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.
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!
SAVATAGE – Fight For the Rock (Originally 1986, 2002 Steamhammer remaster)
Like many bands then and now, Savatage were led astray by bad management and poor direction by record company executives. At least they tried. Hoping to make some headway, Savatage leader Jon Oliva agreed with the record company’s plan for a change in style. Steering towards hard rock and hoping to become the next Journey, Oliva and company said “what the hell”. Meanwhile, Jon Oliva had submitted some songs to management to see if any other artists might be interested in recording them: “Lady in Disguise”, “She’s Only Rock ‘n Roll”, and “Crying For Love”. They turned around and said “No, we want Savatage to record these songs.”
New bassist Johnny Lee Middleton was lined up to replace Keith Collins. They flew to England on a tourist visa to record the album, only to find Steve “Doc” Wacholz detained at the airport for five hours. “I’m a golf instructor,” he claimed at customs, but most golf instructors don’t carry drum sticks and sheet music in their carry-on bags. This is a perfect metaphor for the album Fight For the Rock: a band masquerading as something they were not.
A big echoey 80s sound blunts the sharp edge that Savatage gained on Power of the Night (produced by Max Norman). “Fight For the Rock” is a good song, but obviously toned down in comparison to title tracks past. Most obtrusive are keyboard overdubs by a studio cat, very different from the keys that Jon Oliva would eventually bring into Savatage himself. These sound like added afterthoughts, not structurally part of the song. Still, as stated, a good song in that Dokken-Crue mold. Only the Jon Oliva screams really connect it with early Savatage.
Keyboards return on “Out on the Streets”, a song from Sirens re-recorded. As a ballad, you can see why the suits thought it would be worth another shot. A great tune is a great tune, but the pipe-like keyboards don’t do it favours. “Crying for Love” is a re-recording of “Fighting for Your Love” and one of the songs Oliva wanted another artist to record, perhaps John Waite. It’s a heavier ballad, not as good as the Sava-demo, but retains some balls.
Hard left turn ahead: “Day After Day” by Badfinger. Oliva decided to do this track since he’d be playing the very piano from the original, so why not. He’d already gone this far. May as well go all-in. “Day After Day” is perhaps the least “Savatage” song in their entire catalogue. A very different Savatage would have evolved had this been a hit for them. A Savatage more akin to Night Ranger or even Stryper!
There are only two songs that Jon Oliva considers “real” Savatage songs today: “The Edge of Midnight” and “Hyde”. They occupy the dead center of the album, closing side one and opening side two. Although they too are infected by the awkward keyboard overdubs, they are both metallic Savatage lurkers, dark and shadowy. “Hyde” hits all the right notes, with perfect OIiva lyrics:
“A good man to evil, From the potion on the table, Taken by mistake, but now it’s far too late.”
“Lady in Disguise”, which exists in superior demo form, was largely rewritten to be submitted to other artists. It exists on Fight For the Rock as the third ballad, watered down and rearranged to accommodate a big keyboard hook. “She’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” is a little more Savatage even though it too was not intended for their use. It’s a hard rock Savatage, a little Dio-ish and one of the few songs with a recognizable Criss Oliva guitar riff.
Not particularly Sava-like but very good just the same is the Free cover “Wishing Well”. It and “Day After Day” remain the only true covers that Savatage have ever recorded. It’s a pummelling arrangement, well performed and strangely appropriate for the Sava-treatment. It’s like their “Green Manalishi”. Concluding the album, “Red Light Paradise” has a touch of that occasional Sava-sleaze. Good track with a nice chug to it, and plenty of screamin’ vocals.
As before, Steamhammer added bonus tracks to the 2002 reissue. From the Gutter Ballet tour and featuring an expanded lineup with second guitarist Christopher Caffery, it’s two live classics: “The Dungeons are Calling” and “City Beneath the Surface”. Could that year, 1990, have been peak Savatage? That powerful lineup was short lived, as Caffery temporarily left the band at its conclusion. When he returned, Criss Oliva was gone, killed by a drunk driver. To the point: these are killer versions, (and not the same as the live album Ghost in the Ruins).
