Sunday, November 30, 2008

This Is Where You Should Be

Shortly after Savatage released "Dead Winter Dead" the band put out a collection of hits ranging from "Sirens" through "Dead Winter Dead". Fortunately the band conveniently forgot to include something from "Fight For The Rock". And we are all better off for that.

"From The Gutter To The Stage" is a delightful sampling of Savatage's catalogue, displaying their song-writing prowess and their growth over their decade plus career. I'm not going to spend a lot of time commenting on most of the tracks here as they have been covered in my previous posts.

The album kicks off with a killer live version of "Sirens" taken (I think) from "Ghost In The Ruins/Final Bell" which shows the guitar genius of Chriss Oliva with a charismatic Jon Oliva on vocals. This is the first time I heard "Sirens" and I must say it's better then the original.

We get "Power Of The Night" their 2nd albums title track and "Prelude To Madness", "Hall Of The Mountain King" and "24 Hours" off of their 4th outing "Hall Of The Mountain King". These are not my favourite tracks from their respective albums, but are solid songs representing Savatage's straight up heavy metal roots.

As Savatage moved into a more progressive side, we are given a sampling with "Gutter Ballet" and "When The Crowds Are Gone". Top notch songs from "Gutter Ballet". We are treated to Chriss Oliva's "Silk and Steel" acoustic instrumental. Not ones first choice for a compilation, but a fitting memory of Chriss' talents.

"Streets" is represented with the most variety with songs "New York City Don't Mean Nothing", the blistering "Agony & Ecstasy" and my all time favourite song "Believe". We get the title track from "Edge Of Thorns" and the epicly diverse and dark "Chance" from "Handful Of Rain".

Rounding the compilation out are a couple of tracks from "Dead Winter Dead". The "Prelude To Madness" inspired "Mozart & Madness" doing duel duty of hinting at what was going on with their Trans-Siberian Orchestra side project. Thankfully they did not use "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24". I love the song, but it gets enough exposure. The final song "One Child" brings the album to a grand close with its theatrical epicness and counterpoint vocals.

The treat with this album is the bonus disc on the special edition with 4 previously unreleased songs. The first couple are the "Edge Of Thorns" era "Shotgun Innocence" which is a mid to fast paced rocker with cool riffs and great vocals from Zak Stevens. We also get the hauntingly heavy "Forever After". A mid-paced cruncher with some flashy solos. Both songs would have fit fine on "Edge Of Thorns".

The other 2 are from the "Gutter Ballet" and "Streets" era with the melodic power piece "This Is Where You Should Be" whose melancholic undertones and passionate vocals makes me wonder why this song was left off either of these albums. The other is "D.T. Jesus" which is a bluesy gospel version of "Jesus Saves" from "Streets". A remarkable version of the song creating a whole new interpretation. Very moving and powerful. Though I'm not sure if it would have flowed well with the rest of the album. I'll have to do a test with my ipod and slip this version into a play list with the rest of the album and see if it works.

Overall "From The Gutter To The Stage" is more of a singles collection as opposed to a greatest hits, but a fine sampling of Savatage's career. I don't buy a lot of compilations, but with Sava' I made an exception.

Up next, I'll be finishing up with Savatage with a tribute album to them "Return Of The Mountain King".

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Poets And Madmen, All Defy Reason ...

On Savatage's 11th and final(?) album "Poets And Madmen" sees the band bring back the metal to their signature grandly epic sound. This is, in part, due to the return of the Mountain King himself Jon Oliva on vocals and Chris Caffery's guitar work and co-writing credits. It's nice to see Mr.Caffery get some Savy love after so many years. It is with these elements that "Poets & Madmen" has a Doctor Butcher feel, only more theatrical.

Paul O'Neill has also stated that the heavier sound was sought to help distinguish Savatage from Trans-Siberian Orchestra (which to this point Savatage was sans the R&B elements). The bare-bones line-up and shift in musicians led to a fresh start and a rejuvenated band. "Poets And Madmen" could easily have been released between "Gutter Ballet" and "Streets" or before or after "Handful Of Rain". Elements from both era's are front and center, yet blended nicely like a warm cup of cocoa... heavy metal cocoa.

"Poets & Madmen" forgoes the orchestral intro and kicks in with the dark, heavy and symphonic "Stay With Me Awhile". "There In The Silence" takes grandiose darkness and adds an ominous undertone thanks to Jon's sinister vocals. The song has some cool riffs without losing melody. "Commissar" has some wicked riffs and a dark grand sound and variant tempos.

"I Seek Power" is a slower, brooding piece that has a delicious evilness to it (again, thanks to Jon). That's 4 songs in and the musical theme has been disturbing, dark and heavy. Classic Savatage with flourishes of new Savatage's progressive prowess. "Drive" shifts the mood a little as a melodic mid-paced metaller and "Morphine Child" adds the theatrical epicness of "The Wake Of Magellan" only darker. Jon gets the counterpoint vocal treatment on this song.

