Sound — 9
It almost seems like there'll come a day when it's easier to list the bands Mike Portnoy hasn't been in, and it only seems like the number of projects he's involved in has only increased dramatically since his leaving Dream Theater in 2010. While he's done a big mix of styles from classic prog-rock (Transatlantic), progressive-tinged pop-rock (Flying Colors), bluesy hard rock (The Winery Dogs) and mainstream metal (Adrenaline Mob, Metal Allegiance), progressive metal has seemed to be something he's almost avoided in his post-Dream Theater days, perhaps choosing not to dredge up any hard feelings towards his Dream Theater past, but with members of Haken and The Neal Morse Band accompanying him with the Shattered Fortress project, playing Dream Theater's "12-Step Suite" in its entirety, it seems the time was right to reconcile with Dream Theater's past. And to aid him in this, he's sought help from an old friend: his former Dream Theater bandmate, keyboardist Derek Sherinian, who played on the band's 1995 EP "A Change of Seasons" and 1997 album "Falling into Infinity", as well as many high-profile gigs with Alice Cooper, KISS, Billy Idol and more. Also joining Mike is his Winery Dogs bandmate, bass virtuoso Billy Sheehan, extraordinary guitarist Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal, and powerhouse vocalist Jeff Scott Soto.
Sonically, the band shows Portnoy almost coming back to terms with his prog-metal past, with the opening track, "God of the Sun", being an epic, sprawling ten-minute progressive metal journey with plenty of epic, downtuned guitar riffs, widdly synths featuring Derek's signature lead sounds, a huge instrumental section featuring multiple time signature changes and solos, guitar/keyboard unisons, and some big, epic choruses. If listening to it doesn't draw immediate Dream Theater comparisons, you might be listening to the wrong album. But for all the similarities, Bumblefoot's guitar playing is vastly different from John Petrucci's, and Sherinian relies far less on tinkly pianos and iPad wizardy than Jordan Rudess, instead preferring Jon Lord-esque Hammond organs and vintage-sounding synths. Even though the album opens with such a grand prog-metal statement, the band also shows a pretty strong propensity for good old-fashioned mainstream rocking out on tracks like "Coming Home" and "Alive", which feature far less ambitious arrangements, more typical "verse-chorus" structures, and aren't so reliant on technical noodling. But this band is at its best when it finds a good balance between the two, like on the epic "Signs of the Times", which is easily a better "mainstream prog-metal" track than any of Dream Theater's recent singles, yet still features an absolutely exquisite solo section. "Lost In Oblivion" finds a way to mix the band's penchant for odd-metered riffing with radio-friendly metal production.
The more progressive pieces on the album are definitely the centerpieces, just as the aforementioned "God of the Sun". "Labyrinth" is a nine-minute workout mixing influences like Fates Warning, Symphony X, and of course, Dream Theater into a multi-tiered piece that's almost like cramming an entire album's worth of playing into a single song. The only complaint about the track is that the transition into the heavy shuffle-time solo section (one of the album's absolute best riffs, with an incredible Hammond solo over it, by the way), is a little too jarring. But the absolutely epic choral vocals and guitar melody after this section is such a great release that the first time I listened to it, I couldn't help but grin ear-to-ear. "Divine Addiction" is a perfectly fine track with some great Deep Purple-meets-Dio riffing, but the orgasmic Hammond organ workout preceding it was deemed worthy of its own track, "Figaro's Whore". Album closer "Opus Maximus" gives the band's instrumentalists ultimate room to spread their wings, as a nearly eleven-minute instrumental featuring complex playing on par with that of Rush's "La Villa Strangiato" and Dream Theater's "Stream of Consciousness".
