Best known as the founder-drummer of progressive metal pioneers Dream Theater, Portnoy’s 10 albums with the band over 25 years still stand as a benchmark of metal, prog metal and prog rock drumming.
His way with mathematically mind bending time signatures, limb-twisting polyrhythms and eye-watering speed put him at the forefront of drumming in that time. Since leaving DT in 2010, he has put his talents to a wide number of projects, including his prog-rock supergroup with Neal Morse, TransAtlantic and the proggy Big Elf, metalcore with Avenged Sevenfold, plus more straightahead rock with Flying Colors, The Winery Dogs, and Adrenaline Mob. Always keeping the prog flag flying, he’s also put on prog rock cruises with Progressive Nation at Sea.
He’s also back as the brains and beats behind the metal all-stars Metal Allegiance, with members of Mastodon, Pantera, Lamb Of God, Trivium and more.
Here, we run through 5 classic albums that feature Portnoy's playing.
Images And Words (1992)
Actually the second DT album, after 1989’s When Dream And Day Unite, Images And Words was the first to make an impression in the UK, and the first with vocalist James LaBrie.
The single Pull Me Under remains a fine introduction to Dream Theater’s charms, as young Mike’s thunderous drums, smart double-kick and furious fills underpin the bombastic rock.
Take The Time is another stand out, adding some serious funk-metal to the progressive mix (well, it was 1992), with Portnoy effortlessly straddling styles and times with ease.
Key track: Pull Me Under
Metropolis Part 2: Scenes From A Memory (1999)
Normal service was resumed, after some AoR territory had been breached with 1997’s Falling Into infinity. Mike Portnoy and John Petrucci assumed production duties and the regaining of control saw the band return to form in style.
A full-on concept album that deals with nasty, duplicitous behaviour, murder and reincarnation, Scenes… pretty much saved the band. Portnoy’s drums are a treat throughout, broadening the band’s appeal to metal fans and pretty much cementing his reputation as one of the most exciting drummers in rock.
Key track: Scene Seven I: The Dance Of Eternity
It really doesn't get more prog than this. The prog rock supergroup formed by Roine Stolt (The Flower Kings), Neal Morse (Spock’s Beard), Portnoy and Pete Trewavas (Marillion) put out their first album in 2000.
More succinct than some of their later work, it nevertheless contains the 31-minute opus All Of The Above, which of course runs the gamut of Portnoy’s arsenal, all of the varying time signatures and feels that the progressive form demands.
Also notable, and a real badge of their prog credentials, is In Held (Twas) In I, the group’s version of Procol Harum’s four-part 1967 classic - a record generally considered to be the first true prog rock song.
Key track: All Of The Above
Black Clouds And Silver Linings (2009)
Few bands sound this hungry on album number 10… This would turn out to be Portnoy’s last album with the band he had founded 25 years earlier.
It distills everything everyone loved about Dream Theater, and pushes it all to the max. Unquestionably, Portnoy is on fire, from the sublime cymbal work on the balladic Wither to the powerful A Nightmare To Remember.
The conclusion of Portnoy’s The Shattered Fortress suite (parts X-XII - it had begun on 2002’s Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence and continued throughout their output) feels like a suitable way, retrospectively speaking, for Mike to have bowed out. The power and control on display is breathtaking.
Key track: A Nightmare To Remember
A7X’s own drum genius James ‘The Rev’ Sullivan had been a huge fan of Mike Portnoy, and when he sadly died aged just 28 in 2009, the band brought in his hero to track the drum parts, many of which had already been written and demo’d by the late drummer.
Perhaps Avenged’s darkest album, lent a sadness by The Rev’s passing, it was expertly and respectfully finished by Portnoy, whose perfectly executed double-kick and busy filling on the title track helped the band deliver one of their most successful tunes.
The album also proved that Portnoy was versatile, as he tackled The Rev’s punkier side on Danger Line, more sparing, Metallica-style heaviosity on Buried Alive, and the more balladic song form of So Far Away.