In 2017, progressive metal fans rejoiced when former Dream Theater members Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian, along with legendary bassist Billy Sheehan, formed Sons of Apollo, which also features guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal (Guns N’ Roses) and veteran vocalist Jeff Scott Soto, who has logged time with Journey and Yngwie Malmsteen’s Rising Force. The result, Psychotic Symphony, which gained YouTube traction with such songs as “Coming Home” and “Alive,” proved to be more than just a one-off, and Soto enthusiastically says as much.
“We absolutely jumped into this as an ongoing commitment from all of us that we were going to follow up on and treat it, with all intents and purposes, as a real band,” says Soto. “With the caliber of who we have and what we could come up with, we knew we wanted to dive into this thing fully committed, and not as a one-off.”
While they hadn’t played together as a band until after they recorded Psychotic Symphony, Soto says their chemistry led to them making a second Sons of Apollo album, MMXX (pronounced “20/20”). Released on Jan. 17, the album debuted on multiple Billboard charts dated Feb. 1, including Tastemakers (No. 10), Heatseekers Albums (No. 11) and Hard Rock Albums (No. 21).
“The brotherhood we were building as a band, we realized we wanted to encapsulate that quickly,” he remembers. “So we [stopped touring] in October of 2018, and by January, the guys were already getting together and starting to put the music ideas together. The album itself, we kind of took our time with. We didn’t want to rush it and knew we had big shoes to fill following the first album, but also that we weren’t going to go too far past the foundation of what we had set for the band.”
Those who enjoyed the technical yet riffy Psychotic Symphony will find plenty to like about its follow-up, for the confidence of having played together for over 80 dates is the main difference that informs MMXX. “I don’t think we strayed too far,” observes Soto. “If you put both albums together as a double album, it would work. The only difference is that I feel that I put a little more personality into the vocal parts. It was a little homogenized on the first album, in terms of playing it safe. I didn’t toy around too much with straying from the main ideas.
“On this album, I knew exactly what I wanted to do,” he continues. “I knew where we were headed as a band. This time, it was a no-brainer that I should just go for it. The first album was, again, the foundation and the skeletal embryonic stage of the band. Now it’s solid and I’ve watched it flourish, and I went in knowing what to do.”
Kicking off with the one-two punch of “Goodbye Divinity” and “Wither to Black,” MMXX indeed sounds more self-assured than the debut, no doubt due to discovering one another’s strengths in their time on the road. Other highlights include the piano-driven single “Desolate July” — a tribute to late musician David Z (who played bass with Adrenaline Mob and Trans-Siberian Orchestra), who died in a 2017 car accident — and album closer “New World Today,” a 16-minute prog-metal tour de force. The band’s musicianship is on display, but never at the expense of the songs themselves.
And while Soto is given a wide berth as far as his lyrics and vocal delivery, he’s not involved with creating the music. “Absolutely zero,” he states when asked how much input he had. “I have no place and no right putting my opinion into a room with the level of these guys and what they’re able to pull together. I respect and love what they do so much that I wouldn’t even try. Maybe later, when we’re pushing toward other aspects, but at this point, these guys have this thing down. There’s nothing I could add or say that’s going to make it better.”
Of the songs on MMXX that Soto is looking most forward to singing, he points to “New World Today,” which reminds him of classic rock like Rush’s 2112, where one song comprised an entire side of an album. “It was so cool, and I wondered how you could come up with one song that has so many bells and whistles and is that long, but keeps you enthralled from beginning to end,” he recalls. “That song encompasses my career as my ‘2112 Overture,’ my ‘Bohemian Rhapsody.’ I listen to it from beginning to end, and it doesn’t feel like 16 minutes to me. I want it to continue going because it’s just so interesting and so cool.”
Sons of Apollo began touring North America on Jan. 23 in Sacramento, Calif., and will finish on Feb. 8 in Englewood, N.J. This will be followed by runs in Europe and South America, and Soto says more dates are coming. “Every show we play, we want to be effective toward the band and what we’re trying to say,” he says. “We hope that seeds are being planted, and even before this tour is over, we’re adding more shows later this year.”
Soto explains that the respective members are so busy with their own projects that the band’s activities have to be booked months in advance. Even Sons of Apollo resulted from a prior project — Portnoy, Sherinian and Sheehan had played in PSMS, an instrumental act with guitarist Tony MacAlpine. Soto has his own self-titled band that has released three albums (he just completed his seventh total solo record.) He’s also in Swedish band W.E.T., which is working on its fourth album.
“We plan little pockets and windows where it comes to write and record,” he says. “For the first tour, we rehearsed for a week because we had so much to pull together and corral, but that was more about making sure we had the chemistry and not be a bunch of statues up there re-creating the album. Now having that under our belts, we know the kind of show we can create, so [this time], rehearsals [were] a little shorter.”
Check out the remaining Sons of Apollo MMXX North American dates. (For European and South American dates, go here.)
Jan. 31 Arcada Theatre @ St. Charles, Ill.
Feb. 1 The Music Factory @ Battle Creek, Mich.
Feb. 2 Mod Club Theatre @ Toronto
Feb. 3 Corona Theatre @ Montreal
Feb. 5 Paradise Rock Club @ Boston
Feb. 6 Gramercy Theatre @ New York
Feb. 7 Penn’s Peak @ Jim Thorpe, Pa.
Feb. 8 Bergen Performing Arts Center @ Englewood, N.J.