Jesus Saves

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.

REVIEW: Fight – War of Words (1993)

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Part 1 of a miniseries on Rob Halford’s solo career!

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FIGHT – War of Words (1993 Sony)

I was devastated when Rob Halford left Priest.  I was so heavily invested emotionally in the excellent Painkiller album, I couldn’t believe it was over!  Last I had heard, the band were going to be working on two new songs for a greatest hits album (Metal Works) and then Rob would take a break to do a solo album.  Instead, the band split completely!  Halford and drummer extraordinaire Scott Travis formed Fight with guitarists Russ Parish and Brian Tilse, and the bass player from hell, Jay Jay.   (Today, Parish goes by the name “Satchel” when he plays with Steel Panther!)  Regarding Jay Jay, Halford says that he did a number of Rob’s own tattoos.  Rob figured if he could play bass as well he he tattooed, he was in.  Jay Jay also does the grunt-metal backing vocals.

The resulting album, War of Words, is a Pantera-esque thrash-fest, one of the heaviest things Rob had ever done (until Halford’s Crucible album), undeniable brutal, scream-laden, and punishing from start to finish.  Halford had cleverly assembled two shredding guitar players with differing styles too:  Tilse specialized in the noisy speedy solos, while Parrish played the more melodic and traditional speedy solos!  War of Words is solo nirvana for fans of Rob and Priest.  And Rob wrote every single song by himself.

The twin openers, “Into the Pit” and “Nailed to the Gun”, are two of a kind:  they are rip-yer-head-off thrashers with Rob’s patented glass-breaking screams.  The song structures on War of Words are simpler than what we heard with Priest, no doubt since Rob composed the songs by himself.  This simplicity serves to make the album feel even heavier and more relentless.

The lyrics, just as simple and aggressive.  “Into the Pit” doesn’t feature much in the way of poetry:

Conspiring, for sation
Malfeasance, on high
Obstruction, of duty
Disorder, will rise

Rob takes the pace back a bit on the third track, “Life in Black” which I don’t think you can fairly call a ballad, to me it’s more Dio-era Sabbath with a very vintage-Dio sounding solo.  (Rob had just helped out Sabbath live after Dio left, singing lead for two shows while opening for Ozzy Osbourne.)  Meanwhile “Immortal Sin” bears a slow groove with a melodic chorus, downtuned but a bright spot in the proceedings.

The title track opens with the American First Amendment (Rob was living in Phoenix).  It’s another aural assault with Rob keeping his vocals in the upper register.  Travis’ incredible drumming punctuates every venomous word.  Considering that less than three years prior, Rob (with Priest) was in court defending his band during the infamous “suicide trial”, the words are apt.

Dream Deceivers, directed by David Van Taylor, the excellent documentary on the Judas Priest trial

It’s back to dark haunting territory next:  “Laid to Rest” ended the first side of the album.  I find this one to contain one of Rob’s best vocal performances of the album.  It’s reminiscent of “A Touch of Evil” by Priest, but downtuned and slightly exotic.

Side Two’s opener, “For All Eternity” is really the final reprieve.  It is most definitely a power ballad in vintage Priest vibe, but again with the modern downtuned guitars.  A song like this really proved Rob’s songwriting chops.  He’s capable of writing emotive, catchy powerful music completely on his own, and the song is an achievement.  The bridge around 2:25 is just awesomeness, but Tilse’s guitar solo completes the picture.  As if that wasn’t enough, Rob returns to full on scream mode for the end.

“Little Crazy” was a critically acclaimed heavy metal blues, and the second single/video.  I’m struggling to describe it beyond “heavy metal blues”, but this song is definitely a highlight.  Rob puts everything he has into the slinky lead vocal, while band fuse the blues feel with heavy metal’s precision.  I recall reviews of the time saying, “If Rob wanted to drop metal and go full-on blues, he could.”  Now that would be interesting.

The rest of the album is no-holds-barred.  The triple threat of “Contortion”, “Kill It”, and “Vicious” is almost too much.  Each song strips everything down to the basics:  simple riffs, violent words, relentless drums, without much in terms of melody.  This is the most difficult part of the album to penetrate.  In time the three songs grow.  “Contortion” protests what we are doing to the Earth with angry frustration.  “Kill It” is about TV preachers (whom I’m sure had their opinions on Priest during the trial).  “Vicious” was always my favourite of the trio:

You cheating, lying, mother-fucking son of a bitch..

Vicious, vicious,
Fucker, fucker!

I was going through an angry phase at the time!

Rob saved the best track for last.  “Reality: A New Beginning” is a weighty epic, a perfect closer, slightly exotic and successfully combining Fight’s heavy side with Rob’s ability to write great melodies.  This is simply an incredible song, a jewel in Halford’s crown, and a song which definitely deserves another look.  The lyrics seem to be autobiographical:

This time, when I’m leaving,
Who cares where I’ll go?

There was a hidden CD bonus track (not on cassette) after a five minute silence, a jokey song called “Jesus Saves”.  Rob’s voice is electronically manipulated to sound…well, not sure what he’s supposed to sound like.  An angry elf, I guess.

4.75/5 stars

There are some supplementary releases available:

1. This one is on my wishlist, I don’t own a physical copy:  In 1994 Fight released a Christmas CD single called “Christmas Ride” with a message from Rob!  They later reissued this as a free download from Rob’s site, but that is no longer around.

2. The live/remix EP, Mutations (next up in this series of reviews).

3. In 2007, a demo album called K5: The War of Words Demos was released.  This featured demo versions of most of the album, plus five more.  These include four new songs, and “Psycho Suicide” which was later remade for the second Fight album, A Small Deadly Space.   The demos reveal that a much more conventional-sounding metal album was initially planned.  (“The Beast Denies” is a very different version of “Reality: A New Beginning”.)

4. The 2008 Fight box set Into the Pit contains remixed versions of War of Words (again without “Jesus Saves”) and A Small Deadly Space.  But the cool thing it contains is a DVD, Fight Live In Phoenix.  The band rips through the entire album, in sequence (no “Jesus Saves”!) and then Rob’s solo track, “Light Comes Out of Black” (from the Buffy the Vampire Slayer movie soundtrack).

5. Buffy the Vampire Slayer original motion picture soundtrack.  This is the only place you can get the studio version of “Light Comes Out of Black”, featuring his backing band…Pantera.  All of Pantera.

I like “Light Comes Out of Black”, but it’s a lot easier to swallow than Fight is on first listen.  I remember a M.E.A.T Magazine interview with Glenn Tipton and KK Downing, where they trashed it.  “If it were on Painkiller, it would be one of the weaker songs, if not the weakest,” said KK.

KK might have been right about that to a certain extent, but only because Painkiller consists of 10 awesome songs!