The concept of a Dream Theater-esque prog metal band consisting of 15/16 year-olds is pretty enticing. Everyone is impressed by videos of child prodigies playing ridiculous solos on YouTube, and given the particular virtuosity requirements of the type of music the genre label implies, it’s easy to think that kids who make it would be great at their instruments. Next to None are such a band, in fact their drummer is Mike Portnoy’s son, so they have a direct connection to Dream Theater! All the pieces are in place for a masterpiece from the young, fresh upcoming generation, hailing the future of metal. Except, sometimes things don’t turn out as expected. The band’s debut album, A Light In The Dark, produced by Portnoy, is unfortunately more of a shot in the dark, full of lacking musicianship and uninspired songwriting.
So what do Next to None exactly sound like? Obviously, they sound a lot like Dream Theater. Specifically, if you take Systematic Chaos-era DT, remove the over-the-top solos and the extravagant jam session parts (a.k.a. the best parts of the album), focus more on meat-and-potatoes riffage that consists of arena metal verses and choruses that sound like Dream Theater C-sides, add some soloing that’s completely devoid of either creativity or a commanding understanding of music theory, add some occasional screaming vocals, and a very poor imitation of James LaBrie, that’s what Next to None sound like. To explain that run-on sentence a bit more succinctly, there’s a distinct lack of inspiration and finesse to this album.
There are moments, of course, where everything somehow aligns and the songs become perfectly acceptable, like the groovy riff with screaming on “You Are Not Me”, but even then the writing is so cookie-cutter, so detached that it crumbles apart upon closer inspection. There are other bands who have taken the DT formula and either expertly replicated it or improved upon it (see Haken, Bad Salad, even Between the Buried and Me), yet here what we have is songs that have been cobbled together from what seem to be riffs that Mike Portnoy threw out during the recording sessions of the last albums of the band while he was involved in writing. Not a single moment during this album does inspiration shine through, nothing stands out as unique and gripping. The writing on A Light In The Dark is just flat out bland.
It doesn’t end with the writing either, the performances are a bit off as well. The clean vocals are so blatantly pitch corrected that the recognizable tinge of auto-tune sucks out all character from the voice, and adds to the soulless feeling of the album. Weirdly, in some songs the drumming is slightly off time, which is confusing, considering the album was produced by a drummer. While not having overly quantized drumming or not playing to a click can be an admirable quality that breathes life into music, that only works when the drummer is really skilled and is intentionally following his own time, not when he’s just not in time with the band. It might seem harsh to criticize 16-year-old kids like this, but there have been a lot of musicians who started at a young age, some even younger, yet still had a lot more to say with their music creatively and had more spirit to their playing.
The musicianship is derivative without taking any of the good aspects of its predecessor. The guitar playing sounds like Petrucci, but not during soloing. Only during rhythm playing, and even then the writing lacks his tight control of chord progressions that are more than the sum of their parts. The bass and keyboard also compare similarly poorly to their counterparts. Mike Portnoy is a pretty good drummer with interesting fills and an invigorating style, but his son seems like he hasn’t caught on to this. The singer clearly wants to sound like James LaBrie, but at beast he sounds like LaBrie’s off years when he had a throat illness and was more shrill than smooth. The comparisons to Dream Theater in this review might be tiresome at this point, but so are Next to None.
Overall, A Light In The Dark is an uninspired, boring mess. It’s at best inoffensive, but at times it’s so derivative and uncreative that it just hurts to listen to. There is no soul, no bravery, no mastery, no niche, no anything. The enjoyment to be found here is next to none.
Next to None – A Light In The Dark gets…