Show: Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress w/Next To None
Venue: Koko, Camden UK
Review by: Faye Sanderson
Photos by: Marco Segafreddo
Mike Portnoy, drummer extraordinaire and founder/ex-member of progressive metal heavyweights Dream Theater, is back on tour. Only this time, instead of touring with one of the many bands he’s been part of since he left Dream Theater in 2010, Portnoy is bringing thirsty audiences a full rendition of his ‘Twelve Step Suite’: a suite of five songs spanning five albums over seven years. The twelve-step suite charts his progression through the twelve steps of the Alcoholics Anonymous programme, a group therapy he credits with his ongoing recovery from alcoholism (it’s been seventeen years since his last drink). The suite is ambitious, taking us into the darkest recesses of Portnoy’s struggle with addiction, from admitting his powerlessness over alcohol to reaching a place where he’s now extending the hand of support to fellow recovering alcoholics.
Minus the rest of his old bandmates in Dream Theater, Portnoy has recruited another group of phenomenally talented musicians in the form of five sixths of Haken (minus drummer Ray Hearne) and American guitarist Eric Gillette (Neal Morse Band) to bring this ambitious, once in a lifetime event to fans across the world. On Wednesday night, Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress tour kicked off in London’s Koko. There’s a special kind of delight in being the first audience of a tour and not knowing what to expect, for those of us (especially myself!) who are unable to resist checking setlists before the night. I knew it was going to be an awesome night from the moment we filled into the venue and several rows of fans started up impromptu karaoke to the house music, instrumental versions of well-loved Dream Theater songs. Anyone who’s attended a Dream Theater gig prior to 2010 knows the camaraderie felt at a Dream Theater show is something special, and it was amped up to the max by knowing we were going to see this music performed by Portnoy himself, the heart and soul of Dream Theater that’s been sorely missed since his departure.
Support came in the form of Next to None, with Portnoy’s son Max on drums. For those concerned their place on the tour was purely due to the family connection, fears were laid to rest within the first couple of songs as N2N showed us their infectious enthusiasm and insane chops; guitarist Derrick Schneider is surely one to watch, bringing both excellent playing and soaring, clean vocal harmonies to the mix effortlessly. I saw them support Haken on a recent tour and there’s been a clear improvement in their stage presence in just a few short months: give them a few years to further hone their songwriting skills and continue to mature and they’ll be ones to watch.
The main event arrived, and we were thrust back into Dream Theater’s glory days with the opening from what is arguably their most revered album Metropolis Part II: Scenes From a Memory (1999), the concept album by which all others have been judged in the past thirteen years since I first fell in love with it. To say this was a surprise is an understatement, one which left my friend and I shouting to one another ‘is this actually f*cking happening!?* in disbelief as tears formed in my eyes. The beauty of Overture 1928 and Strange déjà Vu is in the way opening instrumental passage gives every musician chance to take centre stage for solo melodies, a true display of the musicianship ahead of us during the rest of the show. If there was any concern that it would be strange seeing DT music played by Haken this was put to rest within seconds: not only are they more than capable of nailing the complex rhythms and technically demanding lines inherent in Dream Theater, they’ve made it known on social media they’ve long been massive fans of Dream Theater’s music, growing up listening to them and honing their skills to Dream Theater like so many of the rest of us in the audience. There’s always a danger that something is lost in translation when music you love is played by a new group of people, but the love that every single member clearly felt for what they were playing was impossible to miss even for fans who’d never heard of them before. Haken are renowned for bringing a huge party to their shows (having been lucky enough to see them several times before myself), so the mix of them with Portnoy and the astoundingly competent Eric Gillette created a gig with levels of excitement and showmanship often missing in what some see as the navel-gazing, introspective nature of the progressive genre. It was beautiful to see a band of musicians paying tribute to the music of their youth, and the knowledge that they were fans as much as those of us watching leant a strangely intimate atmosphere where it felt like everyone was in it together.
Moving on, 1994’s The Mirror bridged the gap between the optimistic vibe of Scenes and the darker, heavier twelve-step suite ahead. Kicking off with the Glass Prison, crafted to show us exactly how it felt for Portnoy to feel trapped inside his addiction, fan hysteria seemed to hit a record high for the night with every last person I could see around me singing each line word and visibly anticipating and responding to every single lick, sweep, pinch harmonic and drum fill like only die-hard fans of Dream Theater are able to.
Second in the suite is This Dying Soul from 2003’s Train of Thought, Dream Theater’s Metallica-infused, heaviest, darkest record to date, giving everyone plenty of opportunity to develop a sore neck the next day. Third up, The Root of All Evil, we were treated to seeing guitarist Eric Gillette handle all vocal duties, a nice move which switched things up a little and no doubt gave singer Ross Jennings chance to catch his breath from what must surely be one of the most demanding singing gigs of his career. The penultimate track, Repentance, is a brief but much-needed lull which gave both the band and audience chance to sit back for a moment and enjoy the few minutes break in headbanging and jumping around. Repentance deals with the AA steps which involve making amends for your sins and seeking forgiveness for those you have wrong, and features prog legends Steven Wilson and Mikael Akerfeldt apologizing for their mistakes during the middle passage of the track. A particularly delightful moment came when their faces floated across the screen behind the stage, leading to them both getting their own individual and hearty rounds of applause and cheers.
