January 15, 2020 Sons of Apollo – MMXX (Album Review)
Made up of Progressive and Hard Rock veterans, Sons of Apollo has barely made fans wait two years for the follow-up to their 2017 debut Psychotic Symphony, in fact, the band even released a live effort, Live with the Plovdiv Psychotic Symphony, in August of 2019. Now they are back for more with their sophomore album MMXX set for release Friday, January 17th, 2020 through InsideOut/Sony.
A super lineup consisting of Drummer Mike Portnoy, Bassist Billy Sheehan, Guitarist Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal, Keyboardist Derek Sherinian, and Vocalist Jeff Scott Soto, Sons of Apollo has a lot to offer. As many know, Portnoy was a founding member of Dream Theater, eventually departing the progressive legends in 2010 a dozen albums spread across nearly three decades. Sherinian, after working with Alice Cooper, joined Portnoy in Dream Theater in the ’90s, replacing original Keyboardist Kevin Moore. Thal, a member of Guns N’ Roses during the Chinese Democracy era, takes a break from his extensive solo work, as well as parallel supergroup Art of Anarchy. Sheehan, the living legend, brings his bass chops and impressive resume (Talas, David Lee Roth, Mr Big) again to the table. Which leaves us to Soto who returns amidst his varied projects, including Trans-Siberian Orchestra and his eponymous solo band. As each member is a long-established musician with in-home recording studios, the band took their time recording and reviewing their respective parts before bringing completed work back to the group.
Bookended by massive opener “Goodbye Divinity” and epic closer “New World Today,” MMXX is another impressive work from an all-star Hard Rock team, one that manages to walk the line between technical ability and soulful execution. Aside from the sheer and obvious skill, the most noticeable part of this project is the wavelength and intensity the members share. In a typical setting, any one of these musicians could outshine their surrounding talent, but in this context, all bets are off, and all contributions are important. Soto may have instantly recognizable pipes, but he never takes the attention away from his bandmates, as a Hard Rock lead singer might be expected to do. In a similar vein, Sherinian avoids filling the frequent role of keyboards adding soft, distant color, or worse, pomp and camp, and instead appears here on equal footing with his other members. Sons of Apollo has neither lead nor rhythm players; everyone takes a serious turn in all roles.
“Goodbye Divinity” not only literally starts the album, but also gave fans their first taste of the new records due to the corresponding music video credited to hard-rock veteran director Vicente Cordero. It is again worth noting the refreshing efficacy of keyboards integrated as a proper lead instrument here, right as the album begins. As with each of the songs on MMXX, the individual instruments spend their time playfully but seriously dueling for attention and solo time with wild abandon, and the vocal work from Soto is at its most aggressive here.
As noted, the album closes with “New World Today,” a track wrought with enough themes and bombast to be a distinct work on its own. The slow build-up from Thal and Sherinian mix well with the even, subdued vocals from Soto to create a lush aural environment. In between these tracks are powerful stunners like “Wither to Black,” a track that traces the very definition of hard rock, while raising pulses and melting faces, “Fall to Ascend,” which dives headlong into progressive/melodic universe, but never feels overwrought or gratuitous, and “Desolate July,” which moves past being the mandatory ballad into a powerful shift in tone that builds up smoothly enough to properly introduce its successor, “Kings of Delusion.”
The fabulous opening of penultimate track “Resurrection Day” puts all band members on alert, as each instrument takes its turn picking the listener up off the canvas repeatedly. The track sets the stage for closer “New World Today,” which follows a similar path with larger and wider progressions.
All in all, Soto holds his own on this album, and it is refreshing to hear a vocalist sing with his compatriots, rather than simply over them; similarly, Sherinian is also an equal partner in the proceedings, rather than relegated to a fluffy supporting role or adding eerie atmospherics. Even the usually reserved Billy Sheehan begins to takes the reins, as his bulbous tone adds an element of uneasiness and danger to the latter half of the album, “Fall to Ascend” in particular.
With MMXX, Sons of Apollo have released a strong, hard-hitting Progressive Rock record without ever crossing the line into self-congratulatory machinations. That is why Cryptic Rock is pleased to give MMXX 4.5 out of 5 stars.