Paul O’Neill

R.I.P. Paul O’Neill 1956-2017

There was a time when Paul O’Neill (Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Savatage’s “sixth member”) was my favourite lyricist, period.  He did, after all, write the most emotional rock opera I’ve ever experienced (Streets, by Savatage).  More people are familiar with TSO than Savatage, but for me, the impact that Paul’s music had on my soul via Savatage cannot be measured.

Rest in peace.

REVIEW: Savatage – Streets: A Rock Opera (1991, 2002 remaster)

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!

Scan_20160523SAVATAGE – 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”.


“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.”

SAVATAGE STREETS

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.


“Believe”

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.

5/5 stars

but 1/5 for Steamhammer!

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!

REVIEW: Aerosmith – Classics Live! II (1987)

CLASSICS LIVE II_0001AEROSMITH – Classics Live! II (1987 Columbia, 1993 Sony)

Hot on the heels of Classics Live came Classics Live II!  Today you can get them together in one set, because they really are companion albums with no overlap between them.  All songs here were recorded by the classic lineup of Steven Tyler, Joe Perry, Brad Whitford, Tom Hamilton, and Joey Kramer, and there are a couple neat surprises in the tracklist.

“Back in the Saddle” always works as an opening track, especially since this one comes from the 1984 Aerosmith reunion tour.  They truly were back in the saddle, though just as wasted as ever!   It has its sloppy moments and sour notes, but more energy than some of the previous live stuff.  This rendition will never be considered a definitive live take of the song, but it does document that oft-forgotten mid-80’s period.

“Walk This Way” opens with the announcement that it was Tom Hamilton’s birthday!  That would make it their New Year’s Eve gig in Boston in ’84.  Joey’s drums are a little “thuddy” sounding, and I put the blame on producer Paul O’Neill (Savatage) who doesn’t always capture a drum sound to my tastes.  “Movin’ Out” is one of my underdog favourites from the first Aerosmith album and I’ll always dig its slow, heavy drawl.  It’s so great to hear Tyler sing that familiar ad-lib that he does live:  “No-one knows the way but Joe Perry.”  Following that is “Draw the Line”, another brilliant classic done live all loosey-goosey.  “Same Old Song and Dance” follows that same tradition, with a teasing opening to make the crowd go nuts.

“Last Child” brings the funk as always, but my favourite has to be “Let the Music Do the Talking”.  Although it was recorded before Done With Mirrors, this was the first new Aerosmith song to get a live release.  Of course it’s technically a Joe Perry Project song, but Aerosmith’s version kicks that one in the ass.  This live one is pretty awesome.  Closing the album with “Toys in the Attic” guarantees that the ending is just as exciting as the beginning.  Killer version.

The coolest thing to me about Classics Live II is that even though it’s called II, it doesn’t sound like a second volume of a live album.  Considering that “Walk This Way”, “Back in the Saddle”, “Toys in the Attic” and “Same Old Song and Dance” are all on here, it could easily have been the first volume.  It is easily the equal of part I.

3.5/5 stars

AEROSMITH BOX OF FIRE review series:

BOX OF FIRE THUMBDisc 1: Aerosmith (1973)
Disc 2: Get Your Wings (1974)
Disc 3: Toys in the Attic (1975)
Disc 4: Rocks (1976)
Disc 5: Draw the Line (1977)
Disc 6: Live! Bootleg (1978)
Disc 7: Night in the Ruts (1979)
Disc 8: Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits (1980)
Disc 9: Rock in a Hard Place (1982)
Disc 10: Classics Live! (1986)
Disc 11: Classics Live! II (1987)

REVIEW: Aerosmith – Classics Live! (1986)

CLASSICS LIVE_0001AEROSMITH – Classics Live! (1986 Columbia, 1993 Sony)

A reunited Aerosmith managed to put it together enough to tour, and record new music.  Now on Geffen, Done With Mirrors was considered a “good enough” album in most circles.  The Box of Fire set, which this series of reviews is really about, doesn’t include any of the Geffen material.  Instead it jumps ahead to the next Columbia release, which came out the year after Done With Mirrors.   Columbia were now able to put out live albums and compilations.  Classics Live! was the first of these.

