ARTICLE AND PHOTOS BY TONY MOLINA
MAY 3 | LOS ANGELES—Named after the Olympian god of music, poetry, and truth, progressive metal band Sons of Apollo have taken on a massive musical pledge to live up to such a grand title. And upon entering L.A.'s historic Belasco Theater lobby, with its gold gilded Spanish Renaissance design, the glorious atmosphere is a perfect welcome for the reigning gods of pure musical intelligence and skill. We are talking about the masters of rock music instrumentation in every aspect, reaping rock's core conquest: to achieve otherworldly talent.
To say the least, keyboardist Derek Sherinian, drummer Mike Portnoy, guitarist Ron Bumblefoot Thal, bassist Billy Sheehan, and vocalist Jeff Scott Soto are keepers of the flame for the brilliant prog-metal virtuosi generation. The genius and flair gathered here is surely one of music's greatest unifications, featuring performers who have reshaped rock language, titling themselves as Sons of Apollo. As for the band's origin, Thal explains: "We're no strangers to each other. Portnoy, Sheehan, Sherinian, and I have been jamming for years, from NAMM shows to our metal/prog side music projects to even being the house band at Eddie Trunk's 30th anniversary live show. In 2017 Mike Portnoy finally emailed me, saying, 'Hey, you know how we always talked about doing a band? Well, Derek and I have a vision.' Their vision was Sons of Apollo. So forming a band was just a matter of time." And tonight L.A. gets a debut performance of this new supergroup before they embark on a summer world tour.
Tonight is a spectacle that has been painfully longed for. At a moment in rock history that exists in unchallenged directions, with long-term creative hiatuses and familiar formulas, Sons of Apollo have awarded us with an astounding, elevated triumph of rock music, and now they get to make a live statement with their vision of prog-metal: debut album, Psychotic Symphony.
The production result is startling. Imagine Dark Side of the Moon, Discipline, Hemispheres, Weather Report 8:30 Live, Fragile, and Master of Puppets, threaded with the imagination of Sgt. Pepper's. Psychotic Symphony is a rock aficionado's dream wish. Never abstract, the album's musical path guides one along in the beauty of progressive rock language and color. The unworldly final mix is an imaginary sonic design touching upon classic rock essence, enveloped in futuristic tones and a fantastic, theatrical wall of sound. The effect is a brave approach, with unexpected trips into dreamlike and psychedelic nuances that vividly paint unconventional instrumentals and song bridges. Never forgotten are the psychotically lush, complex riff action and soaring atmospheres—all done with remarkable Swiss-timing precision.
Despite the album's intricacies, Thal states the process was relatively simplified and quick. "Mike, Derek, and I started shooting riffs and song ideas that led us into jumping into the studio. Billy got off tour and joined us halfway through. We wrote and recorded the album's majority in just 10 days. Upon completion of the music, Jeff laid down his vocals, as Derek and I polished overdubs and solos at our own studios, and that was it." Thal illustrates the band's innate studio chemistry by explaining: "We exist with trust and respect foremost, which gives us the ease to build off each other's ideas. Therefore, our process is writing and recording together in the room."
Surprisingly, this monumental first album, Psychotic Symphony, can be deemed the band's "opus," which would otherwise be a record midway through in any other band's career. The ambitious result is thick with symphonic prog intensity on an epic movie scale. No joke. The question is, can the aristocracy of virtuosity successfully stage Psychotic Symphony's elaborate album formula of immense performance and tech design?
From minute one, tonight's ride never stops. The theater turned into an atmospheric shock with the LP's intro track, "God of the Sun," as Sons of Apollo's swirling entrance actualized the album's wall of musical might from the explosive stage. Sherinian theatrically gave the LP its breath of life from a stack of synths that built up the night's musical fireworks. Portnoy's thunderous drum fills fired up the engines, as bassist Sheehan and guitarist Thal locked in and mirrored their fret work into the song's dizzying four-piece arpeggio riff synchronization. Soto's soaring vocals topped this brilliant symphonic attack from hell.