The final song of the suite came in the form of the Shattered Fortress, a song which somehow manages to weave in myriad themes and melodies from the previous four tracks, while adding enough new material that it sounds triumphant and complete rather than derivative. My favorite song of the suite for many reasons, it’s hard to describe the way an already brilliant song became transcendent when performed at the end of the forty-four minutes of music which gave life to it. I can only try and imagine how it must have felt to be Mike Portnoy at that moment, seeing 1400 fans singing back at him his own determination to extend support and guidance to other alcoholics at the beginning of their own journey into recovery.
There are no real words that can do justice to how much it meant to finally see one of my favorite pieces of music performed live after giving up all hope of ever being able to do so when Portnoy left the band (though the length of this review kinda counteracts that claim). Though Dream Theater have carried on and have my enduring respect for all that they’ve created, the atmosphere at their shows has been lacking ever since Portnoy soul walked out of the door. Seeing the show tonight made me realize that although I’ll always follow Dream Theater whatever path they take, the magic that made them the greatest band in the world was contained within Mike Portnoy. It says a lot that this was more of a Dream Theater gig like I used to know and love than any of the shows I’ve seen without Portnoy. For one fifth of the band and a bunch of his friends to pull this off truly says it all.
Unsure what to expect from the encore, I waited with bated breath until the band came back on stage and kicked off with one of the highlights from Scenes from a Memory, Home, before playing the revered The Dance of Eternity. Notorious amongst the world of progressive metal for its insistence on changing time signatures every bar or two and requiring some of the most technically complex solo parts heard from Dream Theater (which says a lot), The Dance of Eternity was, I thought, a clear display of prowess which cemented my view that Haken are possibly the most underrated musicians in modern prog music, especially keyboard player Diego Tejeida who was, along with Eric Gillette, undoubtedly the star of the show the whole gig for his note-perfect performance and bombastic, wonderfully over the top keytar solo sections. Having watched a few fan videos back on YouTube while writing this review, I was struck again by how skillfully he was able to interpret and play 2+ hours of some of the most physically and mentally demanding keyboard work in the genre. Though most of the show was spent watching him play, it was one of those rare gigs were there wasn’t a weak link within the band.
The gig ended, fittingly, with Finally Free from the end of Scenes from a Memory, nicely bookending the show. I remembered to look around me before the end of the song, and saw how every single person in the audience was stood, mesmerized, singing along, plenty with tears in their eyes. It felt just like the many times I saw Dream Theater with Portnoy, where the audiences all seemed to feel like they were in something together, finding something within Dream Theater’s music they possibly (like me) had never found elsewhere. Dream Theater fans are nothing if not a community, and it was bittersweet to see that despite all of the water that’s passed under the bridge in the band’s recent history, the love for their music prevails and is utterly timeless.
So there you have it. I went expecting the twelve-step suite, I came away with that plus five songs from Scenes from a Memory, with more atmosphere and energy and meaning than any of the occasions I’ve seen Dream Theater play in recent years. For myself, their seminal concert DVD Live Scenes from New York has always been the ultimate gig DVD and one which expresses and captures perfectly the emotions that first caused me to fall hopelessly for Scenes. I’ve spent years ruing the fact that I wasn’t at that particular gig, but tonight genuinely felt like we got our own version of Live Scenes from New York: a gift I presumed would never come since the parting of Portnoy from the band. I’m unashamed to say that my mascara was running as the band left the stage, and I felt certain that I’d never be fortunate enough to experience a show or experience like it again in my lifetime.
Portnoy has stated that after this tour, he will no longer be playing Dream Theater’s music, citing it as closure for him. If you’re a fan of the band and able to get to any of their dates for the rest of the tour, you won’t be disappointed. As sad as it is to think that this is something I’ll never be able to experience it again, the fact I experienced this gift at all is something I’ll cherish within my heart for the rest of my life as an evening shared with friends old and new watching some of the most emotionally deep, meaningful, personal music I’ve ever been lucky enough to find and fall in love with. Portnoy took a risk putting together this tour and putting himself out there by playing Dream Theater music while the rest of the band are still writing and gigging and attracting their own huge audiences, but it paid off better than I could have possibly imagined. If this is his closure, he now knows that however long he spends away from the band he grew and nurtured and turned into the international success it is today, we fans will always be grateful for everything he gave the world of music and that he has our enduring love and respect. It takes guts to take your own intimate battles and set them out for others to consume and critique, but what Portnoy has achieved with the Shattered Fortress tour is a triumph.”