Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian will be names instantly familiar to Progressive Metal fans as alumni of Dream Theater; their former drummer and keyboardist, respectively. For listeners searching for what’s been missing from the last three Dream Theater albums, Sons of Apollo just might be a godsend (pun intended). Portnoy and Sherinian have joined forces with Billy Sheehan on bass, also standing alongside Portnoy in The Winery Dogs; Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, formerly of Guns ‘N’ Roses on guitar; and vocalist Jeff Scott Soto, previously of Journey and Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force to create a band, and an album, of epic proportions.
Sons of Apollo’s debut album Psychotic Symphony opens with its strongest track, ‘God of the Sun.’ The intro has a mystical feel, incorporating the sound of the sitar amongst other Indian and Arabian influences. The sound is very evocative of the desert, as the title suggests. Sherinian’s keyboards come in powerfully, with a similar tone and progression to Dream Theater’s ‘Lines in the Sand,’ but more dramatic given the already established atmosphere. Sherinian’s sound has grown since his Dream Theater days, but is still easily recognisable.
Thal’s guitars blend perfectly with the Arabian feel before chunkier riffs and drums kick in. By comparison with Sherinian, it takes a few more moments for Portnoy’s style to become outright recognisable; he seems to have picked up a lot more influences, which makes sense given his prolific catalogue of work. Sheehan’s bass has a strong presence also, kicking the track along nicely. Soto’s vocals are clear, but have an edge to their style a little like Russell Allen (Symphony X, Adrenaline Mob) meets Magnus Ekwall (The Quill). Nevertheless, Soto is distinctive and would not easily be replaced as he really comes to the fore and leads the track well.
There’s a good sense of storytelling, and in this sense the track is a bit reminiscent of Dream Theater’s Systematic Chaos, particularly the tracks ‘In the Presence of Enemies’ and ‘The Dark Eternal Night.’ ‘God of the Sun’ is filled with bitter enemies, prophecies, allegories of power and corruption. Given the content, the track is not afraid to bring it down into slow, ominous moments, with the changes of pace highlighting the boldness of the narrative. Some of these darker moments are deeply evocative, and showcase Sherinian’s ability to carry the track. The harsh, aggressive section to follow is very Portnoy, and reminds the listener of his prior influence on Dream Theater. Finally the Arabian theme returns, powerful and bold. The vocals are stirring and emotive, particularly as backed by the keys at the climax of the track.
‘Coming Home’ has a strong intro led by keys and a bold scream as vocal entry. The track is much more bass-driven than ‘God of the Sun, and is more of a straight-up Metal banger that seems to come from Portnoy’s Avenged Sevenfold or Adrenaline Mob side. The track includes a cool guitar solo from Thal, but unfortunately he doesn’t quite reach Sherinian’s chops throughout the album. ‘Coming Home’ seems like it will be a crowd-pleaser live, inviting clapping and singing along.
‘Signs of the Time’ is another very different track, with a heavy intro that almost channels Meshuggah through the bass. Overall however the track sits somewhere between the Adrenaline Mob and Dream Theater space, perhaps more like Symphony X. At any rate, it strikes a good balance between Prog and more mainstream Metal elements, moving seamlessly between being heavy and bass-driven, and soaringly melodic with something of a Deep Purple vibe. There are also moments where it almost feels like the Arabian influence is still there under the guitars.
The instrumental bridge continues to channel some of the heavy and progressive elements of Meshuggah, but they come across quite differently when lead by Sherinian. He makes the journey more palatable, and able to lead into a much more meandering and progressive section where we get some really nice, even soothing guitar work. Overall the guitars and keyboards work really nicely to build a wall of melodic, progressive sounds.
The next track, ‘Labyrinth,’ open with an epic, cinematic, almost symphonic intro. This composition style lends urgency to the lyrics, with the whole package seeming like something that could have been written for Dream Theater’s James LaBrie. Soto doesn’t hit the high notes like LaBrie, so he doesn’t land it quite as plaintively as LaBrie might have. Given the way the track seems written for high vocals though, there’s a certain Queensryche feel to it. The brief instrumental interlude leads into a very Dream Theater-esque, perhaps Octavarium-style section, while Soto’s vocals keep the song more grounded in a solid Metal place. This is a theme for the album overall in fact, with Sherinian pushing the sound in a more progressive direction, and Soto keeping it grounded. The balance generally plays well.
‘Alive’ is essentially the ballad of the album, with all the ups and downs as such. It’s a more downbeat track, but even so has a pretty pounding chorus, with something of a Black Label Society vibe. Ultimately it’s a more mainstream track, and consequently one of the weakest on the album. ‘Lost in Oblivion’ is quite a contrast following it, with fast, urgent keyboards leading into relentless Prog insanity. The track is powerful and thumping, but oddly not particularly compelling. The middle section of the album, comprising this track and ‘Alive,’ remains the weakest; though the vocals in ‘Lost in Oblivion’ do bring a lot to the track.
We then come to ‘Figaro’s Whore,’ essentially one minute of Sherinian noodling. Honestly the track seems rather pointless, and more of a novelty addition on a Dream Theater demo than something that belonged on this album.
‘Divine Addiction’ goes to another very different place, strongly reminiscent of Deep Purple, right down to the Ian Gillan-style vocals. You can really hear ‘Perfect Strangers’ from the Deep Purple corpus in particular, and the track is very much a heavy answer to 60s / 70s Prog Rock. By contrast, Thal’s guitar solo on this track is pure 80s, drawing on Malmsteen among others.
The final track is the instrumental ‘Opus Maximus,’ which is a powerful track as the title suggests, but given the strength of ‘God of the Sun,’ not the absolute best on the album. It opens with a Southern drawl to the bass that brings Black Label Society to mind again, but is much darker and more ominous. Sheehan’s bass continues to have a strong presence next to Portnoy’s frenetic drumming, again raising the spectre of Meshuggah, while Sherinian’s keyboards are intense and dramatic. Again the feeling is cinematic and climactic. ‘Opus Maximus’ is a longer track with room to breathe, taking the time to wind down through a gentler section that is soon overtaken by jarring, dissonant keys and bass. The guitar is equally as maddening, more threatening than anywhere else on the album. Once again we hear shades of Systematic Chaos, this time ‘The Dark Eternal Night,’ and there does seem to be a sense of trying to capture the guitar work of Dream Theater’s John Petrucci. Extended fast acid trip section to follow interjects, reminiscent of Pink Floyd. After covering a lot of territory, ‘Opus Maximus’ ends on an ominous note, as though in this epic, evil has won.
Psychotic Symphony is a vast album covering a range of musical ground, and though it has its weaker moments, overall it is an absolute triumph for all concerned. Sons of Apollo have established themselves as a major and relevant player with this debut release, and their 2018 tour will no doubt be highly anticipated the world over.
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