Sunday, October 26, 2008

The End Of Savatage ... ?

Although Jon Oliva had stepped down as vocalist for Savatage, he remained around and helped pick Zak Stevens as his replacement. Jon continued to write and perform piano/keyboards with the band while pursuing a solo project with Chris Caffery.

"Edge Of Thorns" sees Savatage return to straight forward heavy metal while retaining the progressive sound introduced on "Gutter Ballet". The production here is much improved and Chriss' guitars regain their signature crunch. "Edge Of Thorns" is the first Savatage album I bought as it was their newest release when I was introduced to them by the Nielsen brothers in high school.

Starting off with the title track, "Edge Of Thorns" begins with a piano riff that's soon joined by guitars and the band. It's a melodic tune with a galloping riff and a nice solo. "Lights Out" is a faster song with wailing guitar work. "Skraggy's Tomb" is a haunting reflection on alcoholism both sombre and moving .

"Labyrinths" is a vivid instrumental along the lines of "Last Dawn" from "Hall Of The Mountain King" which seamlessly transitions into "Follow Me", my favourite song on this album. The finger picking intro is super melodic and Zak shows his range here with his velvety voice. The song builds into a passionate metal tune with great solo work.

"Exit Music" is a piano instrumental which really should have been at the end of the album because it literally feels like end credits music or a theme playing people out. It's a beautiful piece. "Degrees Of Sanity", "Conversation Piece" and "Damien" are solid melodic crunchers with some unique and heavy riffs. This reminds us fans that Savatage still know how to be metal.

"All That I bleed" is a raw piano driven song both haunting and hopeful. A very moving song with a beautiful solo. "Miles Away" begins quietly and builds into a rocking uplifting song. The album closer "Sleep" is a sombre acoustic song simple and moving.

"Edge Of Thorns" is a fine follow up to "Streets" and continued to grow as song-writers. The addition of Zak Stevens was great. His soothing tones complimented Chriss' gritty guitar work.

Unfortunately, the rock world was delivered a shocking blow when founding member and lead guitarist Chriss Oliva was killed by drunk driver on October 17th 1993. At least he was able to leave his musical mark with some of metals greatest songs before his life was cut short.

Would Savatage continue on after this tragedy? We'll find out with my next review of Savatage's "Handful Of Rain" album.

Sunday, October 19, 2008

Ghost In The Ruins

Savatage followed up "Gutter Ballet" by taking the theatrical element one step further. "Streets (A Rock Opera)" is a concept album based on a play producer Paul O'Neill wrote. It's about a man named DT Jesus, a low life on the streets of New York who rises to rock star fame and falls, then rises again ... and so on.

This is the first (of what would become a staple for Savatage) concept album by the band and an album of controversy. I believe this is a highly under-rated album, but it garnered a lot of debate amongst fans. After a supporting tour for "Streets" founding member and front man Jon Oliva left the band (sort of, more on that later).

"Streets" is one of the first Savatage albums I bought and is one of my favourites. It has a sentimental appeal for me as well as including the song that would become my all time favourite tune. My one complaint of this album is the weaker production quality. Where "Gutter Ballet" was full and thick, "Streets" seems convoluted and thin. Perhaps it's the layers of instrumentation and what not, but the guitars lack a certain bite.

"Streets" starts off with the haunting and dark title track which opens the album with a bleak and eerie atmosphere. "Jesus Saves" is where the story begins. After a short dialogue "Jesus Saves" kicks in with an upbeat metal narrative with some killer solos.

"Tonight He Grins Again" continues the haunting, dark atmosphere as does "Ghost In The Ruins" later on in the album. "Strange Reality" is a darker tune with cool riffs and "Can You Hear Me Now"s dark rock atmosphere is broken with a great breakdown.

The theatrical feel is brought forth with songs like the upbeat and thankful "You're Alive" as well as the passionately pleading "St. Patrick's". A powerfully poignant song and one of the stand-out tracks here.

"If I Go Away" and "Somewhere In Time" bring it home with heartfelt and moving melodies and a narrative theatrical quality. "A Little Too Far" is a piano piece that is raw and passionate in its simplicity. A sweetly sombre tune. "Heal My Soul" based on a Welsh lullaby called "Suo Gan" is an uplifting piano piece, raw and hopeful. Jon Oliva shines on these simple pieces.

"Streets" is a rock opera and it doesn't water anything down. "Sammy And Tex" is a fast and heavy tune whose vivid storytelling of Sammy and DT Jesus' fight makes anything from West Side Story seem wussy. Killer guitar work by Chriss Oliva. "Agony & Ecstasy" is similar in style, but has a more aggressive edge a darker sound. And "New York City Don't Mean Nothing"s acoustic opening is pummelled by a thumping rock rhythm that sees the song through.

As I mentioned, "Streets" has the greatest song ever written on it and that song "Believe" closes the album as it should. "Believe" is a heart-wrenching plea with beautiful piano work and powerful vocals by Jon Oliva. Its inspiring lyrics are strengthened by Criss Oliva's brilliant guitar work and has the greatest guitar solo Chriss ever performed. It is a powerful song that moves me every time I listen to it. And I listen to it a lot.