We have already established that the Live! Bootleg album is simply excellent.  As a double live album, it is one of the essential releases from the 1970’s that serious rock fans should own.  Classics Live is a different beast, a single LP with odds and ends from tours from 1977 to 1983.  There is no indication who is playing on what, but it is known that all four Aerosmith guitarists (Joe Perry, Brad Whitford, Jimmy Crespo, Rick Dufay) play on the album.  They are all pictured inside, but only by ear could you determine who is playing.  For example I think “Train Kept a Rollin'” is a 1983 recording with Crespo and Dufay.

It’s cool that there are songs on Classics Live that were not on Live Bootleg. The most notable of these is “Kings and Queens” which really deserves a lot more praise than it gets.  Aerosmith at their most regal.  The others are a medley of “Three Mile Smile” and “Reefer Headed Woman” from Night in the Ruts.  Joe Perry was definitely out of the band by that time.

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Of the more familiar tracks, “Sweet Emotion” is a particularly good version with Tyler sounding pretty rough from the night before!  I’m pretty sure there’s some heavy overdubbing going on with this album, if the backing vocals are anything to go by.  “Dream On” is excellent as usual, with exceptional sound quality and a raw sounding performance.  “Mama Kin” on the other hand ain’t so hot.  Pretty sloppy and ragged but a lil’ too much.  “Lord of the Thighs” is solid.

The icing on the cake is the unreleased studio track “Major Barbra”.  This outtake from Get Your Wings saw its very first release on Classics Live.  It’s a slow, mournful, but classy ballad in 3/4 time.  It’s a great song that deserved a spot on an Aerosmith album, so here it is!

3.5/5 stars

AEROSMITH BOX OF FIRE review series:

BOX OF FIRE THUMBDisc 1: Aerosmith (1973)
Disc 2: Get Your Wings (1974)
Disc 3: Toys in the Attic (1975)
Disc 4: Rocks (1976)
Disc 5: Draw the Line (1977)
Disc 6: Live! Bootleg (1978)
Disc 7: Night in the Ruts (1979)
Disc 8: Aerosmith’s Greatest Hits (1980)
Disc 9: Rock in a Hard Place (1982)
Disc 10: Classics Live! (1986)

REVIEW: Savatage – Hall of the Mountain King (1987)


HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING_0001SAVATAGE – 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).

HALL OF THE MOUNTAIN KING_0004Tempo 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.

4.5/5 stars

REVIEW: Savatage – Gutter Ballet (Steamhammer remaster)

GUTTER BALLET_0001SAVATAGE – Gutter Ballet (1989, 2002 Steamhammer remaster)

Having first latched onto Savatage in ’87 with “Hall of the Mountain King”, I was primed and ready for Gutter Ballet.  What I didn’t expect was the heavy piano on the title track/first single.  But that was a pleasant surprise: I was heavily getting into piano within the context of hard rock at the time.  Savatage’s Jon Oliva has a tendency to write simple but very catchy piano parts.  “Gutter Ballet” was inside my head on first mindblowing listen.  All that was left for me to do was buy the album.

Savatage have reissued Gutter Ballet with different bonus tracks many times.  I have the 2002 Steamhammer release (the Earmusic version) which has an extensive booklet with ample liner notes.  Gutter Ballet was the post-rehab album for Jon Oliva, and this informs many of the lyrics (“Thorazine Shuffle” for example).  Upon beginning the album, Jon and his brother Criss wrote heavy guitar based metal songs which were later included as bonus tracks on various releases.   Not satisfied, producer/co-writer Paul O’Neill sent Oliva out to see Phantom of the Opera in New York.  This changed everything.  Meanwhile, the rehab stint ended up producing a three song mini-suite.  The road to 1991’s Streets: A Rock Opera was now paved.