Steamhammer also provided in-depth liner notes, housed inside a blurry reproduction of the cover art. That is an unfortunately win/lose. One is tempted to have two copies of the album, just to have clear original cover art. Collectors need more that one copy anyway, just to deal with the maze-like bonus track situation through the entire Savatage collection.
As Jon Oliva says in the notes, Fight For the Rock is not a bad album, if you like hard rock. It’s not really a good Savatage album. Hey, they tried, right? They swung for the fences. And when they failed to hit the grand slam home run, they lost credibility with fans and the rock press. Still, for those willing to check it out, there are a few rewarding tracks amidst the muck.
The story continues with these previously posted reviews:
SAVATAGE – Power of the Night (Originally 1985, 2002 Steamhammer remaster)
Raise the first of the metal child!
If any fans were worried that Savatage would “sell out” after signing to Atlantic in 1984, those fears were swiftly cast aside. Power of the Night, their first on a major label, was produced by metal-meister-to-be, Max Norman. The band had plenty of material demoed (in a session with Rick Derringer) and were ready for the studio.
Nothing was toned down; if anything, Savatage turned it up. Melting the speakers with the title track, a fancy keyboard opening might have fooled some. When the patented Criss Oliva riff commences, you better hold on tight.
“Children of the metal movement, The legions growing stronger, Stronger than they believe.”
With Norman at the helm, Savatage achieved a sharp, biting sound. Relentless beats courtesy of Steve “Dr. Killdrums” Wacholz helped them cement themselves as true metal competitors. The foursome from Florida were not to be ignored.
Savatage were improving as songwriters. “Unusual” puts atmosphere over headbangin’ riffs, and effectively so. Singer Jon Oliva became increasingly interested in keyboards album by album until it eventually became the focus of the band. Here it works to cloak you in a dark weave of ominous metal. Then, if you were hungering for more riffs, bow down to the fuckin’ rad* “Warriors”. Another Criss Oliva riff as only he could write them, “Warriors” rivals Judas Priest for absurd fantasy metal thrills. It gets a little silly on “Necrophilia”, but the headbangin’ does not wane. You might break your neck on “Washed Out”, a little speed metal ditty to cure what ails you.
Side two switches the gears a bit with a Scorpions-Dokken hybrid called “Hard for Love”, which generated some faux-controversy in the 80s. It’s the most commercial Savatage song yet, but it works remarkably well due to the sharp edges; not blunted by improved production values. Still riding high with quality metal, “Fountain of Youth” takes things to a wizardly world inhabited by Dio and his cohorts. (Of note: it’s one of the few Savatage songs with a Doc Wacholz writing credit.)
Savatage’s speed metal adventures can be hit or miss. “Skull Session” is a miss, though you may enjoy the lyrics about an “X-rated lesson”. There’s no real melody and the riff isn’t one of Criss’ most notable. Plenty of screams though. A mid-tempo “Stuck On Your” doesn’t get the car out of the mud. It’s just a little dull compared to the scorchers on side one.
Ending Power of the Night on a ballad was a ballsy move, but “In the Dream” is one of the best from the early years. Indeed, Jon Oliva re-recorded it acoustically for one of the many reissues of Sirens/Dungeons are Calling. Dr. Killdrums does a fine job of punctuating the song’s drama with short bursts of swinging limbs.
Steamhammer included two live bonus tracks.** From Cleveland in 1987, a spot-on “Power of the Night” is a furious rendition of a song already smoking hot. “Sirens” live in Dallas three years later is just as furious, though Jon’s voice is more worn. They also included excellent liner notes, lengthy and detailed. Unfortunately the cover art on these Steamhammer reissues is atrociously blurry.
Power of the Night was the last Savatage album with original bassist Keith Collins. Originally a guitarist, Collins’ bass wasn’t up to snuff at all times so Criss Oliva had to play on several tracks to fix portions they weren’t happy with. Now that it’s encoded on a little silver disc forever, the final album is tight and punchy.
Unfortunately, it didn’t sell well enough for Atlantic. Bumpy road ahead!
