Music For Nations

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

Part Three of the Early Savatage series!

SAVATAGE – Sirens & The Dungeons are Calling bonus tracks

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

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


Metal Blade CD (1994)

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Dungeons are Calling

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

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

Sirens

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

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

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


Ear Music “The Complete Session” CD (2010)

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

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

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


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

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

Purchase accordingly!

 

 

Advertisements

REVIEW: Savatage – The Dungeons are Calling (1983)

Part Two of the Early Savatage series!

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.

3.75/5 stars

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.

REVIEW: Savatage – Sirens (1983)

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.

3.5/5 stars

REVIEW: White Lion – Fight to Survive (1985)

FIGHT TO SURVIVE_0001WHITE LION – Fight to Survive (1985 Music for Nations)

Growing up in the 1980’s, there were a lot of new bands coming out that we latched onto pretty quickly. White Lion was one. My buddy Bob probably liked them better than I did, but I was a fan too. Back in those days, I was the guy buying all the rock magazines, while he was starting out in college. I’d tell him all the latest rock news, what albums were coming out, and so on.

One afternoon we were chatting, and I had something pretty major to tell him. I had read a White Lion interview in Circus magazine, and it revealed something neither of us knew before: Pride was not the first White Lion album! They had done a previous, independent (and rare) record called Fight to Survive that we didn’t know existed. Even back then, Bob and I were collectors, so we sought that album with great vigor.

It took years for him to find it on cassette, and then several more for me to get it on CD. Now I have it, so let’s talk about it.

The opener is “Broken Heart”, which was re-recorded in ’91 for Mane Attraction. Perhaps this early version, sans keyboards, is the better of the two. Regardless, this had hit single written all over it even back then. The chorus kills and even though it has ballady verses, it also has enough balls to pump the fist in the air.  “Cherokee” is another one with a killer chorus.  The songwriting here isn’t perfect, or polished.  It has some clunky moments, but it definitely had something.  Unfortunately, the title track is a lame-o Van Halen rip off, trying to be something like “Mean Street” or something, but missing the mark.  The lyrics about shields and swords are out of place on an album with a song like “Broken Heart”.  Vito Bratta is ripping off Randy Rhoads rather than Eddie Van Halen on the solo, but he had really yet to evolve into the player he became.

FIGHT TO SURVIVE_0002“Where Do We Run” picks up on one of the albums themes:  great choruses (and guitar solos)  that don’t have a great song around them.  However, “In the City” has nothing much of anything going for it: it’s a real flaccid side closer.  Side two’s opener “All the Fallen Men” is much better, sounding something like a Dokken single.  This song is a standout.  The rhythm section of James LoMenzo and Greg D’Angelo had already established a good groove together.  Mike Tramp’s lyrics are not profound (nor would they ever be) but he’s trying.

“All Burn in Hell” is one of those choruses without a song.  “Kid of 1000 Faces” is a song without a chorus.  “El Salvadore” opens with a really cool classical guitar/eletric guitar duo.  This at least has an original sound, or at least for 1985 it was.  And the song itself?  Another great chorus just begging for a good song, a memorable riff — anything!  White Lion were really good at writing song fragments.  Finally, the piano-based ballad “Road to Valhalla” is one of the cheesiest, unconvincing “serious” ballads I have ever heard in my life.  Mike Tramp’s flat vocals don’t help the matter much, but this song is so cookie-cutter that it sounds as if taken from a handbook called How to Re-Write “Home Sweet Home” in Three Simple Steps.

Fight To Survive has a couple great songs, and several brilliant fragments.  If they’d tightened it up and put out five as an EP, we’d be on to something.  Unfortunately, Fight To Survive is only worth:

2.5/5 stars

FIGHT TO SURVIVE_0003