Did Portnoy just pull a Morse on Rosh Hashana?


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.

Here we go again with “tribute” band madness

After seeing Montreal’s The Musical Box perform three different recreations of classic Genesis concerts (at over two dozen separate events), I am still overwhelmed by the sheer weirdness of it all.  How can you spend so much time in a role without starting to lose the line between where the individual begins and the role ends?

There can be no doubt that the music is other-worldly.  Without any doubt, these are musicians of the highest calibre, but there is always something more there, something on which I can not put my finger.  The music is too good to be just the reading of someone else’s staff notation.  Let us forget about the costumes and wigs for just a minute and look only to the music.

I have, for example heard the incomparable Neal Morse play the opening chords of ‘Watcher of The Skies’ and noted that, despite the utter lack of improvisation contained in that musical passage, his version was not as dramatic.  And this is an artist (Morse) whose prog credentials are above and beyond any reproach.  He is a modern master.

But when you hear David Myers (who?) play the same passage, there is a calm immediacy that transfers all of the power and majesty of the original directly to the listener.  Is it that he is not Neal Morse?  Is it that Myers has all of the authentic and original equipment?  Is that David Myers is wearing a wig?

Of course, none of this matters when Sebastian, who, in his attempt to recall the prominent and unique role played by Michael Rutherford in this quintet, and wears no costume whatsoever, leans into the fuzz bass and the Moog Taurus pedals and I feel my internal organs being rearranged.  At that point, I don’t give a flying fuck who is playing the music.

But, as it was in 1998 when I first experienced the monster in The Musical Box, the experience remains bizarre.  Greg Bendian has taken over the drums and is absolutely giddy to be living out his boyhood fantasy of being Bill Bruford.  Bendian is highly accomplished and has firmly established credentials with his ‘Mahavishnu Project’ which, as one would surmise, re-creates the music of Mahavishnu Orchestra.  That is/was Bendian’s project – he had control (probably did more work) and gets a lot of the credit for tremendous success, notoriety and several albums.  Not only does TMB NOT have albums, but Bendian has to give up a few choice drum parts because, in the original performance, Bruford did not play those parts – Phil did.

So Bendian has to give up featured drum parts in ‘Cinema Show’ and ‘Robbery Assault & Battery’ where Phil wanted to be showcased.  But the ‘singer’ Phil can’t play drums as well as the real Phil.  Which means that, during the evening’s performance, the role of Phil Collins is played by two men – Denis Gagne on vocal and percussion and Marc LaFlamme on drum kit.  Marc does an amazing job and a large portion of the audience doesn’t even know he is the person playing.

So, after all this time, the performance of these talented musicians continues to fascinate, delight and confuse me.  But with players this talented and a score this well-executed, all you need is a program of some of the finest music ever composed.  Fortunately, Genesis has taken care of that for us.

(The camera phone doesn’t do great, but here’s what I got, picture-wise)

Steve Hackett is getting crushed


(I don’t know how I let this one slip by last month.  For those of you to whom this is old news – sorry)

Poor old Steve Hackett.  When he was in Genesis, he could never get enough of his ideas across to the other band members.  One day, he threatened to quit, they mixed him out of the record, and went on to become multi-gazillionaires.  Steve managed to maintain a lot of artistic integrity by keeping all his solo stuff in-house. in other words, no major labels were used to get his prodigious and extraordinary solo material to the streets.

And while said material is all pretty good (very good, in fact), old Steve has never gotten the kind of economic remuneration that has been showered on all four of his former bandmates Peter Gabriel, Tony Banks, Michael Rutherford and Phil Collins, although it should be noted that Collins has three ex-wives.

And now, as Hackett approaches his 60th birthday, he’s being sued for everything he has by his ex-wife.  According to the TimesOnline, Kim Poor is making a play for EVERYTHING – including Hackett’s share of his royalties from old Genesis music.  Ouch!

Apparently things are so bad that Hackett is working on his new album in the living room of his flat.  Double ouch!!

But even with all this adversity, his new record will still be coming out on October 5, and I’ll bet it will be ten times more amazing than anything we’ve heard from Tony Banks in the past ten years!