Chris Caffery

#794: “Hockey Sticks”

GETTING MORE TALE #794:  “Hockey Sticks”

Though Jimi Hendrix is responsible for the invention of the “hockey stick” guitar, it was my old guitar instructor Gary Mertz who coined the phrase.

In the 1960s, it was difficult for Hendrix to find good guitars for a lefty like him.  Ned Flanders’ Leftorium store was still decades in the future, so what was a young Jimi to do?  Like many things in his life, he got inventive.  He simply flipped a right-handed Fender Stratocaster over, restrung it for a lefty, and played it.

Flipping the guitar not only enabled Jimi to play a Strat, but also gave him some unique advantages in his quest for new sounds.  In this new orientation, the strings were now over the pickups in unusual locations, and had different tension than intended.  The long strings — the highest — were now the shortest strings.  Since the high E was shorter it didn’t have to be as tight, and this made it easier to bend.

This arrangement also had the effect of making Jimi look even cooler.  The iconic image of Jimi playing the upside down Strat became world famous.  With tuning pegs facing down, young righties were envious of this cool new look.

When those young righties grew up and signed to big labels themselves, they popularized the flipped headstock for righties — the “hockey stick” neck!  You can see it, can’t you?  Look at this photo below, of Criss Oliva from the band Savatage, and Tim “Dr. Hook” McCracken from the movie Slap Shot.

That’s a high sticking penalty.  Incidentally, the character of McCracken inspired Marvel’s Wolverine.  You see that too, don’t you?

It wasn’t always players with the calibre of Oliva playing these hockey sticks.  For every Criss Oliva there was a C.C. DeVille.  You knew C.C. wasn’t doing it to gain any string-bending advantage.  He was doing it strictly for image, and that’s one thing my old guitar teacher hated about it.  I think he also hated the sharp jagged headstocks on those Charvels, Jacksons and B.C. Rich’s.  Turning them upside town made them to look even more ridiculous to him.  Like you were about to hit the street for a little two on two ball hockey.  Utterly ridiculous.

 

I always had rock magazines and videos playing in the basement, so when Gary came for lessons he would often comment on what I was listening to at the time.

“Oh no, you don’t like those hockey sticks, do you?”

Sheepishly I said that I did.  I thought they looked cool, like a weapon.

But a guitar is a musical instrument.  The subtle curves on a Fender Strat echo those of a classic violin, not a melee weapon or a piece of sports equipment.  Regardless, by 1989 both Criss Oliva and Christopher Caffery were playing hockey sticks in Savatage!  They looked lethal in the video for “Gutter Ballet”, wielding those implements of both rock and high-sticking.

Although I wouldn’t fully confess my deep love of hockey stick guitars to Gary, I found drawings in my old school books that prove it beyond a shadow of doubt.  See below, this page removed from a grade 11 history note book.  I found three hockey sticks on one page alone!

I clearly liked the shape.  The proof is in the puddin’, or in this case, the 30 year old notebooks that I kept for occasions such as this.

Whammy bar, too.  Floyd Rose, no doubt.  Two open-coil humbucker pickups and a single coil in the middle.  Not a very common arrangement.  Was I trying to combine the best properties of a Fender and a Gibson?  Or was I just doodling?  The latter, most likely.  I screwed up the tuning pegs.  For all I remember, that mysterious top pickup might have just been for flash bombs like Ace Frehley’s.

The guitars do look a little silly today, but the 80s were a different time.  Every band had a shredder and you had to do whatever you could to look different.  Savatage’s dual hockey sticks complemented their jagged logo and looked damn cool being foisted in the “Gutter Ballet” video.

Raise a goblet of whatever you’re drinking, and let’s salute the hockey stick.  With all due respect to Gary Mertz, looking cool, young and lethal on stage used to mean something.  We all wanted to stand out, and a hockey stick was one way to add to an image.  I always wanted one!  Just watch your bandmates’ eyes when you’re swinging it around.  Taking an eye out is a lot worse than high sticking!