Gutter Ballet commences with “Of Rage and War,” the bass hook of which reminds of “24 Hours Ago” from the last album.  It has one of those staggered Criss Oliva guitar riffs that I miss so much, and the unforgettable drum patterns of Steve “Doc” Wacholz.  The lyrics are not profound, but they’re catchy enough (especially when Oliva starts shrieking).  They’re also still relevant today.

You got Libya, you got the Russians
You got civilian planes crashing to the oceans
Airports full of terrorists, Nazi skins, anarchists
When are you gonna learn?

Lyrics aside, the strongest thing about “Of Rage and War” is the guitar riffing.  The six-string then takes a bit of a back seat (solo aside of course) on “Gutter Ballet” to the piano for the first time.  Oliva’s simple melody is one of the first that I learned to play on keyboard and I still have my old cassette demo somewhere!  A minute later things speed up and get dramatic.  As good as the piano part is, the guitar riff that comes in to compliment it is just as stellar.

Could “Gutter Ballet” be Savatage’s best song?  You could easily argue that, even though the band would later ramp up the drama and complexity on their albums.  I think the song is completely without flaw.  From Jon’s lyrics (inspired by a stabbing he witnessed while in New York) to the slightest piano accents, the track is perfect.  And it even manages to maintain its balls, which I’m sure helped longtime Savatage fans adapt to the new sound.

First video with Chris Caffery.

“Temptation Revelation” is a 3:07 instrumental track that really only serves to bridge “Gutter Ballet” to another piano based hit, “When the Crowds are Gone”.  The piano and guitar vibe is maintained throughout.  “When the Crowds are Gone” is a very special song, and undoubtedly you could call it a ballad.  It has heavy choruses, but the thrust of the song is based on Jon’s voice and piano.  Jon sounds tiny at first before using his full throat.  The song was first conceived by Paul O’Neill as part of  the later Streets rock opera, a project he had cooking for many years.  The song would have fallen after “A Little Too Far” on side one.  I think it’s another one of Savatage’s best-ever compositions, and Jon’s screaming at the end seems to really embody the desperation of the lead character.

I never wanted to know, never wanted to see
I wasted my time, till time wasted me
Never wanted to go, always wanted to stay
‘Cause the person I am, are the parts that I play.

So I plot and I plan, hope and I scheme
To the lure of a night, filled with unfinished dreams
I’m holding on tight, to a world gone astray
As they charge me for years I can no longer pay.

Note Doc Wacholz’s United Federation of Planets drum kit!*

Side one closed with an acoustic instrumental called “Silk and Steel” which is really a showcase for the underrated Criss Oliva.  It’s just acoustic guitars — nothing else — for four minutes.  Right on, and perfect for a side closer.

No punches are pulled whatsoever on side two.  A bruising tune called “She’s In Love” boasts a chugging riff and those speedy Dr. Killdrums snare hits.  As for Jon, he spends most of the song screaming in fury (but also in tune).  Musically, think “Loss of Control” by Van Halen, but metalized.  “Hounds” then opens with quiet picking, similar to Metallica’s “One”.  This doesn’t last, and before too long it’s a regal metallic plod with a little bit of Sabbathy organ audible in the background.  Then, “The Unholy”:  a stampede of tricky licks and screaming vocals.  There is no let up.

GUTTER BALLET_0003The aforementioned three-song mini suite is next, and it begins with “Mentally Yours”.  The character of “Timmy” is introduced, a disturbed character.  The insanity theme is immediately obvious by the piano intro where Jon sets the scene.  Think Alice Cooper’s From the Inside album.  This piano intro could even be considered a separate song, as it has nothing to do with “Mentally Yours” musically.  Intro aside, this is another heavy metal bruiser, guitars on the prowl.  It even changes to a speed metal thrasher by the end.