* “Warriors” is “fuckin’ rad” according to Holen MaGroin
** Like all Savatage albums, different issues have different sets of bonus tracks. These will have to be covered at a later time as a “complete” Savatage collection can be an expensive proposition.
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.
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.
SAVATAGE – The Dungeons are Calling (1983 Music for Nations)
More adventures in metal! Savatage recorded Sirens and The Dungeons are Calling mini-album in just one day. The 15 songs could not fit on a single record, so they released two. Did you know you have to buy four separate CDs just to get all the bonus tracks? Ridiculous but true! The Savatage catalogue is a mess of reissues and bonus tracks, all but impossible to keep track of. Yesterday we examined the debut LP Sirens. Today we delve into the Dungeons, before finishing up with the bonus tracks in a separate review.
On their first four releases, Savatage always opened with a terrifying title track. Dungeons is no exception. Soft acoustic guitars lull you in, but eerie keyboards are your warning. Like sleeping beasts disturbed and awaken, Steve “Doc” Walcholz (drums) and Criss Oliva (guitar) then bare their serrated teeth. The Oliva riff is one that could only have been written by him. Nobody else composes jagged guitar thunder like Criss Oliva did. Ass thoroughly kicked, you are now ready to proceed… but only “By the Grace of the Witch”! This slippery metal dirge boasts yet another unmistakable Criss riff. The first side closes with “Visions”, manic thrash metal but with two hands firmly on the wheel.
A nice Priest-like chug serves as the foundation of “Midas Knight”, a song which easily could have been an outtake from Stained Class. It is one of the best constructed songs of the early Savatage canon. And just listen to those cannons they call drums! Then it is time to journey to the “City Beneath the Surface”. A deceivingly intro leads into another thrash ‘eadbanger. Once your neck has recovered, you’ll probably be too worn out for “The Whip”. Not the best Savatage tune, and possibly the worst from the first two records. Nothing wrong with dirty sex songs, but they should be clever. There’s nothing clever about “The Whip” and though it has an excellent riff, the chorus is a stinker.
The Dungeons are Calling is a more well-rounded listen than Sirens. It’s shorter, which helps, but one wonders if all 15 songs were re-arranged, could you come up with a better running order? Regardless, Savatage were off to the races. Major label deals and MTV videos were still in the future, so Sirens and Dungeons are the clearest view of the young and not-so-innocent Savatage. Renowned metal wordsmith Martin Popoff calls them “debuts of frightening skill and authority,” while praising Sirens as possibly the greatest indie album of the genre. There is something here of massive substance that the band would only build upon, but Dungeons goes down easier.
Next time we’ll look at all 12 bonus tracks, from the four CDs you need to get ’em all. As you’ll see, some are quite significant.
WELCOME TO THE DUNGEONS! It’s Part One of the Early Savatage series!
SAVATAGE – Sirens (1983 Music for Nations)
Welcome to the early Savatage series! The first two Sava-platters, Sirens and The Dungeons are Calling, were recorded together in one day. The 15 songs could not fit on a single record, and so the songs were released on an album and an EP. Did you know you have to buy four separate CDs just to get all the bonus tracks?
The Savatage catalogue is a mess of reissues and bonus tracks, all but impossible to keep track of. The worst of them for scattershot releases are Sirens and The Dungeons are Calling. As part of this series, we will examine the first album, the EP, and all the associated bonus tracks & where to find them. Today, let’s have a listen to Sirens.
Low budget, borderline thrash metal — that’s Sirens. There are no hints of the progressive rock to come, but plenty of Criss Oliva riffs, a treasured commodity that we haven’t had any of since his untimely death in 1993. The title track packs in slick lightning guitar licks with a concrete riff. You can certainly hear the outlines of massive songs to come, like “Hall of the Mountain King” and “Gutter Ballet”, but this is straightforward headbangin’ metal, with a slow section in the middle to catch your breath. Beware the “Sirens” or you too might end up on the rocks!
