Chris Caffery

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

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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.