Savatage

REVIEW: Circle II Circle – Watching in Silence (2003) #200wordchallenge

200 word

CIRCLE II CIRCLE – Watching in Silence (2003 AFM)

 

There are some good reasons why Circle II Circle’s debut album, Watching in Silence, is a dead ringer for Savatage.  First and most obviously, singer Zach Stevens is best known from the Florida progressive metallers.  When he left the band to form Circle II Circle, he had some Sava-help too.  Jon Oliva and Chris Caffery wrote or played on every single song.  Oliva co-produced.  They’re just a helpful kind of band.

Fans of Stevens-era ‘Tage will adore Watching in Silence from start to finish.  It has the heavy, it has the soft, and it has the drama.  There are even the layered operatic vocal arrangements (“Forgiven”), though used sparingly.  Circle II Circle utilise keyboards and piano, but don’t go for the full-on conceptual direction that Savatage did.

Though the album can drag from time to time, there are a number of exceptional tracks.  “Into the Wind” is the first to boast one of those unforgettable Stevens choruses.  The single “Watching in Silence” has the patented Sava-power, composed in equal measure of riffs, piano and killer vocals.  The easiest comparison is to “Edge of Thorns“, Stevens’ first single with Savatage.  Virtually every song has a memorable chorus to go with it.

3.5/5 stars

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.

#539: Been a long time since I been to Frankenmuth

GETTING MORE TALE #539: Been a long time since I been to Frankenmuth

Frankenmuth Michigan is a small Bavarian hamlet/tourist trap not too far from the Canada border.  Some people love going; I seem to be one of the only dissenting voices.  My best friend Peter introduced us to the Frankenmuth tradition.  His family would typically go once a year, staying at the Bavarian Inn.  The big draws to the town are two.  One is the big “family style” chicken dinner at Zehnder’s, where the food just keeps coming.  The other attraction is Bronner’s, an all-year-round Christmas store.  Some in my family seemed absolutely thrilled to be buying our Christmas ornaments in April.

Frankenmuth seemed a long way to go for some chicken and Christmas ornaments.  However, it’s not too far for a shopping excursion focused on music, so that’s what I turned it into for me.  In the three years I went to Frankenmuth, I found plenty of goodies, and accumulated some entertaining memories.

frankenmuth

My first year was 1992.  I had just finished writing all my final exams for my first year classes at Laurier.  The Freddie Mercury Tribute concert had just aired.  I taped the whole thing, and then recorded it to cassette (three 100 minute tapes).  I tossed that into the Walkman, and joined the family for our first US road trip together.

The Mercury concert was special.  Queen shared the stage with some luminaries as David Bowie (RIP), George Michael (RIP), Mick Ronson (RIP), and many more.  Vivian Campbell played live with Def Leppard for the first time.  Tony Iommi and James Hetfield shared the stage with Queen on “Stone Cold Crazy”.  Guns N’ Roses were there, and Axl got to sing with new friend Elton John.  The excitement in the air was genuine.  There was talk afterwards of someone charismatic, like George Michael or Gary Cherone joining Queen permanently so they could continue.

Our first road stop was a McDonalds in a small town just outside of Flint.  The washroom stunk of piss so badly that my dad couldn’t even use it. Great first impression, Michigan!

When we got to the Bavarian Inn, I had the chance to watch MTV for the first time at length.  After all I’d heard about it, I was disappointed to see it was not nearly as good as Canada’s MuchMusic.  The American coverage of the Mercury concert (which was re-running all weekend) was truncated compared to what we saw in Canada.  MuchMusic had Erica Ehm and others on site at Wembley interviewing the stars and covering behind-the-scenes, while the US coverage cut away to other things.  The food at the Bavarian Inn was incredible, including what I remember to be the best omelette I’ve ever tasted.

I can’t say that I cared for the family style chicken dinner.  “Family style” isn’t my thing (where everybody has the same dinner, all served together on big platters).  If I’m eating out, I will rarely order chicken.  Seemed like a big waste of a night out, to go and eat somewhere that serves chicken dinner just like you get at home.  But I didn’t make these decisions, I just complained about them!

On the way home, we stopped at a Target store in Port Huron.  My first Target store; I had never even heard of them before.  This is where I made my first US music purchases.  In stock was the cassette single for “Let’s Get Rocked” by Def Leppard.  This featured the bonus track “Only After Dark”, a Mick Ronson track, who had just played at the Mercury concert!  The other item I picked up was Slaughter’s new The Wild Life CD, which had a different cover than the ones I’d seen in Canada.  It still appears to be the rarest version today.

The 1993 trip was even better, because this time Peter came with us.  In 1993, Peter was the man with the plan.  He was looking for something.  Something very specific, that as of yet was not released in Canada.  He had read about this new comedy tape called The Jerky Boys, and he was determined to find a copy.  And find a copy he did.

We found The Jerky Boys at a record store just on the outskirts of Frankenmuth.  At the same store, I picked five tapes that I couldn’t get back home:  Savatage’s first albums Sirens (1983), The Dungeons are Calling (1985), Power of the Night (1986) and the brand new Edge of Thorns (1993).  There was also Richie Kotzen’s third album, Electric Joy.  These fine records meant that the summer of 1993 was filled with sounds both heavy and complex.  The Kotzen album was a whole level beyond was I was used to listening to.  As for Savatage, they heavied up my tastes at a time when I was craving faster/heavier/louder.

