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Wednesday, 3 October 2018

A View From The Back Of The Room: Sons Of Apollo (Live Review By Paul H)

Sons Of Apollo, SWX Bristol

Sometimes you witness something so mind-blowing that you find it hard to describe what you’ve seen. When the progressive supergroup Sons Of Apollo released one of the albums of 2017 with their stunning Psychotic Symphony, an album crammed full of extended yet relatively straight forward songs which appealed both to the discerning Dream Theater fan and yet crossed to the mainstream as well, I wondered how it would translate in the live arena, with such huge individuals, could they combine their strength into a cohesive live unit. Reports from their summer festivals, including the Ramblin’ Man Fair this summer were encouraging and on the strength of the album, not to mention the potential quality on offer meant that this was a gig that was in the diary from the off. Even though it meant missing Kirk Windstein and Crowbar back home, after a mere ten minutes there was no question that we’d made the right choice.

I’d walked past the SWX a million times but hadn’t given it a second thought. However, it is a superb venue for a rock gig. Its primary function is a night club, and the sound is played throughout the club via the multiple speakers strategically placed around the venue. So, you didn’t miss a note when you headed for the toilet, and more importantly, the sound was bloody good too. With raised platforms either side of the stage and an elevated stage affording good views I was impressed.

Who do you get to open for a progressive supergroup then? Well, we were treated to Chris Schiermann, a guitar virtuoso from Nebraska who along with his very young backing band who I assume were his sons, played 30 minutes or so from his debut release Technical Difficulties. There is no doubt that Schiermann (6) is a fabulously gifted and technical guitar player, and it was by no means a challenge to watch, but, and here’s the nub, it was like listening to the same track over and over. I appreciate that there is a place in the world for the guitarist who prefers seven or even eight strings, polyrhythmic patterns and time changes a plenty, and who can shred like there is no tomorrow, but after 20 minutes I was just a little bored and looking forward to the main event. Schiermann’s guitar work is brilliant, but when you read about the visitors who frequent his Nebraska studio (the likes of Chimp Spanner and Animals As Leaders) whilst on tour, you wonder what kind of fun they have. It’s all a bit too technical for me. Like Vai, Satriani and all the other guitar noodles, Schiermann punctured my interest threshold quite quickly.

The challenge with a band that contains Derek Sherinan, Mike Portnoy, Billy Sheehan, Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thal and Jeff Scott Soto is that there is a chance that the egos will destroy all the potential. Not so with Sons Of Apollo (10), whose overblown extravaganza was quite simply, astonishing. Of course, this was lavish, but holy flying whales was it impressive. Top of the range gear, all shiny and polished is all well and good but you must be able to use it.

The rear of the stage was illuminated by a simple digital Sons Of Apollo logo, whilst directly in front of it, and dominating the rear of the stage stood Portnoy’s vast drum kit. All gleaming chrome, double bass drum and countless other items, Portnoy demonstrated once again that he is possibly the best drummer who isn’t Neil Peart with a blistering performance, adding backing vocals on several songs and engaging with the crowd without becoming Lars Ulrich. Sherinan is of course, Portnoy’s former Dream Theater partner in crime and no slouch when it comes to tinkling those ivories; not to be outdone he had a Hammond and three other keyboards set up which allowed him to move between them or riff on all at the same time. His solo later in the evening, which included Van Halen’s Eruption (on the frigging keyboards!) was one of about a billion highlights. I’ve seen Billy Sheehan several times before but his bass playing never ceases to amaze. Possibly the best bass player in rock who isn’t Geddy Lee, Sheehan carried his double neck bass around the stage with ease, whilst his digits were frequently a blur.

He’s got humour too, swiping Jeff Scott Soto’s microphone towards the end when the audience participation slot arrived, forcing his vocally adept colleague to demonstrate what a superb voice he has, amplified or not. Soto’s voice, stage presence and sheer enthusiasm was much more than I was expecting. He quite simply was captivating, as he twisted and twirled, and sweated more than I thought was humanly possible (and believe me I can produce moisture for fun). Which leaves Ron ‘Bumblefoot’ Thral. Apart from his career with Guns n’ Roses I can’t say that I knew much about him but his casual, confident and magnificent guitar playing was just mind blowing. Like Sheehan, he hurled his double neck six string around the stage like it was made of Balsa wood. With a fretless top neck, and numerous lights blinking on and off, Bumblefoot’s weapon of choice looked more like something from a Sci-Fi movie. He also seems like a decent guy and a look at his Wiki page would suggest that his work for numerous charities bears this out. As well as playing some mean guitar, he can also sing well and took turns with Portnoy on backing vocals as well as hijacking the occasional lead section.

So, what about the set list. Well, throw me a curved ball and Sons Of Apollo throw it right back at you. The anthemic Gods Of The Sun blasted a hole in the roof as the band hit the stage at full throttle, with the heavy riffs and thundering drums propelling the song forward. It was already shaping to one amazing gig as the band took it in turns to display their talent, duelling guitars and keyboards competing with Portnoy and Sheehan’s rock-solid rhythm. With eight tracks from Psychotic Symphony, this left a fair chunk of time for those damn curve balls. Two magical moments for the nerds (connoisseurs - Ed) came in the shape of Just Let Me Breath and Line In The Sand, both from the 1997 Dream Theater album Falling Into Infinity. The former is a pacey rocker, crammed full of intricate twists and turns whilst Line In The Sand is a weighty prog masterpiece. Sons Of Apollo made them both look easy with Soto handling the vocals with majestic style.

Alongside the inevitable solos, of which I struggled mostly with Sheehan’s eight-minute bass effort, the delightful Queen section which allowed Soto to demonstrate his vocal prowess as well as pay tribute to Freddie Mercury, through The Prophet’s Song and a delightfully emotional Save Me where he was accompanied by Bumblefoot’s delicate guitar. As Soto exited for a breather (and more vodka) we were treated to one of the more eccentric sights and sounds as the four musicians broke into the Henry Mancini written The Pink Panther Theme and proceeded to jam for several minutes. The encore was led by Bumblefoot’s solo before Van Halen’s And The Cradle Will Rock complete with Soto wandering through the audience as he sang. Coming Home concluded an evening which at times genuinely took the breath away, such was the calibre of musicianship on the stage. It was an absolute privilege to watch.

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