Having first latched onto Savatage in ’87 with “Hall of the Mountain King”, I was primed and ready for Gutter Ballet. What I didn’t expect was the heavy piano on the title track/first single. But that was a pleasant surprise: I was heavily getting into piano within the context of hard rock at the time. Savatage’s Jon Oliva has a tendency to write simple but very catchy piano parts. “Gutter Ballet” was inside my head on first mindblowing listen. All that was left for me to do was buy the album.
Savatage have reissued Gutter Ballet with different bonus tracks many times. I have the 2002 Steamhammer release (the Earmusic version) which has an extensive booklet with ample liner notes. Gutter Ballet was the post-rehab album for Jon Oliva, and this informs many of the lyrics (“Thorazine Shuffle” for example). Upon beginning the album, Jon and his brother Criss wrote heavy guitar based metal songs which were later included as bonus tracks on various releases. Not satisfied, producer/co-writer Paul O’Neill sent Oliva out to see Phantom of the Opera in New York. This changed everything. Meanwhile, the rehab stint ended up producing a three song mini-suite. The road to 1991’s Streets: A Rock Opera was now paved.
Gutter Ballet commences with “Of Rage and War,” the bass hook of which reminds of “24 Hours Ago” from the last album. It has one of those staggered Criss Oliva guitar riffs that I miss so much, and the unforgettable drum patterns of Steve “Doc” Wacholz. The lyrics are not profound, but they’re catchy enough (especially when Oliva starts shrieking). They’re also still relevant today.
You got Libya, you got the Russians
You got civilian planes crashing to the oceans
Airports full of terrorists, Nazi skins, anarchists
When are you gonna learn?
Lyrics aside, the strongest thing about “Of Rage and War” is the guitar riffing. The six-string then takes a bit of a back seat (solo aside of course) on “Gutter Ballet” to the piano for the first time. Oliva’s simple melody is one of the first that I learned to play on keyboard and I still have my old cassette demo somewhere! A minute later things speed up and get dramatic. As good as the piano part is, the guitar riff that comes in to compliment it is just as stellar.
Could “Gutter Ballet” be Savatage’s best song? You could easily argue that, even though the band would later ramp up the drama and complexity on their albums. I think the song is completely without flaw. From Jon’s lyrics (inspired by a stabbing he witnessed while in New York) to the slightest piano accents, the track is perfect. And it even manages to maintain its balls, which I’m sure helped longtime Savatage fans adapt to the new sound.
First video with Chris Caffery.
“Temptation Revelation” is a 3:07 instrumental track that really only serves to bridge “Gutter Ballet” to another piano based hit, “When the Crowds are Gone”. The piano and guitar vibe is maintained throughout. “When the Crowds are Gone” is a very special song, and undoubtedly you could call it a ballad. It has heavy choruses, but the thrust of the song is based on Jon’s voice and piano. Jon sounds tiny at first before using his full throat. The song was first conceived by Paul O’Neill as part of the later Streets rock opera, a project he had cooking for many years. The song would have fallen after “A Little Too Far” on side one. I think it’s another one of Savatage’s best-ever compositions, and Jon’s screaming at the end seems to really embody the desperation of the lead character.
I never wanted to know, never wanted to see
I wasted my time, till time wasted me
Never wanted to go, always wanted to stay
‘Cause the person I am, are the parts that I play.
So I plot and I plan, hope and I scheme
To the lure of a night, filled with unfinished dreams
I’m holding on tight, to a world gone astray
As they charge me for years I can no longer pay.
Note Doc Wacholz’s United Federation of Planets drum kit!*
Side one closed with an acoustic instrumental called “Silk and Steel” which is really a showcase for the underrated Criss Oliva. It’s just acoustic guitars — nothing else — for four minutes. Right on, and perfect for a side closer.
No punches are pulled whatsoever on side two. A bruising tune called “She’s In Love” boasts a chugging riff and those speedy Dr. Killdrums snare hits. As for Jon, he spends most of the song screaming in fury (but also in tune). Musically, think “Loss of Control” by Van Halen, but metalized. “Hounds” then opens with quiet picking, similar to Metallica’s “One”. This doesn’t last, and before too long it’s a regal metallic plod with a little bit of Sabbathy organ audible in the background. Then, “The Unholy”: a stampede of tricky licks and screaming vocals. There is no let up.
The aforementioned three-song mini suite is next, and it begins with “Mentally Yours”. The character of “Timmy” is introduced, a disturbed character. The insanity theme is immediately obvious by the piano intro where Jon sets the scene. Think Alice Cooper’s From the Inside album. This piano intro could even be considered a separate song, as it has nothing to do with “Mentally Yours” musically. Intro aside, this is another heavy metal bruiser, guitars on the prowl. It even changes to a speed metal thrasher by the end.
“Summer’s Rain” is the only thing resembling a ballad on side two. If so, it’s a heavy ballad without piano. It does feel spiritually connected to “When the Crowds are Gone” from side one. Still, the best tune of this trilogy is “Thorazine Shuffle” which has an ominous opening. Then the song really begins; a stuttering limping riff, evoking the Thorazine shuffle Oliva sings about. Gutter Ballet ends on an appropriately heavy note.
This remastered edition has two live bonus tracks; unfortunately they are just from the album Final Bell/Ghost in the Ruins. As such I’ve chosen not to talk about them, since I’d rather just review that album later on. So be aware, the Steamhammer remaster from 2002 doesn’t have any exclusive bonus tracks.
* Savatage MUST be Trekkies. The next album, Streets, featured the following lyrics:
And who’s to say what it’s all about?
When John Wayne took the last train out?
And Spock and Kirk have had enough,
And no one’s left to beam me up.