“Holocaust” delivers an atom bomb riff, the kind only Criss OIiva could write. A nuclear apocalypse was reliable 80s subject matter for metal lyrics. “What will 2000 bring? The war of a billion things.” I sure wish I could go back in time and tell Jon Oliva about Y2k, the disaster that wasn’t! Good song though, with lots of punch courtesy of original bassist Keith Collins, and Steve “Dr. Killdrums” Wacholz. The end of the world continues on “I Believe”, humanity’s search for their next homeworld. Another great metal tune, made effective by the hard core metal shrieks of Jon Oliva blasting over the riffs of his brother Criss. When they hit the warp speed, “I Believe” becomes Starship Motorhead! The metal blitz ends the first side on “Rage”, a song that sounds exactly how you think it should.
Mid-paced metal dominates “On the Run”. It’s the first less-than-impressive song on the album, but worse is the BDSM-flavoured speed metal farce “Twisted Little Sister”. Filler without hooks. “Living for the Night” delivers some thrills via the splendid riffage, as does “Scream Murder”. The second side is clearly inferior to the first, but fortunately it ends on a ballad called “Out on the Streets”. They would later re-record this song for the ill-fated Fight for the Rock album, but the original has an innocence and vibrancy the re-recording doesn’t.
Everyone will have their own takeaways from Sirens, but to these ears, there are a few songs in the middle of the album that should have been replaced with others. If Sirens and Dungeons are Calling were distilled into a single 10 track LP, it could have been a landmark of the genre. (We’ll look at the EP next time.) Instead we have an album you’d call “good”. Not “great”, simply “good”. Which is a shame because the tunes “Sirens”, “Holocaust”, “I Believe” and “Out on the Streets” really are great.
SAVATAGE – 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.
I haven’t reviewed much of my Savatage collection, and the reason for this is actually their fault. There are so many different versions with different bonus tracks that I cannot keep any of it straight. I have no idea what I have or what I’m missing at this point concerning bonus tracks. I like to be thorough when reviewing an album, providing some commentary on all the different tracks available. In Savatage’s case, I give up. I can’t keep up with the bonus tracks, but I’m going to review the albums anyway. Streets: A Rock Opera is the Savatage album closest to my metal heart. And that means it’s Epic Review Time!
SAVATAGE – Streets: A Rock Opera (1991, 2002 Steamhammer remaster)
The origins of Savatage did little to hint at what they could become. Little more than a thrash band with remarkable riffs and throat, Savatage truly began to grow when they hooked up with producer/co-writer Paul O’Neill. He had already been working on an idea for a musical called Gutter Ballet. Savatage liked his ideas; singer Jon Olivia used the title for his song “Gutter Ballet” (unrelated), after being inspired by Phantom of the Opera. Their next project was determined to be the O’Neill musical, which now needed a new title: Streets (with Ghost in the Ruins being O’Neill’s preferred, un-used title). One song was already used: “When the Crowds are Gone” was recorded by Savatage for their 1989 LP. Other songs would also have to be trimmed, such as “Desirée”, and “This is Where We Should Be” which later emerged as bonus tracks elsewhere.
A children’s choir opens the title track “Streets”, before the tinkling of creepy piano. “Streets” acts as introduction to the story, setting the scene with Jon Olivia as your narrator. The song turns very metal to let us know this story is going to be a heavy one. “These streets never sleep, still they never wake,” goes the ominous tune. Jon’s brother, guitarist Criss Oliva, rips up and down the neck for a solo section that evokes hope instead of fear. I feel chills on my arms.
Streets contains very little dialogue. A man begging for a quarter introduces himself. “I ain’t no bum or nothin’. I used to live uptown once before too you know.” He lights up a cigarette. Lots of characters down here. But there was one character who made it out of here: D.T. Jesus. He was a drug dealer, “Downtown Jesus”, or “Detox” to his friends. Streets is his story, and this is the intro to “Jesus Saves”.
The interesting thing about “Jesus Saves” is that there is an alternate version out there that wasn’t used, called “DT Jesus”. Lyrically it’s identical, but musically it’s gospel rock. Don’t ask me to choose a favourite; I can’t. The gospel version has an incredible power that the album version, “Jesus Saves”, does not. However Savatage are a metal band, and even if this is a rock opera, “Jesus Saves” works better for a metal album. It’s exactly what is needed for the start of this album: a short, hard shot right in the face, guitars exotically dancing and Jon Oliva shrieking the best he can. D.T. Jesus may have been a low-life, but that wasn’t his future. “Bought himself a cheap guitar, started playing bars, kids came in their cars.”
