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Strategic Wankery: An interview with Sons of Apollo

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The last time I got the chance to chat with rock drummer extraordinaire Mike Portnoy, it was mid-2016.

Sons of Apollo

At the time, the notoriously prolific musical veteran was heading into last year’s Bloodstock Festival as the touring drummer for the metal icons Twisted Sister, while also promoting a new album from his band the Winery Dogs and making preparations for his then-upcoming fiftieth birthday bash on the Cruise to the Edge.

Fifteen months later, I’m lucky enough to speak with Mike Portnoy again and, with regard to his artistic pursuits and priorities, he practically feels like a different musician: the Winery Dogs are currently on hiatus, Twisted Sister have dissolved entirely and the big five–zero has been and gone. Now, Mike’s priorities rest with his lauded Shattered Fortress tour, being nominated in two categories with the Neal Morse Band at the 2017 Prog Awards and establishing the new, progressive metal band that he had helped to start from the ground up: Sons of Apollo.

For any other person alive, that would be a pretty busy year. This, however, is Mike Portnoy.

“To be honest, it’s been business as usual,” the drummer says nonchalantly, perched on a big, white sofa in an office in central London. “The last seven years since I left Dream Theater, it has not stopped. Every year seems to have this juggling of three, four or five different bands at any moment, so it’s been a crazy whirlwind schedule, but I guess I’m just kind of used to it at this point.”

Sat at the other end of the settee is Derek Sherinian. While his CV contains work with the likes of Alice Cooper, Yngwie Malmsteen and Kiss, Derek is, like Mike, also an ex-Dream Theater member, having laid out the keys on the group’s Falling into Infinity (1997) record. Twenty years later, the two find themselves as bandmates again in Sons of Apollo, a symphonic and melodic supergroup also made up of Winery Dogs bassist Billy Sheehan, ex-Guns n’ Roses guitar god Ron “Bumblefoot” Thal and one-time Journey front-man Jeff Scott Soto.

“There are so many supergroups these days,” Mike continues. “I think [the term] is justified when it is used: I heard it with the Winery Dogs and I hear it with Sons of Apollo. There are bands like Chickenfoot, [and] Derek’s Black Country Communion is another example. In 2017 it’s very, very common for musicians to be in multiple bands and play with guys from other bands. It’s kind of become the norm.”

“I personally feel very comfortable playing in supergroups,” Derek adds in with a laugh, clearly excited about the new project. “But, honestly, to me a real supergroup involves someone like Jimmy Page. I don’t know, we’re a semi-supergroup.”

With Sons of Apollo being touted from the very start as an orchestral, adventurous and hugely experimental metal outfit, the announcement of the involvement of Bumblefoot and Soto especially drew a great measure of intrigue, as the two are much more well-known for their work with more straight-forward, classic rock n’ roll.

I think Bumblefoot, he’s known for being very straight ahead, but if you listen to some of his early solo records from the early ‘90s, it’s extremely progressive,” says Derek. “He has that side to him that he’s never had an opportunity to bring out, so, when he joined up with Mike and I, we encouraged him.”

But it’s with the inclusion of Jeff Scott Soto that Sons of Apollo receives an opportunity to stand out from the saturated progressive metal landscape. As Derek explains: “We utilised the vocals in a way where, every time there are vocals, it’s in 4/4 and pretty much in a rock context. And then in the middle sections, anything goes!

“There’s no limitation or restraint, but we were very conscious when the vocals came in. We wanted to keep it very listenable and accessible to a lot of people, not just progressive rock fans.

“There is strategic wankery on this record and that’s the key!” he laughs.

Sons of Apollo’s unique brand of strategic wankery is centre-stage on the quintet’s upcoming debut album Psychotic Symphony. Scheduled for release on the 20th October, the hour-long record balances out the complexity of suites like the eleven-minute ‘God of the Sun’ with huge, rhythmic choruses and pummelling riffs, giving progressive music a mainstream metal accessibility that it’s been lacking for a very long time.

Psychotic Symphony was produced by both Mike and Derek, and they did so under the joint pseudonym of the “Del Fuvio Brothers”, a mantle which has been following the duo for almost two decades.

“It dates back to when we were together in Dream Theater back in the ‘90s,” says Mike. “That was kind of our nickname for whenever we’d get together and use extreme sarcasm and insults. Derek’s got a way with words and that just became our Del Fuvian spirit.”

And given the melodic and hugely intricate nature of Sons of Apollo, as well as their affinity for big, lengthy songs, many fans and commentators have compared the new group to Dream Theater. But that’s an idea that the Del Fuvio Brothers seem to soundly reject.

“Even though we have sick chops, we’re a rock band,” Derek states. “They’re a progressive band, there’s no rock n’ roll in their DNA. None of them have ever played in a rock band in their entire lives. We’re a whole different animal.

“That’s what separates Sons of Apollo from all the other prog bands out there, it’s that this band has serious rock pedigree. And you can’t download an app for that. If you don’t have it, you don’t have it.”

And based on their catchy yet complex debut album, Sons of Apollo have it. Making use of every one of the celebrated names in their ranks, they may also have crafted one of the coolest, most operatic and most accessible progressive metal records of the year.

Check out our first interview with Sons of Apollo drummer Mike Portnoy here.

Sons of Apollo’s debut album, Psychotic Symphony, will be available via InsideOut Music on 20th October.

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