"The Rumor" and "Surrender" are mid paced metallers, the later being eerily bleak with touches of hopefulness. "Man In The Mirror" is a power ballad with a heavy chorus whose pace picks up midway through. "Awaken" is a catchy, heavy mother that leads into the epic ballad "Back To A Reason". This is a passionate somber piece that's quite moving. There is also a narrative bridge with news headlines running in the background.

"Poets & Madmen" is a strong, solid effort from a band that has a tenuous hold on its fans. This album is like a throw back to the early years of Savatage while retaining the growth the band obtained as song-writers over the years. "Poets ..." is a refreshing album and gives hope to wary fans who may have been disappointed in "The Wake Of Magellan".

For me, I can't wait till their next album .... (cough, cough) ...

... Maybe 2009 ... Check out their new MySpace page here and revamped Website here.

Up next I'll be taking a look at Savatage's "From The Gutter To The Stage" compilation as well as the "Return Of The Mountain King" tribute album. Not sure which will be first.

Sunday, November 16, 2008

At Night When The Waves Are Near, The Dead Whisper And I Hear

Savatage continues their grandiose style of progressive metal on their 10th studio album "The Wake Of Magellan", a concept album based around an old sailor looking to die. Loose references to Maersk Dubai Incident and murdered journalist Veronica Guerin fill out the story of the old Spanish sailor who sets out to sea to die (In a Vikingesque way) and ends up saving the life of a thrown overboard stowaway drifting in the waves. Returning to shore, the old sailor rediscovers a new lease on life, cherishing every single moment from then on.

Musically, "The Wake Of Magellan" doesn't stray to far from Savatage's new style. However, this is by no means a copy of "Dead Winter Dead" and "Handful Of Rain". The music carries a largely theatrical feel and more grandeur then their previous efforts all while retaining strong sense for melody and memorable hooks. And some killer riffs to boot.

The album opens with "The Ocean" an atmospheric piano heavy instrumental that sets a sobering mood leading into the grand and theatrical "Welcome" which is literally an introduction song IE; ~ Welcome To The Show ~

"Turns To Me" takes the music to a faster and heavier area that builds into a moving and passionate bridge/outro. A killer solo as well. "Morning Sun" opens with a somber acoustic riff that turns into a heavier dark mid-paced piece with some nice riffs.

"Blackjack Guillotine" is another heavy a dark with a great solo and huge sound. "Paragons Of Innocence" takes the dark heavy riffs with a more symphonic sound and a bit more groove. "Complaint In The System" has a mechanical, almost industrial feel to its narrative progression. Loads of groove here as well.

"Another Way" is a heavy melodic number with Jon Oliva on vocals and a grand theatrical feel. "Anymore" is a power ballad of sorts with Elton John-ish flourishes and a bridge reminiscent of the opening instrumental and a powerful outro lead by Zak's solid vocals. One of the best songs here.

The title track is probably my favourite song as it seems to have the most staying power for me. It's an urgent piece with passionate poetic lyrics and moving melodies as well as fine use of their newly signature counterpoint vocals. That's a lot of Zak! The album closer "The Hourglass" is a haunting epic that wraps up the album with flourishes of previous melodies and a symphonic grandness the Sava boys do so well.

There are 2 other instrumentals that are quite nice. "Underture" is an instrumental medley of various musical themes not unlike "Erotomania" off of Dream Theaters "Awake" album. "The Storm" is a huge and heavy symphonic number that crashes through riffs and solos like breaking waves. I can almost feel the raging winds in my face with this tune.

"The Wake Of Magellan" is one of Savatage's more under-rated albums. Probably due to the overtly theatrical feel. This, however, is a solid album with great songs and huge sound.

Up next, Jon Oliva takes the reins from the exited Zak Stevens on "Poets And Madmen". Their darkest and heaviest album in years.

Sunday, November 09, 2008

It's Not Who I Am, But I Know That It's All That You See

Green Day's "American Idiot" was continuously praised for bringing back the concept album, but the mainstream media always overlooks Metal. Heavy Metal bands have long been burning the concept album flame with no recognition. Savatage were one of those metal bands that pumped out concept albums years before Green Day cashed in on the idea.

After "Streets" mediocre success one would have thought Savatage would never do another concept album, but lo and behold 3 albums later we get (what I consider one of Savatage's best) "Dead Winter Dead". The story is about a Serbian boy and a Muslim girl who our brought together by the haunting melodies of a lone cellist who played in the Sarajevo town square during wartime.

I remember reading an article in Readers Digest about Vedran Smajlovic "the Cellist of Sarajevo" who for 22 days straight played his cello in the town square during on-going battle in honour of 22 victims killed while waiting for bread. Paul O'Neill has stated that Vedran is the inspiration for "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" and has developed a poignant and heartwarming story around this man.

