All appearances to the contrary, Portnoy's hard-rock makeover is not a sudden thing but a gradual metamorphosis. The last album he cowrote for Dream Theater, 2009's Black Clouds And Silver Linings, was the band's most aggressive.
Portnoy’s Adrenaline Mob Setup
Drums Tama Starclassic Mirage (Crystal Ice)
1. 22" x 18" Bass Drum
2. 14" x 5.5" Tama Mike Portnoy Signature Melody Master Snare Drum
3. 8" x 8" Tom
4. 10" x 9" Tom
5. 12" x 10" Tom
6. 14" x 14" Floor Tom
7. 16" x 16" Floor Tom (Rich, thereís an identically sized Floor on far left)
8. 20" x 14" Gong Drum
9. 6" x 17", 6" x 18.5", 6" x 21", and 6" x 23.5" Tama Octobans
10. 10.25" Tito Puente Stainless Steel Timbalito
A. 14" AAX Stage Hi-Hat
B. 16" HHX X-Treme Crash
C. 18" HHX Chinese
D. 7" Mike Portnoy Signature Max Splash
E. 18" HHX Studio Crash
F. 9" Mike Portnoy Signature Max Splash
G. Mike Portnoy Signature HH Medium Max Stax (10" kang/10" splash combo) with 7" Radia Bell
H. 10" Chopper
I. 18" AA Medium Thin Crash
J. 22" HH Rock Ride
K. 19" Fierce Crash
L. Mike Portnoy Signature HH Low Max Stax (12" kang/14" splash combo)
M. 20" AA Chinese
N. 17" HH Medium Thin Crash
O. 13" HHX Groove Hats (open) (Rich, this is the "upper" pair)
P. 12" HHX Groove Hats (closed) (Öand this is the "lower" pair)
Mike Portnoy also uses Tama hardware (two Speed Cobra single pedals and Speed Cobra hi-hat stand, 1st Chair Round Rider throne, and custom rack), Remo heads (Clear Emperor tom batters, Clear Ambassador tom resos, Clear Powerstroke 3 bass batters, Clear CS snare batter, and Clear Ambassador Snare Side), and Pro-Mark Mike Portnoy 420 signature sticks and Pro-Mark Stick Rapp.
The major catalyst came in 2010 when he was tapped to fill in for Jimmy "The Rev" Sullivan after the Avenged Sevenfold drummer died of an overdose. After cutting the drum tracks for Nightmare and the subsequent Uproar Tour in 2010 with Disturbed, Hellyeah!, and Stone Sour (in which he stepped in for Ray Mayorga for a few dates), Portnoy was never quite the same. "After that experience with Avenged I realized how much fun I was having, not having to sit there with a calculator to play drums," he says. "Not that there's anything wrong with that. I did that for all those years with Dream Theater and I loved that too, but, man, my brain just needed a break, and I really enjoyed that vibe with Avenged. So when I was approached with the music for Adrenaline Mob it was the right music at the right time, like, 'I want to do this, man.'"
That Adrenaline Mob frontman Russell Allen's main band, Symphony X, has Euro-metal credentials is no small irony. "It's not my favorite genre," says Portnoy. "To be honest I was dreading that [AM] was going to sound like typical neoclassical power-metal stuff, like some combination of Symphony X and Dream Theater. But when he played me what he and [Mike] Orlando [guitarist] were working on, it was just such a breath of fresh air and such a relief because it was not that. And that's why I immediately got on board."
The gnarliest gut-punch on Ad Mob debut Omert‡ is "Feeling Me," featuring the lyrical refrain, "Are you motherf__kers feelin' me?" which Allen delivers in a tremolo-laden bellow so low and dirty it's like an invitation to brawl with the Hell's Angels. "That's just a great straight-ahead riffing song that could be AC/DC or Pantera," Portnoy says. "Yeah, man, thatís just all about the riff and laying down that stomping groove. To me, all the songs on the Adrenaline Mob album have that bounce in the drum department."
Bounce was a word Portnoy used repeatedly for the next few minutes, but it took a second to figure out he isn't talking about rebound on the heads. "I'm not talking about technique, I'm talking about drum feel," he says. "That was something that I definitely started to cop with Avenged Sevenfold, and when I did that album and tour I learned about sometimes just laying down four on the floor and having that kick drum kind of going and not always taking a left turn with the drumming. Just laying it down and staying there. And that was something I carried into Adrenaline Mob."
But a quarter century in a progressive-rock colossus leaves its mark. Despite the deep pocket, Portnoy still blows plenty of chops on Omert‡. "Hit The Wall," for example, boasts a style that is both aggressive and lick-y. "I also enjoy the simplicity of something like 'All On The Line,'" he adds, "which is just a beautiful ballad that can move you to tears."
Portnoy's biggest concern during the A7X gig was not whether he was good enough to fill The Rev's shoes, but the lifestyle clash. With 12 years of sobriety under his belt, to be constantly exposed to the hard-partying ways of the band during the tour was a concern. ("The Glass Prison," from Dream Theater's Six Degrees Of Inner Turbulence, was the first to address the drummer's battle with alcohol, a theme that would continue on subsequent albums). Dream Theater had a strictly alcohol-free tour rider backstage but in the Avenged Sevenfold camp, Portnoy could not enforce such a policy. To his surprise, witnessing all the carousing and partying backstage night after night did not turn out to be the temptation he feared it would. "It had the opposite effect," he says. "I was like, 'I sure don't miss being hung over all the time.'"
Leaving the band that he had been so closely associated with for so long was a huge risk money-wise. Touring is a lucrative game when you have a rabid fan base, even for a band with modest sales (the band wryly named its 2008 best-of collection Greatest Hit ... And 21 Other Pretty Cool Songs). "If you compare Dream Theater to Metallica and Guns N Roses, yeah, we don't make that kind of money."
But with homes in two states, it's clear he created a comfortable living thanks to a devoted fan base that not only attended shows but would buy merchandise too. "I've seen absolutely ridiculous accusations online where people think I left Dream Theater to make money with Avenged Sevenfold or to make more money doing more commercial music," he says. "That could not be further from the truth. I was very secure with the world I had in Dream Theater and I could have just rode that out and been secure probably the rest of my career. But I walked away from that because music and relationships and inspiration are way more important to me than money."