“Summer’s Rain” is the only thing resembling a ballad on side two.  If so, it’s a heavy ballad without piano.  It does feel spiritually connected to “When the Crowds are Gone” from side one.  Still, the best tune of this trilogy is “Thorazine Shuffle” which has an ominous opening.  Then the song really begins; a stuttering limping riff, evoking the Thorazine shuffle Oliva sings about.  Gutter Ballet ends on an appropriately heavy note.

This remastered edition has two live bonus tracks; unfortunately they are just from the album Final Bell/Ghost in the Ruins. As such I’ve chosen not to talk about them, since I’d rather just review that album later on.  So be aware, the Steamhammer remaster from 2002 doesn’t have any exclusive bonus tracks.

3.5/5 stars

* Savatage MUST be Trekkies.  The next album, Streets, featured the following lyrics:

And who’s to say what it’s all about?
When John Wayne took the last train out?
And Spock and Kirk have had enough,
And no one’s left to beam me up.

REVIEW: Badlands – Badlands (1989)

BADLANDS_0003

 

BADLANDS – Badlands (1989 Atlantic)

When this album came out I bought it immediately. Well, as soon as it was made available by Columbia House music club, that is.  I remember that I described it to a work friend named Mark as “raw bluesy shit”, and I still stand by that three word description. With an emphasis on raw. For 1989, this kind of production was unheard of. You can hear everything on this album, you can hear Jake’s fingers talking. Very little embellishment going on here.

Badlands were almost a supergroup of sorts: Ray Gillen (ex-Black Sabbath), Jake E. Lee (ex Ozzy Osbourne), Eric Singer (also ex-Black Sabbath, now in Kiss) and Greg Chaisson (ex-nobody significant). Jake had always complained he didn’t have an outlet to play the blues in Ozzy’s band, so this is his version of the blues, and it’s hard as hell!  The band also had a vision of an album with two sides: a first harder rocking side, and a second bluesier side with longer songs.

“High Wire” kicks Badlands off with Jake’s raw, stripped back guitar sound.  Producer Paul O’Neill (Savatage, Trans-Siberian Orchestra) was also managing Badlands, and his production work here is completely different from the layers that he is better known for.  The effects are stipped back, and Jake’s guitar is very different from The Ultimate Sin.  A groovy exciting track, “High Wire” is driven by the riff and Gillen’s authoritative Coverdale-esque lead vocals.

The single “Dreams In The Dark” is next, the closest thing to a commercial song that this album gets. It has a strong chorus, instantly memorable, but you’ll be forgiven for thinking this is a Whitesnake outtake at first.  A brief instrumental precedes my favourite song, “Winter’s Call”.  It is as close is you’ll get to a ballad on this album, and only because its intro is slow and acoustic. However once that first riff kicks in, there’s no looking back. Eric Singer’s drum patterns are complex and hard hitting.  The song itself is atmospheric and still kicks my ass all these years later.  It’s infectious, like an old Zeppelin number.  I hear sitar!

A pair of rockers finish side one, “Dancing On The Edge” (an accelerated raw rocker with a great chorus) and “Streets Cry Freedom” a steamy, slower tune like a classic Coverdale prowl.  Both songs are standouts.

Side two starts with a serious rocker, “Hard Driver”, but from there it is on to the long, slower bluesy numbers that the band talked about. “Rumblin’ Train” is the bluesiest number, and “Devil’s Stomp” is as heavy as the title implies. “Seasons” is a slow moody one, brilliantly dramatic thanks to Gillen’s emotive vocal. The cassette/CD bonus track was called “Ball & Chain” and it finishes the album on a another hard bluesy note.  (Yes, back then when they couldn’t fit all the songs on an LP, they’d still include it on the cassette version and call it a “bonus track”.)

Badlands made a couple more albums, but this one is my favourite.  Martin Popoff himself rates this one a 10/10.  I gotta agree with the man on this one.  On a 5 scale…

5/5 stars

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