Man, I just love Hall Of The Mountain King! Who can forget that classic video…the little elf running through the mountain trying to steal the King’s gold! Any time in the past that I have thrown an “80’s metal video” party, that one was the star of the night.
Elf or no elf, the album is solid front to back. Savatage have many different styles, from thrash to ballads to progressive metal, and have housed three different singers over the course of their long but too brief career! Hall Of The Mountain King falls into the first era with original lead howler Jon Oliva, and captures them at their most “metal”. Which isn’t to say that other influences aren’t audible. Progressive rock was definitely starting to creep in. You can tell by the rendition of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” (here listed as “Prelude to Madness”). When metal bands start playing classical pieces, you know that rock operas aren’t far behind (and they weren’t: four of them, to be exact).
One important factor that separates Hall from earlier and later ‘Tage albums is the riffage of Criss Oliva (RIP.) By this time, working with producer Paul O’Neill, the writing was becoming very focused and the riffs and melodies very sharp. I don’t think the riffs had ever been honed to an edge like this on Savatage albums before. They are just crushing. Criss of course passed away in the early 90’s, and his riffs were never to be heard again. This, in my humble metal heart, is the absolute best of Savatage’s early metallic phase.
There are no bad songs on this album, though “Prelude To Madness” runs a little long and is a tad too synth-heavy. But since it segues right into the title track, we’ll forgive Savatage.
The metal on this album begins with a groove called “24 Hours Ago”. Jarring riffs, great bass lick and patented Oliva screams — what an opener. Just rips your head off! “Beyond the Doors of the Dark” is where the album really begins, in my opinion. This is just an awesome, heavy rocker with a riff of carbon steel as only Savatage could forge. One of their all-time best songs. Joining it is “Legions”, another Sava-classic. Again, it’s dark and riffy, with great lyrics and melodies from Jon. Definitely makes my desert island. Closing side one is a bit of a surprising song: “Strange Wings”. This one is more hard rock, but it’s certainly great. The late Ray Gillen (ex-Black Sabbath & Badlands singer) duets here, and raises the bar up another notch. His vocal soars. Both singers kill it. Manager Paul O’Neill, who also produced the first Badlands album, was was managing both that band and Savatage!
“Hall of the Mountain King” is the song most people know Savatage for. Its riff will drill its way into your head, and that is a promise. I fell hard for this band, and it all started with this one song. You might want to skip that long intro, unless you’re dying to hear Grieg played by a metal band (and even if you do, Ritchie Blackmore’s Rainbow also covered the same Grieg piece on Strangers in Us All).
Tempo slides back a notch on “The Price You Pay”, this one’s a little more Dokken. Yet with another great Criss riff, and more great vocal melodies from Jon, it’s not filler. “White Witch” isn’t either, but it’s the weak link. This is thrash metal like old-school ‘Tage. Reminds me of “Skull Session” or songs of that ilk…fast Savatage with Jon screaming his face off. Then finally “Last Dawn” is a Priest-like instrumental intro to “Devastation”. The riff to “Devastation” is awesome. Chris was at the top of his game, riff wise, in 1987. What a way to end the record. So memorable, and classic ‘Tage.
Special shout-outs go to bassist Johnny Lee Middleton and drummer Steve “Dr. Killdrums” Wacholz for some damn fine metal performances. And, of course, producer/manager/co-writer/arranger Paul O’Neill. He changed the band forever, and Hall Of The Mountain King was just the beginning.
The 2002 Steamhammer version contains two live bonus tracks. From Cleveland in ’87 come “Hall of the Mountain King” and “Devastation”. While the vintage recordings aren’t as beefy as the album itself, they are a very nice add on. “Are you metal?” asks Jon. Yes, yes we are!
Don’t miss this classic. If you enjoyed it, pick up Power Of The Night and Sirens.