Did Portnoy just pull a Morse on Rosh Hashana?

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Mike Portnoy yesterday announced that he is leaving Dream Theater, the band he founded a quarter of a century ago. Dream Theater not only created a prodigious recorded legacy, but also brought Progressive Rock to a new level of respectability. Literally hundreds of bands from every corner of the globe owe their sound and their success to Dream Theater. The trail blazed by Portnoy and his exceptionally talented bandmates camouflaged the Prog by wrapping it in the attitude and aggression of Heavy Metal. With such heavy riffs and forceful vocals, the masses were perfectly willing to accept odd time signatures and extended compositions that required Roman numerals to mark the divisions.

And while each member of the band is truly a virtuoso (particularly Jordan Rudess on keys and John Petrucci on guitar), it was Portnoy’s drumming that brought the band’s success to another level. At the live show, audience members are treated to a drum kit the size of a school bus. But Portnoy does not stop with the standard double bass attack. He has a unique ability to bring the mathematical perfection of artists like Bill Bruford and Neil Peart to the visceral thunder of John Bonham and Keith Moon. As anyone who has seen him play can attest, the combination is nothing short of explosive.

Another of Portnoy’s influences is Phil Collins. Portnoy may not pursue the latter’s taste for soft rock and adult contemporary song-stylings, but in the 80’s there was no harder working man in music. While fronting Genesis to the height of their popularity, Collins also stormed the top of the charts with his solo career, played on and produced countless albums, and even toured with other artists as a sideman. All at the same time.

Over the past ten years, since Dream Theater has really established its foothold as a successful and self-sustaining musical enterprise, Portnoy has matched (and perhaps surpassed) Collins’ amazing run thirty years ago. Lately, this has culminated in a collaboration with Avenged Sevenfold which included recording a record and touring in support. Before that, Portnoy reunited with the pure progressive super group Transatlantic, to both record an album and do a tour. He has played on several albums by fellow Transatlantic artist Neal Morse. He has fronted instrumental projects and recorded instructional videos. He has probably recorded as much or more in his extracurricular activities as he has with Dream Theater.

Neal Morse is an extraordinarily gifted songwriter, singer and keyboard player. He founded a band with his brother called Spock’s Beard, which released its first album in 1995. Spock’s Beard was, and continues to be, a truly progressive Rock band. There was no mistaking this outfit with Genesis of the 70’s or Marillion of the 80’s. This may have been the same art form, but it had truly progressed. And one of the Beard’s contributions to that ongoing progression was a more aggressive guitar sound, almost veering into the realm of metal at times. Spock’s Beard worked hard, recording and touring without mercy. The result was a legion of fans and enough commercial success for the gig to be self-sustaining.

Morse is seven years older than Portnoy but the two have become great friends and natural musical collaborators. They share an ESP that elevates the music they make together. In 2002, Morse shocked the prog world by not just leaving Spock’s Beard but asserting that his relationship with the Lord and Jesus Christ was the reason. While this has made many a prog fan uncomfortable, Portnoy rushed to the defense of his friend and the two created and extraordinary work of music simply called “?” in 2005. There are a slew of guests, including the venerable Steve Hackett, but at the record’s heart and soul is the beautiful communication shared by these gifted artists.

And now Portnoy has left his band, on the eve of Rosh Hashana, no less. Is there a religious awakening coming down the pike for Portnoy? Will we next see him sporting payis and teffilin? I don’t think so. It is more likely that this is similar to Peter Gabriel’s departure from Genesis in 1975, when he stated he was searching for the unexpected. Portnoy is ready to get off the merry-go-round that Dream Theater has become. It seems a shame, because he, unlike Gabriel in Genesis, has always had so much leeway to do independent projects, but it is clear that is now not enough.

I don’t like Spock’s Beard as much now, even though they’ve done an amazing job of staying together, maximizing their output and staying relevant. I hope Dream Theater can follow suit. But just as Neal Morse’s solo output since his departure represents the best music he has ever created, so I hope that, whatever comes next for Portnoy will eclipse all of his past achievements.

Progtastic news from Poland – new SBB record Autumn 2010!!

Józef Skrzek is one of “those” guys.  He’s working on a whole different level than most of humanity.  For about the past forty years he has been doing all his own stunts, writing, performing and even singing once in a while.  Skrzek is one of those guys who was going to be famous no matter what.  The force of energy contained within him is simply too great not to be shared.  Not even the Iron Curtain could hold him back.  And, as the leader of legendary Progressive giants S.B.B., he has elevated his status to that of Robert Fripp, Christian Vander of Magma and perhaps even Zappa himself.  SBB’s influence may seem less than that of those legends, but the output is nothing short of prodigious, including over 50 official releases.  The next one is tentatively titled Blue Trans, and is slated for an Autumn release through Metal Mind.

Here’s a small example of the Tangerine Dream meets Steely Dan vibe that Skrzek favored in the late 70′s:

Does this kind of life look interesting to you? Apparently, for an American Idol alum, the answer is “Yes”

I wouldn’t know an American Idol alum if he or she were biting my ass at this very moment.  And, while I am glad that is not the case, I have, for the first time in my sheltered life, some reason to be interested in that monstrosity of foolishness that passes for entertainment.

Leslie Hunt, the nice young lady featured in the video above, was apparently a finalist and performed to an audience of millions.  I suppose she would have preferred to win and become the next Kelly Clarkson or Taylor Hicks, but considering the abusive sounds those two artists have created (similar to fingernails on a chalkboard), I am glad that she lost.

Through some stroke of good fortune she has become connected to a Chicago-based instrumental outfit that fancied itself to be a junior version Liquid Tension Experiment.  Great music to aspire to, but nothing that would pay the bills.  But, if there is a way to bring a bit of sex appeal to the nerd-tastic sounds of District 97‘s modern prog, then these folks might have a tiger by the tail.  Judging from the video, I am interested.  The record is due out later this year, and I’m sure I’ll give it a listen.

