A collection of Mike's finest work from his Magna Carta sessions.
Performing with John Petrucci, Jordan Rudess, Billy Sheehan,
Andy West, Tony Levin, Sebastian Bach and Jake E Lee.
You have your workaday drummers who pop up on a variety of recording dates and then you have your signature drummers—the likes of Keith Moon, John Bonham, Neil Peart, and Mike Portnoy. You can’t help but wonder how this latter group might fare if they were to venture outside their self-made empires of style and sound.
Indeed, you wonder about Mike Portnoy, with his stage-engulfing Siamese Monster drumset and his penchant for creating complex drum parts irrespective of time signature: Where would he be without Dream Theater? After all, aside from making Portnoy a cult hero, that band facilitated his flamboyant style and extravagant drumkit.
The answer to our question lies in the forum provided by Magna Carta Records. Over the years, the label has provided Portnoy with a number of diverse playing environments. Some of them, such as Liquid Tension Experiment, have been wildly popular, so much so that cross-pollination has occurred between mother group and spawn. Others have been, at very least, provocative and musical. In all of them, the drummer’s essence shines, as is evident in the current collection of choice Portnoy-fed tracks.
That “essence” is something that lies at root of what it is to be a drummer. The vocation goes two ways: One faction is content to slug out a groove, foregoing any extras or artifice—often on a four-piece drumkit. The other insists on elaboration, ornamentation, and, for that purpose, gathers toms and cymbals as the seashore attracts polished stones.
Mike Portnoy represents the perfect marriage of the garage band enthusiast and the intellectual fusion artist. His exploration of that array of toms is as playful as it is artsy, just as his integration of timbales is as explorative as it is Latin. A few years back he told me, “I’m a drumset player, not a percussionist. My interest in percussion is more of an embellishment to drumset playing.” Accordingly, whatever diverse instrument Mike brings home to his kit, he employs to good effect, creating brash melodic runs or rousing exclamations. Meanwhile, it’s relentless bass drums and washing cymbals—the heart of rock & roll. Portnoy gets to do it all. This is plain in Mike Portnoy: Prime Cuts.
Take “Mad March”, for example, in which Portnoy accompanies Dixie Dreg’s bassist Andy West. The drummer comes up from underneath, firing off barrages of double bass drums in challenging patterns that seem to complexify and invert themselves, injecting urgency into the apocalyptic vision.
We don’t get far into Liquid Tension Experiment’s “Freedom of Speech” before we’re lighting up the wooden matches, especially as Petrucci’s first guitar solo nears its peak! This is grand excitement. This is romance-epitomized and, for Mike Portnoy, his finest hour. His drumming is built for the arena.
Rapid-fire sixteenth notes on closed hi-hats are the showers in “Acid Rain”, the pitter-pattering echoed by Levin and Petrucci at various junctures. Check out Portnoy’s “Gene Krupa” tom underlay at around the 1:48 minute
“Endless Enigma” alternates from gentle to chaotic. The church-like cadence around the 2:00 point is a clever device, providing sanctuary and calm.
A drum roll sets us up for “Chris and Kevin’s Excellent Adventure”. We can only assume that Liquid Tension Experiment’s Portnoy and Levin shared laughs while recording this one. Mike’s rollicking half-time shuffle is the perfect jaunty groove to complement a light-hearted, whistling theme.
“Working Man”, from the Rush tribute album of the same name, is as heavy as heavy gets, a musical migraine spiked by Lee’s seamless scintillating guitar. Much in the fashion of his stylistic predecessor, Neil Peart, Portnoy chooses his spaces, filling them with double bass drum/tom clusters. All the while, he forges ahead with the heavy touch of his mentor. This is vintage, mid-seventies Rush repertoire and Portnoy is obviously comfortable in his role.
“By-Tor and the Snow Dog”, another hats off to Rush, evolves into a screamer (at least once the vocal takes over) that is equal parts Geddy and Ozzy. Note the drum solos, ever increasing in intensity, interspersed between ensemble themes.
“Another Dimension” is an effective Gage remix in which chattering snippets of instrument voices and atypical snare drum timbres provide a haunting backdrop. The Vapourspace remix introduces a steady stream of unusual undulating tones, then slowly pulls them back, dissolving them into a mist of white noise.
“Three Minute Warning Edit” begins as a funky, organ laced jam, and graduates through various movements in the same key until it winds down—perhaps due to a warning that the two-inch tape is at the end of the reel! Portnoy’s opening contribution is joyfully bouncy, while his handling of the various transitions is brilliant. Such freedom, such compositional latitude! It reminds us why Mike Portnoy is the envy of the working drummer who enjoys no such free reign.
Notes by T. Bruce Wittet, Modern Drummer writer, Associate Editor, Muzik Etc.
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MIKE PORTNOY: PRIME CUTS
Catalog # MA-1004-2
Buy Now: $15.98 [shipping/handling included] Download The Album Now Release Date: June 1, 2005
1. Mad March
2. Freedom of Speech
3. Acid Rain
4. Endless Enigma
5. Chris & Kevin's Excellent Adventure
6. Working Man
7. By-Tor and the Snow Dog
8. Another Dimension [Vapourspace Remix]
9. Three Minute Warning Edit