…and “DT Jesus”. Which do you prefer?
Fame comes. T-shirts, radio interviews, headline concerts. It was not to last for D.T. Jesus. “He started missing shows, the band came down to blows, but Jesus just didn’t care.” Even when he quits the band, his fame won’t disappear. The story of the musician who could not kick his demons resonated with Jon Oliva who went through his fair share of powders and pills before Streets. There are probably several kernals of truth within his vocals and that is one thing that makes Streets so unforgettable.
“Tonight He Grins Again” refers to the monkey on his back: addiction. “Still he is my only friend, and tonight he grins again.” The power in this piano/metal hybrid is undeniable. During the quiet passages, Oliva’s voice quavers; then he shouts hauntingly on the choruses. Mid-tempo guitars kick in for “Strange Reality”, and the story begans to turn. Jesus sees a filthy man on the streets. “That could be me,” he begins to think to himself. Is it a sign or a warning? D.T. comes to this realization and then begins a confessional on “A Little Too Far”. A pretty piano ballad like “A Little Too Far” may seem out of place, but it is only the first of several. “A Little Too Far” is very special, raw and penetrating. Towards the end it lightens up, and this is my favourite verse on the whole album:
“And who’s to say what it’s about, When John Wayne caught the last train out? And Spock and Kirk have had enough, And no-one’s left to beam me up?…”
Drummer Steve “Doc” Wacholz used to play with a United Federation of Planets banner on his bass drum.
The mood lightened, D.T. Jesus goes for a comeback. “You’re Alive” is the most “pop-metal” of all the songs, like Sava-Journey, indicating this is it: this is D.T.’s moment. “The crowd they came in just to see a man back from the dead.” Triumphant hard rock it is, victorious and fist-pounding. But it’s too soon for a happy ending. “You’re Alive” ends abruptly. Enter: Sammy.
“Sammy and Tex” is old-school Motor-metal. The heavy chug interrupts the celebration. Oliva screams rapid-fire from the left speaker, as the character of Sammy, an old acquaintance from the drug days. He’s come looking for an old drug debt: $30,000, plus interest: “Now I would have said duck it, but with the money by the bucket, I hear you’re raking in…” A struggle ensues, but D.T.’s manager Tex hears the commotion and enters the room. Sammy pulls a knife, and Tex is dead.
Musically, “Sammy and Tex” is the most hard core Savatage metal on the album. Shreddery and riffs collide with the kind of speed metal tempos that they mastered on their earliest albums. Relentless and without pause, “Sammy and Tex” perfectly accompanies the words. The struggle is over in a blur. Sammy makes a run for it leaving D.T. with Tex’s dead body.
The first side of the album closes with the sorrowful “St. Patrick’s”. Not knowing where to turn, D.T. enters St. Patrick’s church, begging for answers. The statues and paintings provide no answers. “Surely, you must care, or are you only air?” asks D.T. in frustration. The music turns dramatic, and then explodes as D.T. breaks down. He then apologizes for his outburst: “Didn’t mean to doubt what it’s all about, seems I forgot my place. But if you find the time, please change the storyline.”
Side two opens in a different mood, a dreamy landscape of echoey drum bursts and light guitars. “Can You Hear Me Now” drops a heavy Criss Oliva riff at the halfway mark and then it starts to rip. D.T. Jesus seems haunted by people from his past as he tries to fall asleep. Hitting the streets again, “New York City Don’t Mean Nothing” begins as an out-of-place acoustic song. Here we meet some other unsavoury street characters, as the song begins to accelerate. First a fast bass beat, then chunky electric guitars join in and the song blasts off. All sorts of advice is offered to our lead character, but none is really useful.