REVIEW: Savatage – Sirens & The Dungeons are Calling – all bonus tracks, all editions

Part Three of the Early Savatage series!

SAVATAGE – Sirens & The Dungeons are Calling bonus tracks

This is where things go a little off the rails, so make sure your seatbelt is fastened securely.  We are about to journey through 12 bonus tracks, which run the gamut in every vector.  In terms of quality and origins, it’s the proverbial “bumpy ride”.  Worst of all, if you wish to partake in this voyage, it will cost you dearly.  In order to acquire all 12 bonus tracks, you will need to purchase four separate CDs, and an Infinity Gauntlet.  Maybe.

When I first encountered the album Sirens and its accompanying mini-album The Dungeons are Calling in the mid 90s, they were on cassette, separately.  There were no liner notes but I surmised them to be the first two Savatage releases.  It was impossible to find quality discographies in 1993, so my first time learning they existed was when I bought them.  These were not the rare Canadian Banzai editions, but the standard US releases on Combat.  (Amusingly, the sides listed on Sirens were Side A and Side Z.)


Metal Blade CD (1994)

Just as nature has its rules, so does music collecting.  Everything owned on cassette must be upgraded to CD.  By 1994 I was working at the Record Store, and the day we received notice that these albums were being reissued on CD was the day I ordered them for myself.  The reissue, by Metal Blade, handily put both records on one CD, with four bonus tracks to boot.  The cover was even reversible.  You could display the CD with either Sirens or Dungeons as the front artwork.  On the back:  a live photo of late guitarist Criss Oliva just giv’n ‘er on a string-bending solo.

There are two bonus tracks tacked onto the end of Sirens, and two more after Dungeons.  They remain the champions of bonus songs in the Savatage ouveur.  One is a hellbent live take of “Sirens” from the Gutter Ballet tour in 1990.  It’s the same version as the bootleg CD U.S.A. 1990.  The amusing thing here is that Jon Oliva clearly addresses the crowd as “Hello Deutschland!”  Well, that ain’t in the U.S.A., just a note to you bootleggers out there!  It’s a little bootleggy and not the same lineup as the rest of the albums, but hey — it was 1994 and this “bonus track” thing was relatively new.  It’s a blistering memento with the classic version of the band:  Jon & Criss Olivia, Steve “Doc” Wacholz, Johnny Lee Middleton and Christopher Caffery.

The other three bonus tracks are studio demos, and two of them ended up reworked on the later album Fight For the Rock.  “Lady in Disguise” is thoroughly different, an acoustic-electric ballad superior to keyboard-inflected later version.  Similarly, “Fighting for Your Love” was reworked as “Crying for Love” on Fight for the Rock.  Demo quality aside, this original has more desperation & ferocity, while the remake sounds forced.  Finally “The Message” hasn’t been issued anywhere else in any form.  This very rough take sounds like a garage recording, but even through that you get one super-snakey Criss Oliva riff and a lung-bursting Jon Oliva chorus.  “The Message” flat out rocks, and could have replaced a number of inferior album tracks had it been better committed to tape.

Metal Blade did an awesome job with their 1994 CD of these albums, filling it to the brim with 76 minutes of metal including top-notch bonus tracks.  Eight years later, they decided to have another go at it.


Metal Blade “Silver Anniversary” 2 CD set – sold separately (2002)

Dipping their hands into the cookie jar once more, Metal Blade came up with seven more bonus tracks (though two are unlisted).  The tracks are remastered, and the covers updated to black & chrome, with the Savatage logo in bold, bright silver.  The original artworks are consigned to the CDs themselves, while the booklets contain (small) rare photos (in black & chrome) and half of a Savatage timeline.  Yes, half a timeline – driving the point home even further, you have to buy both CDs to get the entire timeline (and special note from drummer Steve “Doc” Wacholz).

