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For most bands, a live album, and such a long one (at over two and a half hours!), might be construed as a tad self-indulgent so soon into their career. Sons of Apollo's debut studio offering was released under two years ago and we already have the imminent release of their first foray into live album territory. But, of course, Sons of Apollo are not just any new band. Constituted, as they are, by some mightily talented, virtuosic folk, who've been around the block, time and again, with a plethora of other acts and solo ventures, they're more than justified in unleashing 'Live with the Plovdiv Psychotic Symphony' at this stage. Vocalist extraordinaire Jeff Scott Soto; ex-Dream Theater comrades Mike Portnoy and Derek Sherinian; bassist Billy Sheehan and guitarist Ron "Bumblefoot" Thal are, of course, the virtuosic folk in question, and their combined talents resulted in an explosively potent blend of prog rock/metal musical mastery on their 2017 debut. Talents which, I have to say, proved to be even more explosive in a live environment when I caught them in action at Nottingham's Rescue Rooms last year. So I was naturally relishing the opportunity to delve into ‘Live with the Plovdiv Psychotic Symphony’, and it didn’t disappoint.

With their show split into two distinct halves, the first is largely comprised of the band airing the majority of the ‘Psychotic Symphony’ album tracks, with some solo interludes (which are best digested visually/aurally, as they come across as a tad self-indulgent in just their audio form), and a cover of Dream Theater’s ‘Just Let Me Breathe’. The second set sees the band joined by the Plovdiv Symphony Orchestra (or the Plovdiv Psychotic Symphony as they were renamed for one night only), for a series of covers, and the two remaining ‘Psychotic Symphony’ tracks absent from the first… plus further solo shenanigans.

Recorded last year, on 22nd September in Plovdiv, Bulgaria, at a Roman Amphitheatre, all of the action was also filmed for a simultaneous BD and DVD release, but it’s the audio that’s under scrutiny here. And the big bonus with the CD release is that it will contain the full second set as, rather peculiarly, they weren’t able to license their covers of Pink Floyd’s ‘Comfortably Numb and Aerosmith’s ‘Dream On’ for the BD and DVD editions.

Of the first set, the album tracks all sound fantastic live. More so than their recorded counterparts, I have to say. The rawer edge inherent in the energetic immediacy of the live performances, away from studio comforts, brings the material to life in new and exciting ways. And there’s an organic sense of progression in every passage of music within each of the compositions, so the virtuosity feels less for-the-sake-of, and far more natural. Collectively, how they play off each other through all the different passages of music, from the bread-and-butter rock and metal stuff to the more challenging excursions into virtuosity is a sheer joy to listen to here. And Soto’s vocals are phenomenal.

The covers set surprised me, I have to say. I wasn’t surprised by the sincerity, reverence and authenticity they’ve brought to each of the songs they’ve tackled. I mean, look at the talent in the band. Rather, I was seriously impressed but just how incredible they sound with an orchestra and choir. Even more so because they had a single day’s rehearsal with the orchestra, a day before the show itself. And it doesn’t just sound like professional musicians phoning it in and going through the motions. Not at all; there’s a ton of passion in the performances here, by both orchestra and band. The Plovdiv Psychotic Symphony brings a genuine sense of grandeur to the occasion, through some richly layered instrumentations.

For me, 'Comfortably Numb' sounds the best, and I’d go so far as to say this is perhaps the definitive cover of this Floydian classic. The best I've ever heard, anyway. Portnoy takes on lead vocal duties over the verses, and nails it perfectly, as does Soto for the rest. And no one can or will ever come close to Freddy, but Soto holds his own with ‘The Show Must Go On’, and succeeds in capturing the emotional essence of Freddie's magic, even though he’s not directly emulating Mercury’s timbre, etc. His a capella take on the harmony vocal parts from ‘The Prophet’s Song’ and his minimalist version of ‘Save Me’, accompanied by Thal, during the first set, also see him capturing the essence of Freddie - again, without resorting to pure mimicry.

All in all, ‘Live with the Plovdiv Psychotic Symphony’ is a rather phenomenal live release. It sounds incredible in its purely audio form, and the filmed show, from the stream I’ve seen, also looks great from the multi-camera montages for each and every song and solo spot. I’m sure it’ll all look lovely and pristine on BD, too, from a technical standpoint, although what will undoubtedly transpire to be the far lower bitrate of the review stream made available to me renders it impossible to make such a definitive judgement. There’s only one way to find out, I guess. Indulge yourselves in multi-format bliss for this audio-visual feast of musical mastery!
Inside Out
Review by Mark Holmes
30th August 2019
1) God of the Sun; 2) Signs of the Time; 3) Divine Addiction; 4) That Metal Show Theme; 5) Just Let Me Breathe; 6) Billy Sheehan Bass Solo; 7) Lost in Oblivion; 8) JSS Solo Spot: The Prophet's Song/Save Me; 9) Alive; 10) The Pink Panther Theme; 11) Opus Maximus; 12) Kashmir; 13) Gates of Babylon; 14) Labyrinth; 15) Dream On; 16) Diary of a Madman; 17) Comfortably Numb; 18) The Show Must Go On; 19) Hell's Kitchen; 20) Derek Sherinian Keyboard Solo; 21 )Lines in the Sand; 22) Bumblefoot Solo Spot; 23) And the Cradle Will Rock; 24) Coming Home
"The rawer edge inherent in the energetic immediacy of the live performances, away from studio comforts, brings the material to life in new and exciting ways."