It sounds like Savatage ripped off the opening guitars from Def Leppard’s “Die Hard the Hunter” on the next track, “Ghost in the Ruins”. I all but expect Joe Elliot’s voice next. It goes heavy instead, painting a picture of the bad side of town at night. D.T. then begins to question what the world would be like if he didn’t exist anymore. Would anybody care? “If I Go Away” goes full-on power ballad mode. It is one of the most powerful songs on the album, anthemic and beautiful, but sad. It has become a bit of a classic to Savatage fans today, often considered among their best ballads.
D.T.’s demons will not die, and the urge to go back to the drugs once again speaks on “Agony and Ecstasy”, the last of the heavy tracks on the album. With a chugging Criss riff, this one blasts like a train fueled by Van Halen (not Van Hagar) albums! “Just remember, if you ever need me…I’m here,” ends the song. Then the story gets a little fuzzy, but thankfully the band included a narrative that helps explain events. The album closes with a trio of piano ballads, each building upon the other to a satisfying climax.
Fair warning here: Much of Savatage’s conceptual music has Christian overtones, but none more obvious than on these three tracks. According to the story, D.T. finds a homeless man in the streets who is dying. D.T. feeds him and clothes him. This would be during the ballad, “Heal My Soul”, the first of the ballad trio. It is based on a Welch lullaby called “Suo Gân”. With just piano and the voice of Oliva, you can imagine D.T. singing this to comfort the man as he passes away. The children’s choir then returns, adding a pretty but haunting quality.
According to the story, D.T. witnesses a luminous spirit emerge from the homeless man, who he follows up several flights of stairs to a roof of a building. On “Somewhere In Time”, D.T. seems to have come to a spiritual realization and confesses all his regrets and mistakes. “I’ve been grasping at rainbows, holding on to the end, but the rain is so real lord, and the rainbows pretend.” The music goes upbeat with a hard rocking middle section, guitars squealing as if possessed by St. Halen himself. Then, finally D.T. opens his heart and gets his answers: “Believe” is the perfect ending to an epic emotional journey. With all the power that Savatage can muster, overblown, dramatic, and pompous, “Believe” ends a rock opera properly. Interestingly, it retains a simply epic section that was lifted directly from “When the Crowds are Gone”, excised from the story when it was used on the Gullet Ballet album. So epic is this segment, that Savatage had to re-use it. Then later, on another Savatage album later in 1994 called Handful of Rain, part of it was re-used again, along with other parts of “Believe”. Its positioning on that album was the same: it was part of the closing track. Only on Handful of Rain, it was on a song called “Alone You Breathe” that was a tribute to Criss Oliva, who was killed by a drunk driver.
“Believe” ends the album on the bright up-note that you want a story to end with, your soul awash with light and musically uplifted. Reading the story and words, it’s really hard to avoid the obvious message. Listening to the music purely as an album, you can probably live life completely ignorant of the story. But as soon as they put A Rock Opera in the title, that makes the listener try to follow along. I think it’s pretty obvious, in the final song “Believe”: “I am the way, I am the light, I am the dark inside the night…” Paul O’Neill, who wrote the musical on which this album was based, is openly Catholic, and there’s nothing wrong with that. There’s nothing wrong with writing what you know and what interests you and what makes you feel something. But some…probably a minority of listeners…just flat out won’t like it. They will consider the call of “I’ll be right there, I’ll never leave, and all I ask is believe,” to be heavy-handed preaching, and fair enough. That’s why I’m putting it out there — for readers to make up their own minds.
A later, Zak Stevens-sung version of “Believe” done acoustically.
So, on to this lovely Steamhammer remaster…with “bonus tracks”.
Two bonus tracks are listed: “Jesus Saves” and “Ghost in the Ruins” live. One issue: There are no bonus tracks on this CD. None. Nada.
There is a recent release with narration between all the songs, and a previously unreleased track called “Larry Elbows”. That’s probably a good one to have. There is a 2011 remaster with unreleased acoustic songs. There was a 1997 release with a Zak Stevens-sung version of the outtake “Desirée”. Or you could go with the original 1991 release if you’re so inclined, because there are more flaws with this Steamhammer package.
