Mike Portnoy

The best canvas for a progressive drummer with energy and ideas to burn? The double concept album, of course.

Story by Ilya Stemkovsky
Photos by Paul La Raia

There’s no sleep for Mike Portnoy. He’s simply everywhere, touring and recording all year long with a variety of artists, including Transatlantic, Flying Colors, and the Winery Dogs. He even recently filled in with Twisted Sister. But at the moment Portnoy is most excited—maybe more excited than he’s ever been—about his latest effort with former Spock’s Beard multi-instrumentalist Neal Morse, The Similitude of a Dream.

“I consider this album the biggest masterwork of my entire career,” Portnoy says without hesitation. “It gives you that same feeling as when you listen to Pink Floyd’s The Wall or the Who’s Tommy. It feels incredibly complete, and shows every aspect of what we do together, from epic prog passages to almost poppy, Beatle-esque moments to soaring, emotional pieces of music that will bring you to tears.”

An old-school concept album, The Similitude of a Dream is Portnoy and Morse’s eighteenth studio record together, and it’s filled with everything you’d expect from them. And, as Portnoy describes above, it’s all over the place. From the odd meters and precision of “Overture” to the soaring vocals of “City of Destruction” to the country honk of “Freedom Song,” there’s a lot of drumming over the double disc’s hundred-plus-minute running time. But self-editing never seemed to be the priority for the creators.

“Neal and I are both the kings of ‘more is more,’” Portnoy admits. “Over our career together, we’ve got something like fifteen songs over the thirty-minute mark. He and I are all about the epic composition. We had a lot of material, and Neal was working around a lyrical concept that needed time to fully explore. We write for the sake of the music or the story. When it’s reached its destination, then it’s finished.”

The sheer number of compositional sections and kit patterns Portnoy has to remember for Similitude is mind-boggling. So perhaps it should come as no surprise that when asked if he could immediately execute any part he’s played in his entire recording career, the drummer answers, “Absolutely. I’ve been blessed with an elephant’s memory. At this stage in my career, I’m in six different bands. And maybe that’s why I do well juggling multiple bands, because it’s easy for me. For some reason, I have that music in my head, ready to go at any moment.”

So what does the confessed record junkie see as the key ingredients of a great double album? “Well, there’s the double album, and there’s the double concept album,” Portnoy notes, citing the Beatles’ White Album, Led Zeppelin’s Physical Graffiti, and Elton John’s Goodbye Yellow Brick Road as favorites among the former group.

“I have a soft spot for concept albums. The great concept albums are stories that take you on a journey, and they emotionally feel like a film or a book. With The Wall and Tommy, for instance, you’re taken on an intense roller-coaster ride of emotions.”

Portnoy at his home studio, which doubles as a veritable prog museum.

Pink Floyd, The Wall

“It’s probably my favorite album of all time, by any band in any genre. It’s the ultimate musical experience. Nick Mason’s drumming is relatively simple, but it’s about [serving] the emotion and what Roger Waters wrote, the ups and the downs, and the incredible production. It always moved me.”

The Who, Tommy

“Keith Moon remains one of my biggest drum heroes. He played with such personality, it puts a smile on my face. Tommy brings me back to my childhood.”

Frank Zappa, Joe’s Garage

“Vinnie Colaiuta’s drumming was just mind-blowing. You had all these crazy time signatures on ‘Keep It Greasy,’ like 19/16 and 21/16. That’s the first time I heard drumming like that. Virtuoso stuff that remains some of the most complex stuff ever put to vinyl.”

Genesis, The Lamb Lies Downon Broadway

“Genesis at the height of their excess. Phil Collins on ‘The Colony of Slippermen’ and ‘In the Cage’ is incredible. In the prog world, Collins’ drumming is underrated and overlooked. People immediately think of Bill Bruford or Neil Peart, but Phil’s drumming was just as inventive and groundbreaking for its time.”

Spock’s Beard, Snow

“Neal’s swan song with Spock’s Beard was a masterpiece, showcasing his songwriting prowess, and it was a good sign of what was to come of our work together.”