Let me start this review by stating that I am a father. Everyone I know says my seven-year-old son is a Mini Me and the splitting image of his old man, this given the fact I adopted my kid. Karma prevails. Though I don’t consider myself a true drummer, I noodle with a five-piece Gretsch kit as my train wreck of a schedule permits. Perhaps one of the greatest father-and-son moments I’ve had (and I’ve had tons, thank you) was a year ago when that boy sat on the stool behind the Gretsch and his foot reached the bass pedal. He laid down a near-perfect 4/4 rhythm. Who wouldn’t be proud, especially if you’re a music journalist, much less a big league drummer like Mike Portnoy?
I can only imagine what pride Mike Portnoy and his wife, Marlene, must have in their son, Max Portnoy right now. Though my boy is all about singing right now (he can’t get enough Elvis Presley to sing along to), I know he wants to pound the kit some more. The possibilities are endless. It’s his life, and I can’t wait to see what route he chooses, whether it’s music, sports, art or computer science, which rounds up his primary interests. Mike and Marlene, I respectfully envy you and await my own son’s future greatness to come.
The elder Portnoys serve as producers of Max’s fledgling prog metal unit NEXT TO NONE, a band comprised of all teenagers. There’s Max on drums (natch), Ryland Holland (guitars), Thomas Cuce (vocalist/keyboardist) and Kris Rank (bass). What we should celebrate about NEXT TO NONE’s debut album “A Light in the Dark” is the astonishing acumen these young men possess at such an early age. Of course, when you’re the prodigy of a DREAM THEATER and AVENGED SEVENFOLD legend, acumen comes natural.
Given the fact Mike Portnoy is the recording producer (with Marlene as executive producer), you can expect his son to shine like a champ on “A Light in the Dark”. There’s no getting around the fact the album’s mix favors Max. Again, I’m a fellow dad, I get it. At the same time, the remainder of the band get their due on this album, given NEXT TO NONE ends up being a young buck’s agro version of DREAM THEATER.
We’ll cut these guys some slack for “A Light in the Dark”’s minor misgivings because it’s the positive points that deserve embellishment. Yes, the songs are frequently long, i.e. “The Edge of Sanity”, “Control”, “Blood On My Hands” and “Lost”. Yet there are shorter songs which proves this band can write sharp cuts with embellishment.
The Pac-Man, saloon piano, train tooting, elephant trumpeting and other flotilla of soundbytes interjecting “The Edge of Sanity” rings of ridiculousness in the vein of MR. BUNGLE, but the band does rip and tear their hearts out, often coming up with harmonious singalong bits. Despite the random barking and whumping progressions, “The Edge of Sanity” has a good bit going for it, despite going absolutely nowhere. Max Portnoy rolls and stamps all over the 9:41 cut, giving room for Ryland Holland to shred and solo and Thomas Cuce to sprinkle a pretty good key solo. Still, despite Cuce’s smooth vocal delivery and a sharp sense of musicality to the choruses, it comes down to Max’s double hammer, which summons the most attention.
“You Are Not Me” is more streamlined with some tough riffs and Thomas Cuce playing the ralph-croon switcheroo, but the song does catch fire with a smart hook and an undeniable hum. Even better is the following track, “Runaway”, a song with a faster groove, adorned with Max Portnoy’s constant rolls and some nasty bass work by Kris Rank. The song sputters a bit along the way to give Max and Kris the opportunity to jam amidst a laidback riff breakdown, then Thomas Cuce’s up-and-down key scales. For his youth, Cuce has his act together, on the mike and behind the keys. Listen up for his merry take on Prokofiev’s “Peter and the Wolf” during the intro for “Lost”. He’s in complete control with his keys and clean vocals over the ballad “A Lonely Walk” (ditto for the more maudlin and stagy “Legacy”), the album’s most conventional track and as well-played as anything in 1980s Hairball Heaven.
There are a ton of good ideas on “Control”, including the explosive opening and the initial verses which pound along nicely, leading up to a louder than hell agro blast and a damned good drum jam by Max Portnoy. Kris Rank’s bass halt in the middle of the prog rolls is nifty, even if “Control” overstays its welcome a bit. If Max and his friends are to be considered understudies of DREAM THEATER (which their longer songs strive to be, without a doubt), it’s the jam-crazed spirit that are as much a benefit as a detriment.
NEXT TO NONE can turn even a 3:42 rocker like “Social Anxiety” into a wild journey, starting off like MEGADETH then bellowing all over the thing with reckless abandon that’s to be chalked up to youth. Nonetheless, what Max Portnoy and company have come up with on “A Light in the Dark” is exciting, if sometimes undisciplined. NEXT TO NONE play at a level surpassing their ages and even some of their more established peers. If they stick together, NEXT TO NONE stands to be pretty freaking awesome in the future.
Mama and Papa Portnoy did good.