I never fully respected the capabilities of rock and metal drumming until I listened to Mike Portnoy’s work in DREAM THEATER, especially on the song “Constant Motion”, and I, being entirely-self taught, sought to emulate him in my playing. So when I was given the chance to review an album by a band featuring his son Max, who had also presumably learned the art from him, albeit more directly, I was curious to see what it would sound like. So here we are with NEXT TO NONE, and their record A Light in the Dark, out now on InsideOut Music.
Let’s get this out of the way, it sounds a lot like DREAM THEATER. Specifically, the Train of Thought through Systematic Chaos era. This is just fine by me, because I feel those three albums contain a lot of their best work. If you’re one of the people who doesn’t, I would still advise giving A Light In The Dark a listen, though.
It’s hard to discuss this album without addressing the theme of juvenility that pervades it. Yes, all the members of the band are in the mid-teens, but the technicality on display is on par with any of the other rising stars of the prog scene, and the songwriting is surprisingly mature as well. The best compliment I can give is that they play well enough that the guest solos from Bumblefoot and Neal Morse don’t seem out of place, despite the vast differences in experience. Opening track “Edge of Sanity” is a little rough, as its hooks have to wrap themselves over some esoteric time signatures and it paces itself very similar to DT’S “Octavarium”, which is a bit of an awkward mouthful for an opening track. However, I noticed in that song a lot of thematic and lyrical themes that are picked up later on in the album in a pleasingly subtle way. Since I hadn’t heard anything about the album being a “concept” release prior to acquiring it, it was pretty cool to notice and draw the conclusions myself rather than having it shoved in my face. I recommend listeners to pay close attention and find these motifs for themselves.
Going back to the juvenility theme, knowing the ages of the musicians involved explains a couple of the other quirks of the album. Vocalist/keyboardist Thomas Cuce’s clean vocals took a little while to grow on me, as they belie his age rather obviously, but he is capable of a SLIPKNOT-y harsh vocal that I found to be surprisingly excellent. I remember hearing someone say once “any prog band in the 70’s tradition is only as good as their keyboardist”, in which case NEXT TO NONE have found themselves in capable hands indeed. Between that and the harsh vocals, two out of three is not bad at all, and I only expect the cleans, as well as the band in general, to improve with time.
Instrumentally, Max Portnoy takes very well after his father, and there were a lot of moments that had me thinking “now there’s a Portnoy Moment(tm)!”. Max doesn’t echo some of the more unorthodox moments that his father was well known for (“The Great Debate” by DREAM THEATER being my go-to example of this), but he then again is only just starting out, and still commands the kit with a finesse and skill that plenty of prog and metal drummers twice his age would appreciate. The guitars and bass on the record are impressively riffy, with very little soloing, which is frankly an approach I can get behind, as fewer solos are preferable to me to excessive ones, especially on an album featuring longer songs as this one does. I sense a lot more modern influences on this record than you would hear from more established acts; as mentioned earlier some of the harsh vocals give a strong SLIPKNOT impression, and I think the album overall would appeal to AVENGED SEVENFOLD fans as well.
I would call A Light In The Dark a great gateway prog album, while still having structure and songwriting to appeal to seasoned fans as well, despite some inconsistencies. I do think the lack of solos does work against the record, though, as the guitars, bass, and clean vocals never seem to push themselves to their limits, with the latter only approaching it near the end of “Legacy”. The few brief drum breaks that Max Portnoy takes aren’t much to write home about either, but again this might be preferable to excessive overindulgence. However, I can’t help but think of the youthful extremes of an album like DEATH ANGEL’S The Ultra-Violence and wonder what NEXT TO NONE would sound like were they to let loose in similar fashion.
STANDOUT TRACKS: “Runaway”, “Control”, “Social Anxiety”, “Blood On My Hands”