown on me, as has the “Dog’s” music. From the virtuosity of the first track, “Oblivion,” to the hard rock bombast of “Captain Love,” Hot Streak is a fantastic album. Billy Sheehan’s bass balances Portnoy’s drums and Kotzen’s guitars beautifully. The quiet piece, “Fire,” is a nice change up, as well.
You could call this a supergroup for thrash, although it seems anything with Mike Portnoy in it could be called a supergroup. His double bass thrash drumming is a nice change for him. The abundant guest performances from bands such as Testament, Anthrax, and many other groups really round out their sound. Normally I don’t like thrash because of the lyrics, but the lyrics here are great. The combination of guests makes this album one of the greatest thrash albums ever made.
Disturbed – Immortalized
This isn’t prog in any sense of the word, but Disturbed’s first album since 2010 is a return to form for the band. They didn’t want to make an album again unless it was really good, and they delivered on that desire. Immortalized is one of the best album’s they have made, with only one song that I don’t like. Their cover of “The Sound of Silence” is better than the original, in my opinion.
Flying Colors: Live at the Z7
The live Blu-ray is one of the best live shows I have seen. The music is played flawlessly, and the production for sound is excellent. It was filmed in 4K and you can choose from two sound choices – front row or sound board. Well played, FC, well played. Oh ya, more Mike Portnoy, too.
Rush – R40 Live
This needs no explanation. Long live Rush.
Steve Hackett – Wolflight
Another great solo effort from one of the greatest guitarists ever. I have such a great respect for Steve Hackett and his dedication to his craft and the genre. Of all the 70s prog giants, Hackett is probably the best ally to the newer prog artists and musicians.
A year ago, I couldn’t stand Steven Wilson. Now I’m a fan. Go figure. Hand. Cannot. Erase. is simply brilliant. The story telling is at an extremely high level, and this album, while rather depressing, is so addicting to listen to. Wilson is an incredibly important figure in progressive rock.
2. Vanden Plas – Chronicles of the Immortals: Netherworld Path 2
Yeehaw, this is a great album! Holy crap, I don’t know how Andy Tillison does it! He is a master of cultural criticism, and while I don’t agree with him politically, I do respect him immensely. This album is well worth your time.
Like I said, a great year for rock of all kinds. As I promised, Mike Portnoy features prominently in my list, just like last year. He certainly deserves it since he is one of the hardest working men in the business. His “Hello Kitty” drum video for Loudwire was an instant classic.
Best prog book of the year goes to Progarchy’s very own Brad Birzer for his excellent book on Neil Peart, a man of letters. Well worth your time.
The new Kansas documentary, Miracles out of Nowhere, is excellent. While it only goes through Point of Know Return, it is an excellent look at the band, from the band members themselves, as well as Brian May and Garth Brooks. It was great to see that the band members don’t hate each other. In fact, they genuinely seem to like each other. If at all possible, order it from the band because it comes with a bonus disc featuring the band reminiscing and a few other features – http://www.kansasmerch.toursync.com
One final documentary/live concert that is worthy of any “best of” list is Roger Waters’ movie, The Wall. It combines a live concert from his recent tour with short scenes that examine the meaning of the album for him. The concert itself is outstanding – better than his 1990 The Wall concert in Berlin, performed after the fall of the Berlin Wall. The music is basically indistinguishable from the album. A worthy look at one of the best and most important albums ever made.
Sorry if I have bored you with my list, but I am nothing if not thorough. I’m just amazed by the quality of music that has been released the last few years, and I eagerly look forward to what the coming year has in store. New Dream Theater coming in January. And who knows what Mike Portnoy will release. Such excitement. Merry Christmas everybody, and prog on into 2016.
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)
Next 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’smusic 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.
So, this is pretty awesome! Mike Portnoy and Next to None joined Haken in playing the last music at the last concert at the Empire venue in Springfield back in May. They play Metallica’s “Fade to Black,” Dream Theater’s “The Mirror,” with Mike Portnoy on drums, and Queensrÿche’s “Empire,” with Mike Portnoy on bass! Their version of “The Mirror” is definitely better than DT’s version on Breaking the Fourth Wall, and Ross Jenning’s voice fits this song so much better than James Labrie’s ever did, with no disrespect to Labrie. The band video taped this, and the audio is pretty good. Enjoy.
Teenage prog metalers, Next to None, released their debut album, “A Light in the Dark,” today. Made up of Max Portnoy (son of Mike Portnoy) on drums, Ryland Holland on guitar, Kris Rank on bass, and Thomas Cucé on keyboards and vocals, this group of young men brilliantly traverse the world of progressive metal. I had the opportunity to see them open for Haken at the first show of their tour, and they were outstanding. Mike Portnoy has stated that these guys are doing things that he didn’t do as a musician until he was in his late 20s to early 30s. These guys are in high school! They really are outstanding.
Keep on the lookout for a Progarchy exclusive interview with the band in the coming weeks, as well as a review of the album.
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.
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!
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.
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!
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.
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.