The Top 25 Modern Metal Drummers

#25: MIKE PORTNOY (ADRENALINE MOB)

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MetalSucks recently polled its staff to determine who are The Top 25 Modern Metal Drummers, and after an incredible amount of arguing, name calling, and physical violence, we have finalized that list! The only requirements to be eligible for the list were that the musician in question had to a) play metal (duh), b) play drums (double-duh), and c) have recorded something in the past five years. Today we kick off our countdown with Adrenaline Mob’s Mike Portnoy…

Whatever you may think of The Mike, and the number of good, bad, and ugly projects he’s been involved in over the years, one thing remains true: you’re still high if you don’t think he’s one of the very best drummers in modern metal.

A life history of this prolific player at this point would be a waste of everyone’s time, but in the wake of the “Is he really that good?” argument, I feel some duty to defend my high school idol. Because just garnering the prized status of being my father’s “Favorite Non-Practicing Jewish Progressive Metal Drummer,” doesn’t quite do him justice.

In ninth grade I felt like a better musician just for counting myself among the elite cult of music nerds that knew about and liked Dream Theater. But in all honesty, I was always a bigger fan of Portnoy’s than I was of his band, and that sentiment only seems to have grown over the years. You can only hear so many flavors of the same meandering, thirteen-minute technical opus before inevitably losing interest. And by the time his distorted yell-talking started to worm its way in around the release of Dream Theater’s Systematic Chaos, I had all but jumped ship. But still, I can’t let up and can’t let go of my enjoyment of his playing.

It doesn’t matter what kind of nonsense he spat behind the mic or whatever progress, or lack thereof, was made in his former band’s sound over the years; he’s still one of the scene’s finest and here’s why:

  • He can groove: If melody is the ear candy of a tonal instrument, then I would make the same argument for groove in relation to a rhythmic instrument. Portnoy has always been aware of this. Whether it’s the instantly addictive high-hat groove that opens “6:00” or the more complex, kick-driven pattern that appears throughout the verse of “Learning to Live,” Mike always keeps feel in mind. And in musical styles that aren’t the most listener-friendly, that’s important.
  • He can make weird stuff sound good: It’s one thing to blow your listeners off their rockers with zany time signature changes and obtuse rhythms, but it’s another thing to make those oddities actually sound good in the context of a song. While anyone who even casually listens to Dream Theater knows that Portnoy can clearly do the former, he also has a great intuition about his playing that allows him to take his challenging parts and stitch them seamlessly into the architecture of his collaborative compositions. A good example would be his driving thrash beat under the memorable opening riff of “The Glass Prison.” Playing such a simple, powerful part under Petrucci’s complex 13/8 riff actually emphasizes the oddness of it, while losing none of the momentum built up within the song’s first minute-and-a-half.
  • He can lay back (and still sound cool even when he does): Laying back doesn’t necessarily mean going on autopilot or playing soft, but easing a little off the gas — enough to let the song breathe and shine as a whole. “These Walls” is probably one of Dream Theater’s simpler songs, but by limiting himself to less busy, accent-oriented beats — and the obvious 6/8 feel much of the song demands — Portnoy did the track, and his ex-bandmates, a great service.
  • His fills are beastly (and perfectly placed): Having killer chops doesn’t mean much if you don’t know how to use them tastefully. As much as I enjoy Mike’s “rip your face off” showboat fills (his mini-solo that opens “Honor Thy Father” has gotta be in the running for most badass fill of all time), it’s also impressive that he is generally able to work them into songs in ways that almost never feel arbitrary. Check out his mammoth, multi-measure fill around the three-minute mark of “Stream of Consciousness” — it stems perfectly from the progression surrounding it.
  • He’s not just about double kick and fills: Speaking of the space that encapsulates that mighty fill, Portnoy displays his vast repertoire of influences and shows how creative he can be without using his metallic side as a crutch at all. He cycles through a driving 4/4 polyrhythm and brilliant chopper cymbal-accented latin groove before the fill’s punctuation and then an equally tasty tom-driven variation on the pre-fill pattern during Petrucci’s solo that follows it.
  • He has some very cool stylistic idiosyncrasies: And just about every great drummer has some of these. There are countless ones I could think of for Portnoy, but, in particular, I’ve always found his tom flams and delicate cymbal work to be especially cool. You can hear the former nuance throughout the intro section of “In the Presence of Enemies, Pt. 1” and the latter in the verses of the “The Great Debate.”

And that’s why Mike Portnoy is that good.

-BS

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