Arts & Style

Portnoy assembles entourage of musicians for concert at Irving Plaza

Drumming extraordinaire Mike Portnoy certainly has a lot on his schedule when it comes to bands. He currently has five active bands under his belt, ranging from traditional progressive rock to raw heavy metal.

2017 will see two new bands added to Portnoy’s repertoire. The first, Sons of Apollo, is an entirely original outfit featuring members of Guns N’ Roses, Mr. Big and Talisman among many others. Their debut album will be released on Oct. 20. The other band, in contrast, is an exclusively live outfit aimed at closing the door on his past.

Portnoy first gained fame as a founding member of progressive metal mainstay Dream Theater. From 1986 to 2010, he wrote and performed several groundbreaking albums and singles, including their signature song “Pull Me Under.” But there was one song that meant a lot to Portnoy.

During Dream Theater’s popularity rise in the 1990s, Portnoy struggled with a mounting alcohol addiction. After kicking the habit through Alcoholics Anonymous’ Twelve Step program, Portnoy started the long process of writing a set of songs about his experiences.

Taking seven years to write and fragmented across five studio albums, the aptly named Twelve-Step Suite was originally intended to be played in full during Dream Theater’s live shows. But Portnoy’s departure obviously put those plans on ice. Neither party had ever performed the entire suite in concert, until now.

For this new group dubbed Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress, Portnoy has assembled a massive entourage of musicians to bring his personal opus to life. Rounding out the lineup is guitarist Eric Gillette, who also played with Portnoy as a member of The Neal Morse Band. Together, the band played the suite around the world, including a single sold-out U.S. headlining show at Irving Plaza.

The night started off with an appearance by Next to None, a progressive metal band featuring Portnoy’s son, Max Portnoy, on drums. Playing songs from their sophomore effort, Phases, this new band shows a lot of potential to be a big name in their own right. Max Portnoy is definitely a new talent worth keeping tabs on.

Amid the familiar theme song for Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho playing over the PA system, the main set began with selections from Dream Theater’s 1999 rock opera, Metropolis Part II: Scenes from a Memory.

Disappointedly, the band hardly ventures beyond that album and the Twelve-Step Suite when it comes to Dream Theater songs written by Portnoy. Other songs written during that time include “Just Let Me Breathe,” “Honor Thy Father” and “Constant Motion,” among others.

In that regard, the Dream Theater selections performed during the show left something to be desired.

Despite this, Portnoy’s new band delivered the goods and then some. At no point did it feel like watching a tribute band. If anything, one could make the argument that Shattered Fortress provides a better Dream Theater show than the real Dream Theater.

The addition of the band Haken was an ingenious decision, considering they are quickly becoming the premiere progressive metal band.

Rather than mimic Dream Theater, they brought about their own take on the songs while paying tribute to the original arrangements. One interesting addition to the set list was “The Mirror,” off the 1994 album Awake.

Being the earliest Dream Theater song to focus on the topic of alcoholism, it serves as a sort of prelude to the Twelve-Step Suite. Compared to the original studio version, keyboardist Diego Tejeida added an extended keytar solo on the bridge.

After the song ended, the sounds of vinyl scratch and church bells marked the beginning of the main portion of the set. Just the thought of finally seeing the suite the way it was intended to be heard was an incredibly cathartic experience.

While Haken’s Ross Jennings provided vocals throughout most of the show, Gillette provided lead vocals for the third part, “The Root of All Evil.” Portnoy also had a turn at the mic during the slower song, “Repentance.”

By the end of the main set, Portnoy’s enthusiasm for finally playing the suite was spread out across the packed hall.

As a retrospective tour of Portnoy’s past, Shattered Fortress was a delightful treat for fans, but as a means of closing the door to his time in Dream Theater, it was a well-deserved victory lap.

As for his former band, the current iteration of Dream Theater will be performing at the Beacon Theatre on Nov. 16, where they will play their 1992 breakthrough album, Images and Words, in its entirety.

October 9, 2017

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