The album "Dead Winter Dead" begins with the thoughts of an ancient stone Gargoyle who watches over a fountain in Sarajevo's town square with vivid imagery established by mood-setting grandeur and Savatage's signature heaviness on the opener "Overture" which transitions darkly into the haunting and heavy "Sarajevo". The story picks up with the Serbian boy on "This Is The Time (1990)" which is a passionate bluesy number with some very moving vocals and guitar work. This is one of my favourite songs here.

All hopefulness is crushed on the broodingly sinister and deliciously evil "I Am" featuring vocals by the Mountain King himself, Jon Oliva. A heavy song with a killer riff. "Starlight" takes on a military feel with its ominously pounding riffs and lets loose towards the end with wailing solos. This speed and heaviness is continued on "Doesn't Matter Anyway" a crunchy heavy metaller. It is here that we are introduced to the Muslim girl who is buying weapons to fight with her comrades.

"This Isn't What We Meant" is a moving and powerful blues-infused ballad and has the sense of hopelessness and broken dreams. "Mozart And Madness" is an instrumental loosely based around compositions of Mozart. This is an antsy piece with soothing breaks and builds the story's tension nicely. "Memory (Dead Winter Dead)" is a somber, yet uplifting take on Beethoven's "Ode To Joy" which leads into the title track "Dead Winter Dead". This song is a mid paced cruncher. "One Child" follows in the same vein as the "Handful Of Rain" album. A piano/guitar rocker with some nice melodies and counterpoint vocals first used on "Chance".

The albums focal point and story climax is the break away hit "Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24" made famous by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. It's ancient melody and dark sound create a wonderfully conflicting feeling of joy and foreboding. The closing song and my favourite "Not What You See" is in the new staple style of Savatage power ballads. The somber versus' create a pleading optimism that crescendos into a raw and powerful climax. It's simplistic piano/guitar work and use of counterpoint vocals is inspiring and passionate bringing the album to a hope filled and bright close. Great solo too!

Of all the Savatage concept albums, "Dead Winter Dead" is my favourite and quite possibly my favourite album of their catalogue. The story's concept, though not hugely original has a very unique edge and a timelessness that's refreshing.

Up next is the theatrical "Wake Of Magellan".

Sunday, November 02, 2008

The New Savatage

I have to admit, when I first picked up Savatage's album "Handful Of Rain" I was a little disappointed. It had a melancholic feel and a monotonous rhythm. However, after a while I grew to appreciate this album for what it was.

After the loss of guitarist and founding member Chriss Oliva, this album has a dark reflectiveness and a sombre elegance that is unlike anything Savatage has done. And as I mentioned before, there is a grandness on this album that has not been seen since "Gutter Ballet".

"Handful Of Rain" is essentially a Jon Oliva solo project released under the Savatage moniker, yet these epic theatrics would carry over to future Savatage albums. Recording all instruments himself, Jon had Zak Stevens perform the vocals and Alex Skolnick to perform the guitar leads. Johnny Lee Middleton would tour with the group, but long time member and drummer Steve Wacholz would depart and Jeff Plate would step in for the tour.

Starting the album off is "Taunting Cobras" which is a fast and heavy song pummeling forward with some crushing riffs giving the album a great start. "Nothing Going On" is the other metaller with fast riffs and a thunderous feel.

The title track "Handful Of Rain" is a twangy acoustic/electric rocker with a nice melody and groove-infused breakdown. "Stare Into The Sun" and "Castles Burning" are bluesy rock ballads of sorts. More reflective then sappy with some fine melodies and their own charm.

"Watching You Fall" is a blues infused ballad with similarities to "Castles Burning" and some nice guitar/piano work. "Symmetry" is ballad like as well with acoustic verses, a catchy chorus and a darker edge.

The truly stand out tracks here are the epics "Chance" and "Alone You Breath". Both are grandiose and theatrical, but with completely opposite tones.

"Chance" starts off with a haunting intro that builds with orchestral theatrics into a dark and heavy metal tune. The song eventually breaks down into a quiet reflection which gets broken by the orchestral theatrics and a chunky bridge and some killer riffs. The song also is the first Savatage song to use counterpoint vocals that builds into a crescendo ending.

"Alone You Breath" on the other hand is an epic, heartfelt piece reeking of conviction and whose emotions are worn on every note. The opening piano is moving and builds into a huge theatrical song layered with passion. The solos are brilliant and the song just reeks of compassion. A fitting tribute to the great Chriss Oliva and my favourite song here.

There is also an instrumental piece "Visions" which is an extended version of the orchestral/guitar breakdowns from "Chance".

It took me a while to warm up to this album, but now it's one of my Savatage go to albums when I'm having a hankering for them. It's sombre reflection is haunting and yet at times comforting. A highly under-rated album.

Up next is probably my favourite Savatage album. "Dead Winter Dead".