The Dungeons are Calling

This time, Metal Blade placed The Dungeons are Calling first in line, before Sirens.  (You can tell this by the lower catalogue number and the first half of the timeline included.)  It contains three “lost tracks”.  The first, “Metalhead” has a slick vibe, like 80s Judas Priest on speed.  Criss’ solo is a burner, with these super-wide note sweeps that make your head spin.  “Before I Hang” is lo-fi, solid headbangin’ fun.  Nothing particularly memorable, but unquestionably Savatage.  Purely filler, the kind of track that didn’t get finished because they had better stuff to work on.  The last of the three “lost tracks” is a ballad, “Stranger in the Night”.  If you listen carefully, you can hear that this was completed as something else later on — a little epic called “Follow Me” on 1993’s Edge of Thorns!  Now that’s some serious cool.

Didn’t I mention unlisted bonus tracks?  This one is a gentle acoustic number with spare accompaniment.  It sounds like it was recorded much, much later.  You’ll find it at track #99.  How quaint.

Sirens

The second CD in the 2002 has two more bonus tracks, and one more unlisted…something.  It’s something.  We’ll get to that.

“Target” sounds like idiosyncratic Savatage from the start:  The Criss riff that can sound only like Criss Oliva.  The haunting vocals from his brother Jon.  It’s hard to say definitively when it could have been recorded, but it sounds circa Gutter Ballet in structure, tone and performance.  “Living on the Edge of Time” is sonically thin but is clear enough to deliver a screamin’ chorus.  If that chorus only could have been housed in a finished song!  It’s killer.

What is far, far from killer is the novelty rap that sits at #99.  It’s…about a fat old guy who sits around all day doing coke?  It’s…fucking terrible is what it is.  It’s the kind of terrible that actually stains the CD it’s on.  Like you will have to hit “stop” before anyone hears you listening to it.  One has to conjecture that this “song” originated when Jon Oliva was deep into the white stuff, but it’s the kind of all-advised joke that should have stayed on the inside.


Ear Music “The Complete Session” CD (2010)

Another eight years after Metal Blade butchered these releases, Ear Music took a shot with “The Complete Session”.  What does “The Complete Session” mean to you?  I’ll tell you what it means to me.  It means all the tracks.  All the fucking tracks!  Not “none of those tracks but oh here is a new acoustic version from Jon”.  Not that.

Ear music reissued the entire Savatage catalog in 2010 as an attractive looking set that, when combined, form a Savatage logo.  The albums are remastered by Dave Wittman and feature new liner notes by Jon Oliva.  What’s really pesky are the new acoustic bonus tracks recorded to make you buy these albums all over again, in this case the fourth fucking time.

Originally from 1985’s Power of the Night (their very next album in fact) is the ballad “In the Dream” performed on piano by Jon Oliva, with an (uncredited) acoustic guitar solo to match.  It’s a good ballad; great in fact.  There’s no critique being laid at the feet of the song or the new version.  Just at the damn record companies for not giving a fuck for how many times I’ve had to buy this to get “all the tracks”.


Most people only want to buy an album once and be done with it.  Here’s a rating system below to determine which suits your needs best, price notwithstanding.

  • Metal Blade 1994 – 5/5 stars.  Maxed out the CD’s time with four worthwhile bonus tracks.
  • Metal Blade 2002 – 2.5/5 stars.  Consumer forced to buy two discs separately instead of one to get new bonus tracks, but losing the four previous ones.  Felt like gouging.
  • Ear Music 2010 – 3/5 stars.  Artwork will match the rest of the CDs in the set, but thin in terms of bonus tracks.  Does not even contain a picture of the artwork for The Dungeons are Calling.

Purchase accordingly!