"Streets" takes a well worn concept and gives it a shot of passion and conviction. There are no bad songs here. No filler, just brilliant rock songs with a theatrical theme.

Up next is Savatage's "Edge Of Thorns".

Sunday, October 12, 2008

From The Gutter To The Stage

After Jon Oliva saw a performance of Phantom Of The Opera in Toronto, Canada he envisioned a new direction for Savatage. Focusing on more of a progressive edge the band incorporated larger use of piano and keyboards as well as grander themes and an overall theatrical sound.

If you ask me "Gutter Ballet"s sound is not really seen again until "Handful Of Rain" although "Streets" and "Edge Of Thorns" have a largely progressive feel, just not as grandeur. This album is really like a new beginning for Savatage which would grow and nurture for the rest of the bands career. Despite the softer edge to the metal, some of the songs here are the heaviest the band has recorded.

For example, the albums opener "Of Rage And War" is slab of pure heavy metal with a darker edge and a pre-chorus with biting crunch. "Mentally Yours" is a solid chunk of heavy metal reminiscent of "Power Of The Night" era. "Thorazine Shuffle" is an eerie mid-paced cruncher very much in the vein of "Hall Of The Mountain King"

"Hounds" is a hauntingly dark tune, ,however, it feels a little disjointed ala "Fountain Of Youth" but not as bad. "Unholy" is probably my favourite of the metal tunes because of its straight up '80's metal sound with galloping guitars and a super melodic chorus that would make Iron Maiden envious. "She's In Love" is a flat out rocker that seems to be a staple in every Savatage album up to this point. Kind of cheesy, but not as much as say "Hard For Love". Not a bad tune, it just doesn't feel right.

The theatrical grandeur arrives on the 2nd song and title track "Gutter Ballet". The piano work is simplistic yet very moving which leads into a huge wall of sound, thick and epic and operatic. "Temptation Revelation" is a moving instrumental like HOTMK's "Last Dawn" only more complex while building into a cacophony of symphony."Summer's Rain" is a melancholic power ballad with some great emotive guitar work and moving melodies.

My favourite song on this album is the sombre, yet inspiring "When The Crowds Are Gone". The songs bleak themes are poignant and the music is huge and theatrical. It's a very moving tune and Jon's voice is full of passion and Chriss' solo is full of conviction.

"Silk and Steel" is a little showcase of Chriss Oliva's guitar finesse with this acoustic ditty. Some impressive playing.

"Gutter Ballet" is a strong step forward for Savatage and the shift in style I think helped keep them relevant instead of being washed away by the new wave of hair bands and grunge in the 90's.

Next up is Savatage's "Streets: A Rock Opera" which is a superb album and features my all time favourite song (not just from Savatage's catalogue, my absolute favourite tune) "Believe".

Sunday, October 05, 2008

Return Of The Mountain King!

Aaahhhhh Savatage's "Hall Of The Mountain King". The pinnacle Sav(y) album and critical turning point early in the bands career. Coming off the convoluted fiasco that was "Fight For The Rock" Savatage blasts nay-sayers with a classic heavy metal album. This is the album that should have come after "Power Of The Night", but better late then never.

"Hall Of The Mountain King" takes the dark aggression of "The Dungeons Are Calling" EP and adds accessibility. Jon's vocals have never been weak, but it's as if he were born for this particular moment and as such garnering him the nickname "Mountain King". Chriss' guitar work shines here with some of his most memorable work both heavy and melodic. Chriss Oliva is truly one of the most unique and talented guitar players ever.

The album kicks off with "24 Hours Ago" which sets the tone with darker melodic riffs and wailing guitar solos that never quite reach show off level. Jon's mountainous voice is powerful, aggressive and reeks of conviction. "Beyond The Doors Of The Dark" is next and its haunting intro sends chills before blasting in with aggressive riffs and sickening vocals. This is a dark/bleak tune and is my favourite song on this album.

"Legions" and "The Price You Pay" are solid metal anthems worthy of the raising of the metal fists children. "White Witch" is a pummeling assault of speedy riffs and aggressive vocals. After a short guitar instrumental, the soothing and sombre "Last Dawn" in whose reflective optimism leads to the deliciously bleak "Devastation". It's a melodic mid-paced piece with a biting edge especially as Jon spits out lyrics like ~What can you do when you're a fool? It all goes this way. You should have listened to what Christ had to say~. A wonderfully downer way to close the album.

"Strange Wings" is a power ballad-like song without really feeling ballady. It's a powerful song with a simple yet moving melody and a majestic feel. "Prelude To Madness" is a metal take on Edvard Grieg's "In The Hall Of The Mountain King". It is dark and haunting, brilliantly executed and a fitting intro to the albums title track.

"Hall Of The Mountain King" is a mountain of a song with a solid foundation by Johnny Lee Middleton and Steve Wacholz and bludgeoning riffs and monstrous solos by Chriss Oliva. Jon Oliva's vocals are at their best here ranging from guttural mid range to insane screeches and eerie chuckles. A song truly worthy to be a title track.

"Hall Of The Mountain King" is a true heavy metal classic and is Savatage at peak form. From here the band moves in a progressive direction more grandiose then epic. This is also the first album with long time producer Paul O'Neill whose influence becomes a strong part of the Savatage sound.

Up next is "Gutter Ballet".