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Psychotic Symphony - Sons Of Apollo

This long anticipated release from some of the biggest names in hard rock and progressive metal is sure to rattle a few cages. The hardcore Dream Theater fan that will accept nothing more than the most intricate of prog song composition might be a bit thrown by the accessibility of this material, and the melodic rock fan that wants a verse-chorus-verse structure and a strong hook might be shaken by the proggy stretches of instrumental acrobatics. For myself, I’m not sure that I’ve ever heard an album that balances the “accessible progressive” line quite like this record.  

Progressive rock and metal has always been an acquired taste for many listeners. I believe that people are often turned off by the self indulgence that can happen when you get virtuoso-type musicians in a studio together. There is often a stigma of snobbery that can be cast upon the proceedings. When I tell you that Dream Theater alums Mike Portnoy (drums) and Derek Sherinian (keys) are partnered with Billy Sheehan (bass) and Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal (guitar), you might be fearful of severe song derailment. Telling you that the brilliant Jeff Scott Soto lends his voice to seven of the nine tracks here might just put that train back on the tracks for you. I’m here to let you know that not only does Soto keep this locomotive firmly on the tracks, but he provides enough high voltage to power this record into the Album of the Year realm.

Photo by Hristo Shindov

First, let me address the prog fans out there. Don’t worry, you’ll get enough drum fills, keyboard runs, and guitar solos to keep you smiling. The first song on this record follows a fairly straight forward structure for the first five minutes; but instead of ending there, the band decides to take a progressive turn for the next four and a half minutes and dazzles us with a soaring keyboard and vocal interlude, which leads to a guitar, drum, and keyboard break. The song eventually circles back around and is finalized with the initial melody firmly intact. The song clocks in at a hefty 11:12. Progressive bands can often lose sight of “the song” when they get lost in those instrumental breaks. This doesn’t happen with Sons Of Apollo. When drummer Mike Portnoy explained to me that singer Jeff Scott Soto was “the glue that holds all of this together,” he was spot on. It is Soto’s patience and consistency here that really makes this work. He doesn’t try to over-sing during his parts, and he sounds comfortable when he retreats for the instrumental runs. His sense of melody is extraordinary too, as the choruses and hooks rely almost entirely on Soto’s vocal inflections rather than instrumental rhythms. 
For the rock fan looking for a more straight forward approach, this material should please you as well. The only thing that might be a sensory overload is the instrumental (“Opus Maximus”) that closes the album, otherwise you will find plenty of rhythm to tap a foot to, and enough melody to find your hook and sing out strong.

Some of my worries going into this, aside from accessibility, was the playing of both Bumblefoot on guitar and Sheehan on bass. I only knew Bumblefoot from seeing him live and his stint in Guns N’ Roses. I knew he was a brilliant player, but I did wonder if he would have the right stylings to fit into something this serious and progressive. This is “grown up” music, not the stereotypical beer-guzzling L.A. metal. Let me just say that Bumblefoot is nothing short of stunning in his role here. He plays many different styles, and they are all perfectly artistic and classy, with a significant amount of crunch as well. 
And, my worries with Billy Sheehan are always the same. The guy is one of the best to ever touch the instrument, but he has an extremely distinctive sound and style that can often ride over the top and be a distraction to the song for me. I can’t tear my ears away from his playing sometimes, which causes a certain discomfort when I listen to some of his previous work. Like Bumblefoot though, Sheehan is incredible here. He doesn’t overplay or stand out too much, instead he adds a bombastic backdrop for the other players to splash their color onto.

If you ever wished for a Dream Theater that was a bit more accessible with a deeper, grittier vocal, your wish has come to fruition. These are impressive compositions that show off the virtuosity of its players without exploiting the song structures. This is a rare feat, one that is executed perfectly on Psychotic Symphony.


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