As expected with a band with members of the caliber of Sons of Apollo, the playing is absolutely nuts throughout, though the band does know when to lay back and let the vocal melody come through, and the professionalism of the band is top-notch. The only real complaint I have about the playing and overall production is that Sheehan's bass playing doesn't really come through in the mix all that well, really seeming like he's not playing up to his full potential on the album. Of course, being that he's already established his prowess as a "bass shredder" elsewhere, he certainly doesn't have anything to prove on this album. To go this long without talking about Portnoy's drumming when the band is essentially his baby seems a bit odd, but while his drumming style is absolutely intact on this record, he does seem to have laid back a bit and doesn't quite rely on an overabundance of fills as he has on other metal-oriented projects in the past. The mixing and mastering on this album is also a treat for the ears, with everything balanced and smooth, but with just enough grit to make some of the album's more "vintage metal" elements like Sherinian's massive Hammond organ sound stand out.
Lyrics — 9
Lyrically, Portnoy and co. have opted to go the "metal" route as well, with dark imagery in their writing, and a bit of an element of rage. There's a bit of a nature to the lyrics that's cryptic enough to make it a bit unclear as to whether the targets of these lyrics are personal or political, but it's not too hard to imagine the latter with this verse from "Coming Home": "Now I'm not so suspicious/You're downright malicious/Can't make a fool outta me/Your scheme's complicated/Your pride is inflated/Seized by a social disease, hey/There's a voice screaming outta my head/There's a truth that I don't wanna know/Cross the line that you're gonna regret/Is it me, is it you?". And as Portnoy's so good at "hate songs" (check out Dream Theater's "Honor Thy Father" for a potent example), lyrics like this from "Signs of the Times" should come as no surprise: "Bleeding, we're gagged and bound/This new word terminates my soul, my soul/Choking the loaded gun/Looking inside your vertigo/Sipping cyanide/Bodies damnified/Too much time to hate/Re-evaluate". But there's room for hope in the lyrics, exemplified in the chorus of "Alive": "Free me from this place I'm in/Mother wash away my sins/'Cause I am alive/Save me from this bleeding heart/Mother show me where to start/'Cause I am alive".
Vocally, Jeff Scott Soto's prowess will come as no surprise to his fans, and he's shown them off quite proficiently in Yngwie Malmsteen's band, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and even Journey for a brief period. Here, he shows himself to be quite capable of modern metal's power, singing with a metric ton of conviction throughout. At times, he almost seems to channel a bit of Symphony X's Russell Allen and Fates Warning's Ray Alder, but still brings his own distinctive sound to the table. Mike Portnoy even tries his hand at singing some verses in the tracks "Labyrinth" and "Alive", and while his backing vocals in Dream Theater have often left fans wanting, his vocals are actually really good on these tracks and fit the style of the album perfectly.
Overall Impression — 9
When it comes to post-Dream Theater Portnoy supergroups, one can never really be too sure what to expect in terms of quality, and many of these projects have left fans of DT's classic prog-metal style wanting. And to be perfectly honest, my own personal expectations of this album were not too high (couple that with the band's decision to release the most "mainstream-sounding" track, "Coming Home", as its first single, and you can see why), but I can safely say after listening to the album in full that this is a triumphant return to progressive metal for Portnoy. In fact, I'd say this is the best album Portnoy's been involved in for nearly a decade. And it's certainly much, much better than anything Dream Theater's released since "Systematic Chaos".
If "Coming Home" left you a little bit cold with its more straightforward sound, don't let that stop you from giving the rest of this album a good listen, as it's full of some really mind-blowing prog-metal. It isn't exactly the most forward-thinking and original of sounds, as a lot of this album shows its influences rather clearly on its sleeve, but the execution of this record is about as close to flawless as prog-metal has gotten in 2017. And on top of all of this technical wizardry and excellent songwriting, this is just a very fun album to listen to, with some really great moments that'll get you headbanging and grinning. Considering that the band's most direct competition has as their most recent album a two-hour, ballad-filled, pretentiously-written snooze-fest, I'd sooner take another ten Sons of Apollo albums than another mediocre Dream Theater album any day of the week. This is a project I really hope becomes a full-time band, and I fully expect to see this record on many "Album of the year" lists.