One is that all the artwork is blurry in comparison to an original release. The other is that the narrative story isn’t included in the booklet. It was in the original, along with the lyrics. Steamhammer only brought over the lyrics. In compensation, they do include an 11 page (very small print) segment detailing every aspect of the making of this album and the tour that followed. In the end, Jon Oliva resigned from the band, citing exhaustion. His replacement was the young and able Zak Stevens for 1993’s followup Edge of Thorns.
Savatage’s Streets: A Rock Opera was their first full-length concept album, the first of many: Dead Winter Dead, The Wake of Magellan, and Poets and Madman all followed after a brief period of non-conceptual work. That’s some heavy competition, but Streets remains their most passionate.
By special request of reader Wardy, it’s Epic Review Time!
SAVATAGE – Edge of Thorns(1993 Edel & 2002 Steamhammer)
Sava-fans were shaken. Even though 1991’s Streets: A Rock Opera was a complete artistic triumph, singer and co-founder Jon Oliva quit the band. Side projects and home life had become priorities. He would not, however, ever truly leave Savatage. Even though he was no longer the singer, Jon Oliva co-wrote every track with his brother Criss and producer Paul O’Neill. He even personally selected his replacement, Zachary Stevens, and tutored and coached the new young singer. He also continued to play all the piano parts in the studio, although this time he would not tour. It was certainly an unusual situation, but also an ideal one. Fans knew that Jon was not really gone, and they easily embraced Stevens as the new frontman. Oliva had stated that Savatage needed a voice like Zak’s in order to continue. He knew his own voice was not commercial enough to get on the radio. With Stevens they had a shot.
The press glowed with reviews, praising the new direction of the band. They had successfully combined the later piano-tinged Savatage that wrote complex operatic songs and ballads, with the earlier riff-driven metallic Savatage. Stevens was praised for his voice, and comparisons to Geoff Tate, James LaBrie and Ray Alder were tossed around. I found a copy of Edge of Thorns in Michigan, and it was with great anticipation that I ripped the shrink wrap off the cassette and placed it in my Walkman.
Anyone who has heard the now-classic title track “Edge of Thorns” can’t forget the haunting piano that descends at the beginning of the album. At this early stage, Stevens was very much singing like a progressive rock singer, and throwing in screams at key moments. His range and power here are impressive, and very different from the Mountain King’s style. “Edge of Thorns” was a great choice for an opening track and new singer. Not only is it one of the most immediate songs that Oliva/Oliva/O’Neill had yet composed, but it also combines both sides of the band. The soft piano intro reflects Streets, but then it kicks into overdrive with a riff, heavy bass and dramatic guitar solos. It possesses the pure rock drama of “Gutter Ballet”. It is the whole package.
I have always been drawn to the words.
I have seen you on the edge of dawn, Felt you here before you were born, Balanced your dreams upon the Edge of Thorns, …but I don’t think about you anymore.
I don’t think about you…anymore, Anymore…
But clearly, he does, and intensely so.
“He Carves His Stone” begins as if a ballad, but the patented snake-y Criss Oliva guitar riff drags us back to the metallic origins of the band. The combination of riff and chorus are a winning one. More intense is the borderline thrash metal of “Lights Out”, a smoking track that shows what Zak Stevens can do with the rougher side of his voice. Hang on tight and shout along to the chorus, because this one is a ride.
Back to the dark, dramatic side that Savatage do so well, it’s “Skraggy’s Tomb”, a brilliant song bursting with ominous heaviness. Just let it assault your skull, don’t fight it. Fear not — “Labyrinths” is a quiet piano piece, with Jon accompanied by Chris on guitar. This cascades in traditional Sava-fashion into a fully-blown dramatic intro similar to “Gutter Ballet”. It is a suitable and essential part of the song it is attached to, “Follow Me”, the side one epic.
His whole life was written, Written there inside, The new weekly Bible, His modern TV Guide, Every night he stares back at the screen.
There is no way to sum up the pure excellence, drama, and chills that “Follow Me” delivers. Zak’s vocals make it accessible enough, the power is undeniable. “Follow Me” is among the greatest songs of the Zak Stevens era. A quiet piano piece appropriately titled “Exit Music”* works as an outro. Together with intro and outro, “Follow Me” is almost 10 minutes of pure Savatage adrenaline, with a Criss Oliva solo that still gives me chills.