The live complexity is a counter return of blazing fire from one another. The sparks fly when instruments sync to explore the distance of fierce musical dueling, each with their weapon of choice. A challenging track, "God of the Sun" just seems like a warm-up, as the band segues into its monstrous bridge, with Portnoy conducting and leading with high-speed double bass grooves that build up like a peaked orchestra. This is a well-oiled musical machine.
Throughout the set, Portnoy easily finds his place with his drumming dexterity, as he is key to the language spoken here. His fierce touch reflects melody, or he perfectly becomes the melody. Big drumming's role shines tonight and is essential in order for Sons of Apollo's musical equation to mesh and excel with nothing wasted. Portnoy is spectacular, involving big fills and dazzling odd-time signatures with purpose to accent the music. His busy effort is all reason, not mere exposition. It's the very reason Portnoy is royalty in drum lineage.
Astoundingly, Soto's vocal range always reclaims the entire mountain among this crowded musical summit, as a singer's role in this lineup is a tall order to stand up against. The uplifting track "Alive" allows Soto to own the stage, with his dominating vocal presence prevailing through the orchestra enveloping him. Few can sing against a powerhouse of instrumentation, yet he always reacts with a vocal finale to explain it all, and distinguish Sons of Apollo as a rarity that can do both intricacy and harmony in their musical statement.
The night draws upon a much missed display of wizardry within the rock stage: a supercharged synthesizer rig in all its glory. Sherinian's work on the keys continues from where Emerson, Lord, and Wakeman left off, but now Sherinian must have his own category. His versatility shows that he's way beyond, swapping leads with guitar, drums, and bass—and reminding us that keyboards are a force of nature as he retaliates with his own firing solos. Sherinian's magical showcase is an extended keys solo from the album, the instrumental "Figaro's Whore." The electrifying solo gave nods to rock's best in key and synth work, but expressing zero limits of this role, as his mind surpasses the logic of Emerson, or even Hans Zimmer.
Sheehan took off into interstellar space with a spellbinding solo during the track "Devine Addiction," stupefying the venue. His impressive double-neck Yamaha was the foundation for Sons of Apollo's "taking lead" concept, syncing bold and dynamic lead riffs on the track "Labrynth." The song challenges the entire lineup with the task of bonding in an acrobatic showmanship of musical scales and solos, while trying to maintain the integrity of the song. It's very tough to do, yet Sheehan was perfect throughout the musical maze. But this is where Sons of Apollo can claim their superiority as their technical work easily lets this complex album blossom onstage.
When the track "Signs of the Time" is performed, Thal's guitar work clearly establishes him as the band's secret weapon. The track displays his diversity and sophistication with guitar tone and attack. His impressiveness lies in controlling his momentum and never letting the energy onstage get away from him, as he expresses a range that goes from calm jazzy smoothness to rage and explosiveness. His speed technique is more violin fluidness than brash swagger. Thal's unique Vigier double-neck guitar's fretless option raises the stakes further with experimental slide tones and unorthodox string dynamics, as he constantly searches to surpass expectations. Tonight he's a magical act very few can ever realize.
Of his busy role onstage, Thal explains: "We wrote this music so that part isn't ever an issue. My challenge is coordinating sound changes on the pedal board with seamlessly switching fretted and fretless necks, plus selecting guitar control knobs while singing. And while comfortably running onstage! Hitting the road and playing every night is the only way to get that down."
The climatic power track "I'm Coming Home" was the resonating outro, reassuring the majesty and grandiose performance of rock's new supergroup, who surely deserve the name Sons of Apollo. It's difficult to realize this is only five humans madly at work here, and the band never forgets their early influences while also challenging the future. Their design features new horizons of sound, embarking on a cinematic journey to accompany their godlike skill. They are musical gods who delivered their complex, epic debut album with ease and brilliance. This is the band for those who embrace the past, present, and future of rock music.
Through all the hard work, Thal still finds positivity in what the road will bring. "We're a rock band at heart, and we're having fun. I think that comes across on tour. You can't hide it when you're having fun, and you can't fake it either. No matter what's going on in our lives, for those two hours onstage we're having a great time."
Sons of Apollo will travel to Europe, Japan, and Russia for the Psychotic Symphony World Tour from June 22 through October 16.