Mike Portnoy Picks 10 Greatest Heavy-Metal Instrumentals | Revolver

Mike Portnoy Picks 10 Greatest Heavy-Metal Instrumentals

Liquid Tension Experiment drummer hails favorites from Metallica, Iron Maiden, Rush and more
mike portnoy 2021 PRESS, Hristo Shindov
photograph by Hristo Shindov

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Mike Portnoy, not surprisingly, loves a good instrumental.

"When we started Dream Theater back in '85, we were an instrumental band," the drummer recalls. "It was just me, [guitarist] John Petrucci and [bassist] John Myung at Berklee [College of Music], writing all the music that would ultimately become our first demo. It was a very natural way for us to write in those early days. And we also grew up listening to instrumental bands — as much as we loved Rush and Metallica and Maiden, we also had a real appreciation for the Dixie Dregs and Mahavishnu Orchestra and Return to Forever. It was a part of our vocabulary."

Dream Theater, with whom Portnoy played until 2010, is, of course, not a purely instrumental band. But when he put together Liquid Tension Experiment with Petrucci, former King Crimson and Peter Gabriel bassist Tony Levin and future DT keyboardist Jordan Rudess in 1997, he knew he wanted to explore that avenue fully.

"There was never even any thought to doing it with a singer," says Portnoy, who these days plays with Sons of Apollo, Metal Allegiance and the Winery Dogs, among other acts. "It was like, 'Okay, let's just do an instrumental album.' It felt comfortable writing and playing in that way."

That's clearly still the case, as the unit just banged out their third full-length (and first in more than 20 years), Liquid Tension Experiment 3, a wild, proggy ride boasting some of the most inventive and intensive instrumental playing of any of their careers — which, given their combined pedigree, is saying something, indeed.

For Portnoy, the new record is the product of a lifetime of love for instrumental music, and in particular the songs that captured his imagination as a kid growing up in the Seventies and Eighties. With that in mind, the drummer sat down with Revolver to lay out his favorite instrumental tracks. Ever the fan, we asked for him five … and he gave us ten.

"This is my favorite thing in the world — there's no way I could give you just five," Portnoy said. "I could do this until the cows come home."

Rush "La Villa Strangiato" (1978)

In putting this list together I noticed that half the choices are kind of "band" instrumentals and the other half are more "guitar hero" oriented. I'll start with the band list, and at the top is this song. It's no secret that it's pretty much my favorite instrumental of all time, and my favorite Rush song of all time. To me, "La Villa Strangiato" is the benchmark of their abilities, showcasing all three virtuosos. Neil [Peart] and Geddy [Lee] are so tight on it, and then Alex [Lifeson]'s big solo in the middle is just incredible. Obviously "YYZ" is the more well-known Rush instrumental, but as far as I'm concerned, "La Villa Strangiato" is the benchmark of virtuosity and, as a drummer, always the ultimate challenge to try to tackle.

King Crimson "Larks' Tongue in Aspic, Part Two" (1973)

We actually did this in Dream Theater, as one of the bonus cover tracks on [2009's] Black Clouds & Silver Linings. I've always been a huge Crimson fan, always been a huge [drummer] Bill Bruford fan. This is from the early Seventies period of Crimson — they went through so many incarnations through the years, but this is one of the earlier ones. I remember hearing the song for the first time. I think I was at Berklee, and a fusion band was covering it in one of the practice rooms. I was like, "Whoa, what the fuck is that?" I had never heard it before. It had all of these five patterns [on the drums] and stuff, and it's so heavy — the bass and the guitar is so evil and dissonant. It was always one of my favorite instrumentals. It's [guitarist] Robert Fripp at his most evil and Bill Bruford as his most inventive.

Metallica "Orion" (1986)

Those first four Metallica albums all had instrumentals and they were all pretty much rooted in Cliff [Burton], in a lot of ways. The one of the first album ["(Anesthesia) – Pulling Teeth"] was essentially Cliff's bass solo, and he set the tone with that. Then on the second album they had "The Call of Ktulu," which was Cliff basically playing lead bass, with the distorted tones. But as far as I was concerned, by the time they got to Master of Puppets, "Orion" was their instrumental masterpiece and they had perfected the formula. It was just so well-executed, and you could tell that whole classical middle section came from Cliff, because the orchestration of the bass was just so insane. When Cliff died, John Petrucci, John Myung and [original Dream Theater keyboardist] Kevin Moore were all at my house when we found out. And I remember putting on Master of Puppets and we listened to "Orion" and I cried like a baby. It really hit me hard. I just always think of that song as his and the band's instrumental masterpiece.

