It’s definitely a case of talent ‘running in the family’, when it comes to Max Portnoy’s band Next To None; son of Mike Portnoy (former drummer of Dream Theater). ‘Phases’ is the Lehigh Valley, Pennsylvania quartet’s second album release, hitting shelves July 7th. ‘Phases’ is self-produced, which at this stage of their careers is a huge step; at stages they skip walking and go straight to running, but there’s instances where all they do is stumble over their own feet.
Next To None are comprised of band members Derrick Schneider (Guitar), Thomas Cuce (Keyboard/Lead Vocals), Kris Rank (Bass/Backing Vocals), and of course Portnoy (Drums).
‘Phases’ opens with ‘13’, a quick instrumental introduction that is used to segue into the second track ‘Answer Me’. The ambiance of radio silence in the background, gradually shifting to the squeal of guitar, before completely dropping off to some subtle keyboard work by Cuce.
‘Answer Me’ starts off promising enough, combining Portnoy and Holland’s talents, however it isn’t long until Portnoy’s mastery of the drums starts to take the forefront of the entire track, slowly leaving the other instrumentals behind him. In parts, the instrumentals work well together, combining seamlessly; then you’ve got sections that seems like Next To None are struggling to keep their heads above water. They’re still young, and that’s what you need to keep in mind when listening to them.
‘The Apple’ is opened with a drum solo from young Portnoy, before transforming into a Limp Bizkit throwback that reminds us why these sounds never progressed into the noughties with any potential. The instrumentals in ‘The Apple’, for the most part, work well together, and the vocals are decent, also. Then we hit the middle of the track, and are met with some spoken word (again reminiscent of Limp Bizkit) and questions start to arise that maybe Next To None are suffering from a case of mistaken identity. At the heart of the matter, we have potential for a killer metal track. I want to love this track, I really do, but Cuce’s disc jockey act doesn’t impress me.
Portnoy has been sent from above, his talents demonstrate that, and the opening of ‘Beg’ yet again showcases the manic thrashing of drums from the youngster. At times it seems like the band struggle to keep up with Portnoy’s pace, but then there are some sections were the instrumentals actually blend well together. The vocals are a bit of a letdown in ‘Beg’, also, which is unfortunate because up until now the vocals have actually been pretty solid.
‘Alone’ opens with the loneliness of Cuce’s keyboard, gradually building with the other instrumentals joining him. They all blend well together, creating an atmosphere of impending doom; which is unfortunate, because doom is exactly where we are taken. The vocals come in at a softer tone, and tempo that is slowed right down, which adds some simplicity to the album, and is welcomed. The instrumentals then return to their manic nature, before instantly being returned to the soft vocals again. Lack of transitioning between the two tempos really leaves ‘Alone’ feel like it’s incomplete, which is upsetting because the track holds so much promise.
The opening of ‘Kek’ demonstrates how much promise Next To None actually possess; shredding guitar, thrashing drums, all culminating in a sound that is actually pleasing to listen to. Portnoy’s drum work isn’t as overpowering as some earlier tracks, which allow Cuce’s keyboards and Schneider’s guitar to come through clearly, and showcase their abilities. There’s a lot of instrumental breaks within the track that aren’t necessary, dragging the track out to over ten minutes in length, when a more precise deliverance would have made the track even greater! Vocally the track is solid, blending the range of cleanliness, and gut wrenching screams. This is definitely one of the better tracks of the album, demonstrating what the band are capable of when they find their zone; however, the curveball of DJ scratching in the beginning isn’t something I think they need to keep using. I know they’re progressive, and in the stage of still ‘finding their sound’, but leave the turntables to the clubs, and give us the metal sound that the track upheld for the most part.