 

 

REVIEW: Circle II Circle – Watching in Silence (2003) #200wordchallenge

200 word

CIRCLE II CIRCLE – Watching in Silence (2003 AFM)

 

There are some good reasons why Circle II Circle’s debut album, Watching in Silence, is a dead ringer for Savatage.  First and most obviously, singer Zach Stevens is best known from the Florida progressive metallers.  When he left the band to form Circle II Circle, he had some Sava-help too.  Jon Oliva and Chris Caffery wrote or played on every single song.  Oliva co-produced.  They’re just a helpful kind of band.

Fans of Stevens-era ‘Tage will adore Watching in Silence from start to finish.  It has the heavy, it has the soft, and it has the drama.  There are even the layered operatic vocal arrangements (“Forgiven”), though used sparingly.  Circle II Circle utilise keyboards and piano, but don’t go for the full-on conceptual direction that Savatage did.

Though the album can drag from time to time, there are a number of exceptional tracks.  “Into the Wind” is the first to boast one of those unforgettable Stevens choruses.  The single “Watching in Silence” has the patented Sava-power, composed in equal measure of riffs, piano and killer vocals.  The easiest comparison is to “Edge of Thorns“, Stevens’ first single with Savatage.  Virtually every song has a memorable chorus to go with it.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Savatage – U.S.A. 1990 (bootleg CD)

scan_20170120SAVATAGE – U.S.A. 1990 (1994 Live Storm bootleg CD)

When a bootleg live CD just has a picture of the bass player on the front, you know you’re not in for a perfect listening experience (Motorhead, Kiss and Iron Maiden bootlegs excepted).  Nothing against Johnny Lee Middleton of course, but it would make more sense to put Jon or Criss Oliva on the cover.  U.S.A. 1990 (released 1994) comes from Live Storm in Italy, where many bootlegs originated.  It seems to consist of songs from multiple shows, due to the repeating “Of Rage and War” and “Hounds”.

Repeat aside, U.S.A. 1990 focuses on early heavy tracks with not a single ballad.  Fans of early ‘Tage are going to love getting live versions of “The Dungeons are Calling” and “City Beneath the Surface” from the Dungeons are Calling EP (1984).  There is also the amazing riff-tastic title track from Sirens (1983), to this day still one of their best tracks.  Interestly enough, this very same version of “Sirens” was released officially (and in official sound quality) as a bonus track on the long deleted Music For Nations pressing of Sirens.  You can tell when Jon screams “Danke schön! Hello Deutschland!  You are metal!”  It’s the same version…but wait a sec!  Last I checked, Deutschland is not in the U.S.A.!  Such is the charm of a bootleg release.

“Hounds” from Gutter Ballet (1990) is ominous and evil-sounding, made more so by Jon’s blood curdling screams and howls.  He calls it “doom music”.  Also from 1990, “She’s in Love” is just speed on top of riffs on top of screams.   Gutter Ballet was an ambitious album, and part of that was a three-song suite about insanity.  From that suite “Thorazine Shuffle” is lifted, a classic example of Criss Oliva’s style of snaky guitars. “Of Rage and War” brings another menacing riff, and a topical lyrical message:

Better listen to me you son of a bitch,
Better disarm those missiles sleeping in the ditch,
You have no goddamn right to do the things you do,
The world would be a better place if we were rid of you!

“Sirens” is the centerpiece, a stormy metal drama loaded with waves of guitar crashing against the rocks, wrecking everything in their way.  Jon’s shrieks warn away the meek and timid.  Only the strong will survive the “Sirens”.  You will find no refuge in the “Hall of the Mountain King” either.  This castle of stone shall offer no protection from the riffage pouring down.  Madness reigns, so just go with the groove and get your stomping boots on.  The final track is the upbeat rager “Power of the Night”, the title track from their 1985 album.  It’s a string of lyrical cliches backed by some serious heavy rock.  Raise the fist of the metal child!  Unfortunately the track is cut short.

U.S.A. 1990 is a fairly common bootleg, so if you find one in the $7-8 range, take a shot.