Is this the record I’ve been waiting for all my life?  Based on the early snippets, probably not.  But I don’t have anything against popularity.  And if a prog band can sell a million records in this decade, then all the better.

Special thank you to Bill’s Prog Blog, which brought District 97 to my attention.  He’s featuring a Q&A with the band’s drummer at his wonderful site.

Nearfest 2010 – just a lil taste

If you know me, you know that Gabriel-era Genesis is sort of where it all begins.  I’m not old enough to have seen the classic line-up, but when I finally discovered the genius of that quintet, well, that pretty much changed everything forever.  I’ve gone deep with Genesis, seeing the trio when possible, collecting every manner of album, bootleg and video, and going to see the amazing Musical Box tribute show countless times.

And my Prog Rock education and appreciation has just gone on and on.  I have recently opened my mind to extraordinary groups from Brazil, Sweden, Poland and other points across the globe.  I have gotten to know bands old and new, finding music that is uplifting, challenging and extraordinary.  So much of what I love about all the music I have discovered is that it relates back to that wondrous moment when Messrs. Banks, Collins, Gabriel, Hackett, and Rutherford brought forth the beauty of The Musical Box, Foxtrot, Selling England By The Pound and The Lamb Lies Down On Broadway.  It was no coincidence that those selections had such a profound impact on me.

So, among the first-generation proggers, I’ve been pretty lucky to see the reunions and comebacks of Yes, King Crimson, ELP and even Genesis.  But Hackett, long exiled from the group he helped make famous, does more to keep that original spirit of innovation and irreverence alive than all the rest.  When I found that his only area performance would be at Nearfest 2010, I pounced on the opportunity and grabbed very good seats.

I had long known of Nearfest, but never mustered the strength or inclination to spend the better part of an entire weekend in nearby Bethlehem, PA watching a lot of prog with which I was wholly unfamiliar.  Thanks to the miracle of social networking, I got more info and encouragement than ever to make Nearfest happen this year, but in the end, I only sprung for Friday night, electing to, once again, pass on the vast majority of music and fellowship that makes up the weekend.

I would have let the whole thing pass me by (again), had it not been for the encouragement of my spiritual music guide, my teacher, my long-lost big brother: Cousin Steve.  He played a rather large role in the whole Genesis thing taking shape for me, and though we’ve seen Hackett before, he was not about to let this opportunity pass.  Thanks to Steve (who had never been either), I got my first taste of Nearfest.  And now, a few days later, I am comfortable in the firm belief that it will not be my last.

Lehigh University is a beautiful setting and the Zoellner Arts Center is the Perfect theater.  We arrived in plenty of time to see Riverside (a phenomenal Polish band I have followed for a few years, but never seen live), but I locked my keys in the trunk just as we were heading over to the theater.  The Lehigh security department was understanding, kind and efficient in helping me put that brain cramp in the rearview mirror and Steve and I took our seats in the fifth row center after only missing a couple songs.

Riverside was tremendous.  They lean more toward the prog-metal end of the spectrum, with a dash of Porcupine Tree thrown in for good measure.  But after seeing Dream Theater last summer, I really appreciated Riverside’s more deliberate approach.  The emphasis was less on individual pyrotechnics and more on creating a dramatic musical experience.  I was thrilled.

We then got a nice long break to kibbitz with our fellow proggers.  Serge Morissette (artistic director of The Musical Box) was present and in good spirits until he saw my Transatlantic shirt.  He missed the gig in his home town of Montreal on account of being in Europe during the eruption of a certain Icelandic volcano.  He was delighted, however to chat us up about his groups latest doings (their version of The Lamb may be coming back!) and we even shared a few laughs about Mr. Hackett’s personal difficulties.  Serge said that Hackett’s (now) ex-wife would now be changing her name from Kim Poor to Kim Rich.

Serge’s good nature and attitude was emblematic of every soul we encountered on Friday night.  Everyone was happy and willing to share a story as we bonded over this music we share and love.  I finally understand why people have been telling me to just do it.

So after this lovely experience in this beautiful place, Steve and I walked back into the theater to see Hackett – the original, the real thing.  And, of course, he did not disappoint.  It was a full set, with such surprises as Carpet Crawlers, Slogans, and Ace of Wands thrown in to the crowd’s delight.

So I’ve had my taste of Nearfest.  I get it.  Next year, even if I have to go solo, I’ll be there.  And I’ll look forward to seeing all those beautiful folks who come from far and wide to enjoy the greatest music ever composed.

Transatlantic concert at TLA a week from tomorrow!!

Roine Stolt

Ready for a total PROG-stravaganza with cousin Steve, Dr. Dave and new friend Dara.  We’re going to ge there early and get right up front.  We’re getting a bit old for the standing-all-show deal, but, thankfully, there is no opening act and this is a special show in that it represents the mightiest prog-rock super-group in the land.  Roine is a legend, the godfather of swedish prog.  Neal Morse is the happy warrior, a missionary of prog and evangelical Christianity!  Michael Portnoy is, as of this date, the greatest rock drummer out there.  When he plays with his band (Dream Theater), the kit is the size of a small school bus.  Who knows what he’s bringing to the TLA next week?  And finally, Pete Trewavas, he is the glue that brings order to the ferocity of the others’ passion.

Transatlantic will, presumably., be performing their entire new album The Whirlwind as well as some of their back catalog and a couple covers.

It’s gonna be a great night.  Here’s a sample of the new record:

p.s. I’m pleased to say, after the chaos of my recent relocation, I have finally found our tickets, so we are ready to go!