The build-up in the opening of ‘Clarity’ is actually really, well, brilliant. That’s the thing with ‘Phases’, there are some tracks that take you completely nowhere, and then you’ve got tracks like ‘Clarity’ that just slap you in the face with a sort of brilliance that makes you wonder “where has this been the entire album?”. The vocals, especially when the chorus comes in, are as solid as the instrumentals backing him. Schneider’s shredding really lends to the overall delivery of ‘Clarity’, and he needs to be commended. Portnoy, well, need I say more? I think we’ve hit a point in ‘Phases’ where Next To None found their ‘happy place’, because they’ve delivered two killer tracks back to back!
They’ve hit the trifecta, ladies and gentlemen! ‘Pause’ follows in suit with ‘Kek’ and ‘Clarity’, opening with the godlike skill of Portnoy, meshed so smoothly with Schneider’s guitar and Rank’s bass. Vocally, once again, some of the best work we’ve seen in ‘Phases’. The shift between the bellowing screams, and the smooth clean vocals, combined with the instrumentals behind them really lift ‘Pause’ to new heights. It’s taken a few tracks, but this is the sound that Next To None need to make their own. Drop the unnecessary gimmicks, and just produce solid performances like this.
The opening of ‘Mr Mime’ has me thinking Norman Bates is about to draw the shower curtains, and stab me to death while wearing his mother’s clothing (for those of you living under a rock and don’t get the reference, spoiler alert!). Whether this be an attempt at displaying a more ‘playful’ side of themselves, or some tongue in cheek humour, it’s a totally different tangent in which the album is heading, and I don’t think it does anything but make you cringe. The instrumentals return to a state that seems messy, which isn’t a place you want to return to having just followed the three tracks before it. Consistency seems to be an area Next To None need to perfect while moving forward.
‘Isolation’ throws all the other instruments aside, and leaves the spotlight solely on Cuce’s keyboard. It’s a welcomed break, bringing the tempo direction of the album to almost a complete halt. This allows Cuce to break away from displaying his vocal talent, and showcase the other side of him, which is great. Strongly felt that this could have been (and potentially still can be) used to be worked into a song of its own. However simplistic it may be, sometimes a break from the ‘norm’ is something that required to truly appreciate something. This nails it.
‘Denial’ opens up with another great display of instrumental talent, which sometimes has gone missing. Stripping things right back with Schneider’s guitar work, the tempo direction (compared to most of the tracks on the album) is rather calm, which compliments the vocals perfectly. In my opinion, this is a strong suit that Next To None should focus on; throw gimmicks out the window, this is a true sound you can build around, and it’s without a doubt one of their stronger performances on ‘Phases’.
‘The Wanderer’ … definitely goes wandering. Next To None wanted to amalgamate all of the sounds from within ‘Phases’ into one song, and I think that’s where it’s a little hit and miss. The opening of the track is great. It’s not hard to see that Portnoy holds his Father’s past in high regard, with traces of Dream Theater tones laced within the track. The vocals return to the calmer state that has been demonstrated in ‘Phases’, with the instrumentals complimenting perfectly. That’s where things become odd, breaking off into a Hawaii Five O guitar break that makes you wonder whether Next To None are trying to take the piss, or they’re actually being serious. Instrumentally, there’s some solid performances. However, it makes me wonder why they went all out in the final track like they have when at nineteen minutes long, and majority of the track being instrumental fills, this could have definitely been whittled down, and remaining energy spaced out over the tracks that truly needed it.
‘Phases’ was always going to be a risky release. It’s self-produced, which in my opinion is where half the problem lies. Credit to them for wanting to branch out on their own, but one must know their limitations; seems like the focus become on the production of the album, more so than the composing of the music that was going on it. Some of the tracks are absolutely brilliant (‘Denial’, ‘Kek’, ‘Clarity’, and ‘Pause’), but then you’ve got some that come across more as an awkward combination of noise. The name says it all, you definitely go through different phases while listening to the album. Next To None need to find their own voice. Avoid using gimmicks of those that have come before them, stay focused, and polish the diamond that is truly buried amongst the coal; it’s there. They just need to find it.