When news filtered through on the metal interwebs about a new ‘progressive metal supergroup’ featuring two former Dream Theater alumni – drummer Mike Portnoy and keyboarder Derek Sherinian – I’m bound to say I gave a shrug and thought ‘meh’. Sons of Apollo – for that is the name of the rumour made flesh – have made me put that word into a big, steaming, humble pie and consume it whole.
What an album.
From the grinding heaviosity of the album opener God of the Sun to the final chords of closer Opus Maximus, there is barely a moment when you won’t be looking at whoever you’re listening to the album with with a ‘did I just hear that?’ expression on your face. It’s really that good.
God of the Sun is as fine an opening statement of intent as I’ve heard in a while. Vocalist Jeff Scott Soto handles the maelstrom effortlessly (this is by some way the heaviest thing he’s been involved with since his days as a Puerto Rican viking in Rising Force), more than holding his own against the relentless riff assault of former Guns n’Roses man Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal. Which just leaves bassist Billy Sheehan to be taken account of. You know Billy, formerly of Talas, David Lee Roth and still of Mr. Big. He’s here as well, propping up the bottom end with some frightening playing.
Coming Home is more succinct than the opening track. Punchy and to the point, it shows the band aren’t all about length. If you see what I mean. Signs of the Time melds the best parts of the first two songs, and includes a frankly astounding vocal performance from Soto.
Labyrinth is heavy progressive metal, all shiny, jagged edges and improbably smooth musicianship. It’s often easy to forget just how good a drummer Portnoy is – as a non drummer I’ve often thought he relies too much on Neil Peart fills, but like I say, what do I know? – and his drumming on this track is utterly stellar. The production helps, with every bass drum kick and cymbal splash given full vent in the crystal clear mix. To say you feel under attack whilst listening to this album is an understatement.
Derek Sherinian also stars on Labyrinth, tossing out a John Lord- style solo before Thal and Sheehan get their chance to lock together and shine. Thal solos like a madman with satisfying results too.
Alive features some delightfully bass heavy riffage (Sheehan really bolsters the low frequencies so well) and more tasteful soloing from keyboard and guitar. And Soto? You knows it.
Lost in Oblivion is just, well, sheer madness. Out of a clattering cacophony at the start of the song – air raid siren keys, jagged switchback drumming and caterwaul riff hysteria – the track develops into an unforgiving double-bass inspired hammer blow, Sheehan roaming all over the fretboard whilst Soto spits out the verses. Of course, there’s another hair-raising chorus to help make sense of it all, the stop-on-a-dime juxtaposition of mayhem and melody underlining (if any is really needed) just how insanely talented these men are.
Figaro’s Whore gives sixty four seconds of respite, Sherinain’s epic overdriven Hammond setting up penultimate track Divine Addiction superbly. Soto lets out a Coverdale-inspired ‘whoo-ooh’ and then we’re off into a frankly astounding journey into the world of Deep Purple, Uriah Heep, Rainbow and Whitesnake. This is classic rock as it should be played in 2017, acknowledging the old Gods for sure but bringing new vitality and inspiration to the table in equal measure. Majestic.
All of which brings us to closing track Opus Maximus. As its name suggests, it’s a fairly close relative of the track – Magnum Opus – which closes out Kansas’ classic Leftoverture album. At nearly eleven minutes in length, it’s a sprawling, cinematic behemoth of a track – but it needs to be to accommodate the talent on show – relentlessly powered by Portnoy’s emphatic drumming (I take back my earlier Rush jibe), the track weaves it’s serpentine way through a myriad of moods and themes, each designed to give someone in the band a chance to shine. Often all four of the instrumentalists take this opportunity at the same time, leaving a dizzying imprint on the listener’s ears. Of course it’s shameless showing off, but why the hell shouldn’t they? I’ve no idea how I do it – I’ve developed arthritic fingers just playing air bass – but I’m bloody sure I’m glad they do.
Staggeringly impressive without ever becoming a tuneless morass of technique, this is just the sort of album I want from a ‘progressive metal supergroup’. Astounding stuff.
Psychotic Symphony is released today on InsideOut Music