2.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Savatage – Gutter Ballet (Steamhammer remaster)

GUTTER BALLET_0001SAVATAGE – Gutter Ballet (1989, 2002 Steamhammer remaster)

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.

GUTTER BALLET_0003The 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.

3.5/5 stars

* 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.

REVIEW: Savatage – Poets and Madman (Limited edition)

A Savatage reunion gig has been announced for Wacken 2015!

SAVATAGE – Poets and Madman (2001 Steamhammer limited edition)

It is hard to believe that well over a decade have gone by since this, the final Sava-disc. Whether we’ll ever see another is unlikely, but this is a heck of a great album to go out on. Since the death of Criss Oliva, Savatage had become a much more operatic beast, culminating in the formation of Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Here, there are many changes afoot. Guitarist Al Pitrelli departed for Megadeth, although some of his work is herein. Co-lead vocalist Zach Stevens is also gone, having formed the excellent Circle II Circle. This leaves The Mountain King himself, Jon Oliva, to handle all lead vocals for the first time since 1991’s Streets: A Rock Opera. (A new co-lead vocalist named Damond Jineva was hired for the tour.)

IMG_20140723_174816This is another dramatic rock opera, and as soon as the needle hits wax (or in this case, the laser hits 1’s and 0’s) you hear Oliva’s piano flourishes dominate the opening song, “Stay With Me Awhile”. Much like “Streets”, this song is simply an intro to the story which is about to unfold. This time, Oliva and producer Paul O’Neill weave a tale about an abandoned insane asylum and the ghosts within its walls. On a whole it is a much less satisfying concept than some previous Sava-operas, but it backs up the music just fine. And to be honest, that’s why we’re here — the music.

From heavy rockers like “There In The Silence” (backed by a fat synth riff) to slow dramatic ballads like “Back To A Reason”, this is a well-rounded Sava-disc. It is comparable to previous in quality and direction to rock operas such as The Wake of Magellan or Dead Winter Dead, just without Zach.

As with the aforementioned rock operas, there is always a centerpiece on the album. There had to be a counterpoint-vocal-laden masterwork to make your jaw drop in awe and hit that “reverse” button to hear it all again. This time it is a 10 minute epic called “Morphine Child”. With Zach gone, Oliva sings with multiple backing vocalists but the song is no weaker for it.  I’ll confess that even though I usually listen to albums from front to back, I usually play “Morphine Child” three times in a row.  It’s that incredible.

Other standouts include the single “Commissar” which is loaded with guitar flash, keyboards and riffage.  It also features Trans-Siberian-style backing vocals.  “I Seek Power” sounds like classic Savatage circa Gutter Ballet.  “Awaken” is another number that brings to mind that mid-period Savatage sound.  If some fans thought they had strayed way too far into rock opera, then songs like “Awaken” will appeal to their tastes.  I still like hearing Jon screaming a chorus.

I was underwhelmed a bit by the acoustic “Rumor”, but the song does take off fully electric after a few minutes.   Then there’s “Surrender” which feels like an outtake from Streets, but I didn’t find it as memorable.  So there are a couple duds, who cares?

This deluxe version comes with a sticker, a nice box, a bonus music video (1994’s “Handful of Rain” for some reason) and a bonus track (a live version of “Jesus Saves” with Zach singing…for some reason). There was also a poster, and little surprise that relates to the story that fell out of the booklet, but I won’t spoil it. Just a little extra to make the whole thing seem more real.

Poets and Madmen is an excellent album, and it fares well against the other rock operas that Savatage has done. Streets will always be the pinnacle, but Poets and Madmen can hold its own against The Wake of Magellan, and it easily out-does Dead Winter Dead.

4.5/5 stars

Also available was a CD single for “Commissar”.  The single contained two album tracks, as well as an exclusive instrumental called “Voyage”.  This acoustic piece was written and recorded by Al Pitrelli before his departure and it has not been reissued anywhere else.