Iron Maiden "Losfer Words (Big 'Orra)" (1984)

As far as Iron Maiden instrumentals, they had "Transylvania" on the first album, and they had two — "The Ides of March" and "Genghis Khan" — on the second one. "Genghis Khan" is a favorite, but I went with "Losfer Words" from the Powerslave album because it has Nicko [McBrain] on drums. And since it was a little later in their career it has better production. Also, I just thought after The Number of the Beast and Piece of Mind albums, neither of which had instrumentals, it was nice for them to come back to an instrumental on Powerslave and to have it be so awesome.

Rainbow "Difficult to Cure" (1981)

The last of my "band" instrumentals would be the title track from Difficult to Cure. Essentially, it's a hard-rock rendition of Beethoven's Symphony No. 9. That's one of the ways I became familiar with that composition. The other was obviously through A Clockwork Orange — Beethoven's ninth is such a huge, huge part of that movie. I was already a huge Clockwork Orange and [Stanley] Kubrick fan by the time Rainbow came out with "Difficult to Cure," so it was cool to hear a kind of heavy metal orchestrated version of this classical piece.

The Michael Schenker Group "Into the Arena" (1980)

So now these next five go more into "guitar hero" territory. And the first one is "Into the Arena" from the Michael Schenker Group. I've always loved this instrumental — I even have the demos for this album, which had Billy Sheehan on bass and Denny Carmassi on drums. They ended up not doing the album and [drummer] Simon Phillips came onboard. I love that whole first Michael Schenker Group album, but "Into the Arena" was always such a great one. It's just an intense hard rock/heavy metal instrumental.

Yngwie Malmsteen "Evil Eye" (1984)

The whole Rising Force album is primarily instrumental — I could have picked "Black Star" or "Far Beyond the Sun," which are both classics. But I'm going with "Evil Eye" because I first heard that song when Yngwie was still in Alcatrazz, on the Live Sentence album. That was like the first taste of what was to come with Rising Force. I was really, really a fan of "Evil Eye" when he was in Alcatrazz, and then when he put out the Rising Force album, it was great to hear it re-recorded in the studio. And Yngwie had Barriemore Barlow on drums, who I was a big fan of from when he was in Jethro Tull. So yeah, almost anything from the Rising Force album could be on this list, but I love "Evil Eye."

Al Di Meola "Race With Devil on Spanish Highway" (1977)

Al Di Meola isn't really hard rock or heavy metal. He was more a part of the jazz-fusion world. But this song was the first time I had heard any kind of fusion guitarist playing really heavy and doing, like, harmonic minor and half-step riffs. It was heavy stuff, and with these crazy flamenco things. To me these are things that you would hear in Yngwie's vocabulary later on. But the first time I ever heard it was "Race With Devil on Spanish Highway."

Steve Vai "The Attitude Song" (1984)

I was debating whether to pick this or "Blue Powder" from [1990's] Passion and Warfare. I went with "The Attitude Song" because that was the first song I heard when Steve put out Flex-Able. I was already a fan of his because he was in Zappa's band at that time, but you hear "The Attitude Song" and it just kind of rips your head off. And you can hum every single guitar line in the song — that's how memorable and melodic it is. But at the same time, it's also really technical. It was a big, big favorite of mine back in the Berklee days.

Dixie Dregs "Odyssey" (1978)

The Dregs, almost their entire catalog is instrumental. But this was always my favorite. And they were always a big instrumental influence on us in Dream Theater — Steve Morse is one of John Petrucci's biggest guitar heroes. I've actually gotten to cover "Odyssey" twice. Dream Theater did it on that Black Clouds & Silver Linings bonus disc, and then a few years later Steve [Morse] and I played it together on the first Flying Colors tour. To actually play it with Steve was so cool and such an honor.