The second side opens exotically with “Degrees of Sanity”, and Savatage fans know that sanity of one of Jon Oliva’s favourite lyrical subjects! Criss’ guitar parts are lyrical and enticing. Slowly it chugs, building and building. With Criss firmly at the helm, the ship steers through craggy riff after craggy riff until it gives way to the next song, also clearly dealing with sanity: “Conversation Piece”. The subject person of the song thought he had been doing better, lately. “I haven’t thought about you for a while,” he claims. But even so, he has not let it all go yet. “I keep your picture hidden a file, of favourite one-act plays. Like pieces of myself, cut off in desperation, as offerings to thee. I’ll leave them on the shelf, they’re good for conversation over a cup of tea.” The melodramatic lyrics of Savatage have always appealed to me (I don’t know what that says about me). Thanks to Stevens’ impassioned delivery, you can feel every word, while Criss Olivia chugs behind. Remind me not to visit for tea!
Delicate is “All That I Bleed”, a pretty piano ballad with a rocking conclusion. Demonstrating the versatility of his voice, Stevens sings smooth and light, until the end. Perhaps it is all coincidence, but the songs do seem connected. Both “All That I Bleed” and “Conversation Piece” deal with a letter and difficult emotions. I like to think of the two songs as alternate endings to the same story — one in which the person does not send the letter (“Conversation Piece”) and one where he does (“All That I Bleed”). Regardless, “All That I Bleed” has everything you would want in a ballad. Had in come out in 1989 it would have stormed the charts and MTV would have played it non-stop. 1993 was a very different year from 1989, but Savatage had never expressed any interest whatsoever in musical trends (the mis-step that was Fight for the Rock notwithstanding).
“Damien” appears next, a choppy heavy rock tune with bouncy piano doubling the guitar riff. Following this fine song is the even finer “Miles Away”, a melodic heavy rocker that is easy to like. It has a brightness to it, and Steve “Doc” Wacholz kicks the drums right in the ass. Unexpectedly the album closed with a quiet acoustic song, “Sleep”. It feels like a sunrise after the stormy night, and perhaps that’s the intention.
There are plenty of bonus tracks on different editions of Edge of Thorns. I can only review the bonus tracks I have, which are:
“Shotgun Innocence”, originally a Japanese bonus track. This is a glossy hard rock song with an emphasis on melody. Though certainly heavy enough, its direct rock vibe doesn’t fit the mood of Edge of Thorns, which I’m sure is why it was saved for a bonus track. Good song though, and it certainly shows off the pipes of young Mr. Stevens.
“Forever After”, the second Japanese bonus track. Probably the weakest song of the batch. It sounds a bit like an unfinished Ozzy outtake, circa the Jake E. Lee period.
“Conversation Piece (Live in rehearsal 9/24/1994)” is recorded really poorly, but the sweat and rawness are captured. Since it is live in rehearsal, and it is known that Doc Wacholz did not tour, I assume this is with Jeff Plate on drums. That would also have to be Alex Skolnick from Testament on guitar. This track is on the 2002 Steamhammer/SPV remastered edition.
“Believe (Acoustic)” is part of a series of acoustic versions Savatage did for another batch of reissues. This is Zak Stevens’ version of the closing ballad from Streets, but with acoustic guitar instead of piano. It is a fascinating alternative version, but the original always kills me. This is on a German printing on Edel records.
As fate would have it, this would be the final time Jon and Criss would make music together. On October 17, 1993 Criss was killed by a drunk driver with seven prior DUI’s. Rather than let this crush him, Jon survived by pouring himself into music. Savatage would not die, even if with half its heart ripped out. Edge of Thorns remains Criss Oliva’s capstone, and a bright apex it is.
*The really interesting thing about “Exit Music” is that it is entirely piano. Therefore no “official” members of Savatage appeared on it!
SAVATAGE – Hall of the Mountain King (1987, 2002 Steamhammer remaster)
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.