Jeff Plate

REVIEW: Savatage – Edge of Thorns (1993)

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!

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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:

  1. “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.
  2. “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.
  3. “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.
  4. “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.

5/5 stars

*The really interesting thing about “Exit Music” is that it is entirely piano.  Therefore no “official” members of Savatage appeared on it!

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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.