Prog supergroup Sons Of Apollo made an instant impact in 2017 with their debut Psychotic Symphony. Three years ater they returned to prove it wasn't a flash in the pan with second album MMXX. Prog sat down with Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian to find out how easy it was second time around.
“Sons Of Apollo is definitely a five-headed beast,” Mike Portnoy declares dramatically, in reference to the band’s lengthy 2018 tour. “Each and every one of us, each night on stage, regardless of how small the place was or how many people were there, delivered as if we were the heavyweight champions of the world. It was a five-ringed circus of musical muscle, and I think the crowds at each gig reacted to that.”
The musical muscle that Portnoy describes is not merely optimistic hyperbole. As well as Portnoy’s drum credentials with Dream Theater, Transatlantic and a raft of other side-projects, the talents of Derek Sherinian (keyboards, ex-Dream Theater), guitarist Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal (Guns N’ Roses), Mr Big bassist Billy Sheehan and singer Jeff Scott Soto (Yngwie Malmsteen, Journey) are a musical force few bands can compete with. Sons Of Apollo’s debut album, Psychotic Symphony, possessed an enviable swagger, mixing hard rock in the vein of Van Halen with progressive metal to produce something truly innovative. Their tour showcased that talent in a live arena. But with the band name being unfamiliar to many, they also had to hit some smaller venues, which, for veterans who have been touring for more than three decades in various bands, could have been a struggle.
“Yeah, I mean there are two levels to that,” Portnoy explains. “On one level was the business side, which was having to swallow your pride and start from scratch, going to clubs and playing to smaller audiences and do the groundwork to build it up. That has been the case with any of these bands that I work with. When it’s your first time out, you’ve got to really dig your heels in and get to work. It was no different for Sons Of Apollo. Regardless of how big any of the individual names were, the band name was brand new, so we had to really get out there and work our asses off.
“The other side of the coin was the great fan reaction. I knew this band was going to be a monster on stage, and I think we were. It’s not a traditional prog band, where everybody is just playing their music with their heads down, concentrating on their instruments. That’s not the case with this band. This band brings the spectacle of Van Halen or Guns N’ Roses into the prog platform. It’s definitely a colliding of two different kinds of world.”
As might be expected, that elongated tour created an on-the-road camaraderie, with a tightening of their sound and the band becoming even more aware of their collective capabilities. Consequently, the writing process for their second, latest album, MMXX, became a somewhat simpler task than the first one.
“Oh, for sure,” Sherinian exclaims. “I didn’t even know Ron until the first day of recording Psychotic Symphony, so for all the music that I’d written for the studio, I had no idea how Ron played. Now, after doing a hundred shows with him and knowing how amazing he is, it opens a lot of compositional possibilities for me. The sky’s the limit. There’s nothing this guy can’t play.”
“That’s the case with any band that you do a second album with,” Portnoy says. “I’ve been finding that over recent years, as I’ve started so many bands from scratch. The first album is usually the experiment. Then you go on tour and spend time together where you get to really gel and get to know each other. So when you get around to making the second record, there’s a familiarity with everybody else’s personalities and styles. It makes a second album that much smoother, because you’re much more comfortable with each other.”
The album was written over a period of just a few days, at Portnoy’s Pennsylvania home, where ideas that had been sent to the him were reviewed and slotted into potential songs.
“Derek and Bumblefoot got together at my place for about a week and a half,” Portnoy explains. “We took all of those singular ideas and fleshed them out into fully arranged songs. The three of us worked on writing and arranging the music, and once we had that process done, that was when Jeff began writing lyrics and melodies. I always play the role of arranger or musical director. That’s not just the case here with Sons Of Apollo, but it is the case in most of the bands that I play with. It was pretty similar to the way the first album was done. I felt that the chemistry was really strong from the first time around, that we didn’t want to fuck with it.”
Unlike numerous acts that have suffered from the debilitating and career-stalling ‘second-album syndrome’, MMXX advances Sons Of Apollo’s already distinctive sound and approach. There are tracks such as Goodbye Divinity, Wither To Black and Fall To Ascend which, given good fortune, could succeed on radio. That aspect of their sound is counterbalanced by the more ambitious and elongated tracks New World Today and King Of Delusion, which have all the hallmarks of future classics. That upward trajectory and sparkle on this new album isn’t lost on Sherinian.
“I really feel that the new record is a continuation of the last one, but everything is more,” he offers. “It’s heavier, more progressive, and the songs are better written, with more time being put into it. I’m really pleased with the writing, and I’m really getting more comfortable in the production chair with every record I produce.”
If we’re being honest, there are certain prog bands’ ‘epics’ that sound contrived, with ill-fitting segments of music seemingly stapled together clumsily. So how do Sons Of Apollo succeed in putting together a seamless lengthy track, such as the 16-minute New World Today?
“We would just put it together slowly,” says Sherinian. “Mike would arrange it, and as a team we figured it out. It was like making a building; we got to the top, and it was done. That is another cool thing about Sons Of Apollo, and actually Dream Theater as well. I want to give them and Mike the credit, in that they had a willingness to be fearless and the audacity to go into unknown territory. They take a chance, with no regard for whether it is commercial, and that willingness really comes across in Sons Of Apollo.”
With MMXX, and a recognition that their shows are quickly building the band’s reputation, they seem destined to continue progressing their sound and building a fan base. At the time of their debut, in unguarded moments some of the members suggested that the band might become a full-time operation, rather than a part-time side-project. Given their development, do they still believe such a switch could be possible?
“Well, the politically correct answer – and the answer that the label would love for me to give – would be: ‘Sure. Yes, that would be great,’” Portnoy says, laughing. “But if I’m being honest, I can’t picture it. A band like Dream Theater started when we were teenagers, and it took 20 or 30 years of building and development to get to a level where you could literally just sustain yourself as one band. Sure, with a hypothetical dream of if we’d started this band 20 or 30 years ago and just focused for two decades, then the potential is limitless. It’s just not a reality, though, as we don’t have the time.”
“I was talking to Zakk Wylde about this,” Sherinian says, “and his band has built up over 20 years, to the point now where he’s playing great shows and is doing killer business. The problem is that we are all in our 50s, so by the time Sons Of Apollo is kicking ass we’re going to be old men. That’s the issue there. So we’re just going to do the best that we can.”