I spent a lot of time absorbing each of these albums, but it was The Jerky Boys that dominated the car tape deck on that Frankenmuth trip.  Peter and I listened to the entire thing through.  Tarbash the Egyptian Magician, Sol Rosenberg and his glasses (he can’t see goddammit), and the whole gang had us laughing so hard, my sides actually hurt.  When the tape was done, we put it on repeat and played it again.  I’m not sure if my mom and dad enjoyed the Jerky Boys as much as I did.  I started calling people “sizzlechest” and responding to questions with “listen jerky, I don’t need to talk to you.”

What a summer.

This Frankenmuth trip was also my Karaoke debut.  I chose “The Immigrant Song”.  And I fucking killed it, in my opinion!  Like Axl Rose gyrating on meth, I owned that stage.  The heels of my cowboy boots stomped the boards, keeping their own beat.  I asked my entire family to leave the room, but I lost my place in the song when I caught them spying around a corner.

On we sweep, with threshing oar, our only goal will be the western shore.

That was a fantastic trip.  Mission accomplished, with both the music shopping and the Jerky Boys acquisition.  On my third and final year going to Frankenmuth, Peter really upped his game.  Once again, the goal was to acquire something that we could not get in Canada.

Instead of travelling in one car, we did a convoy with two.  Peter and I needed transportation of our own to run the missions we were planning.

As much as MTV did not impress me on my first US trip, our goal this time was dependant on MTV.

“Let’s rent a VCR and tape some episodes of Beavis and Butthead!”  We didn’t get the show in Canada.

That is exactly what we did.  We drove over to the local video store, and rented a VCR.  You might think renting a VCR in a foreign country might be difficult, but it wasn’t.  We hooked it up to the hotel TV (much easier than doing something like this today — more on that in a future instalment of Getting More Tale also involving Peter).  Tuning up MTV, we watched some music before Beavis and Butthead was scheduled.

This time, MTV really pissed me off.  They gleefully ran the embarrassing 1994 Motley Crue interview that the band infamously walked out of.  But the band didn’t do themselves any favours in that interview. MTV baited them a bit with the questions, but they didn’t have to attack Vince Neil in their answers. “No one cares anyway,” said Nikki Sixx when asked about his former frontman. Pushed further, they were asked to comment on Vince’s recent jet-ski accident that put him in hospital with broken ribs. Laughing, Mick Mars asked “What happened to the coral reef?” Sixx answered, “Hey, when 300 pounds of blubber lands on a coral reef, there’s gonna be some dust flying around.”

The question that killed the interview was about “women, hairspray and fire.” MTV ran the segment complete with Nikki mocking the question, while showing images of women, hairspray and fire from their music videos. Stick in a fork in that lineup; it was done.  No matter how good that 1994 Motley Crue album was (and is), that interview polished off the attempted comeback in one stroke.

We recorded a couple episodes of Beavis and Butthead and called it a night.  The next day we did some music and comic book shopping.  US exclusive once more:  Quiet Riot’s reunion album Terrified found and liberated.  I didn’t even know they had come out with anything new.  A cassette single for “Heaven Help” by Lenny Kravitz also found its way home with me. I scored an oversized Black Sabbath comic (Rock-It Comics) and Transformers: Generation 2 #1 with the silver foil fold out cover.

With another successful trip in the books, we packed our bags and checked out.  The last mission to run was returning the VCR to the video store.  There was only one snag.  We were primed and ready to head home early…and the video store opened at noon.  We had to kill some hours driving around, but when that store opened we got the hell out of dodge.  Not the greatest return trip ever, but at least we had Lenny Kravitz.

I stopped going to Frankenmuth after that trip, although Peter and his family returned yearly for some chicken and Christmas ornaments.  My family too.  My mom tells me of a memorable trip that ended in the hospital!   Four years ago my mother, father and sister made a trip where they did the usual; Frankenmuth chicken and the Christmas store. They also ate a lot of junk food; pizza, hot dogs, French fries and candy. On the way home they stopped along the 401 for more French fries. That night my mother ended up in the hospital with a gall bladder attack. It was serious enough that she had it removed two weeks later.  Thank goodness they were home when it happened as they never bothered with extra insurance for a short trip to the US.

As years went on, I ran into people all the time who had gone to Frankenmuth for a vacation.  Inevitably, they will always talk about three things:  the Bavarian Inn, the chicken dinners, and the Christmas store.  None of them seem to have any stories about cool comic books, or finding rare tapes and CDs in Frankenmuth.  Very few of them have done Karaoke, and none have performed “The Immigrant Song” at the Bavarian Inn.  Nobody rented a VCR to record Beavis and Butthead, and then have to wait hours for the store to open to return said VCR.   Nobody even discovered the Jerky Boys on their Michigan trips.

I guess that means that Peter and I are the only ones who did Frankenmuth right.

REVIEW: Savatage – Streets: A Rock Opera (1990, 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 (1990, 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.  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: 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 – 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: Badlands – Badlands (1989)

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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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Part 208: Flashback 1995

RECORD STORE TALES Part 208:  Flashback 1995

November/December 1995 was freakin’ busy.  We sold a lot of discs that Christmas.  What we didn’t do was listen to a lot of discs!  No; our boss really, really liked Don Henley and TLC.  He played them ad-nauseum.  Like on repeat three times in a row.  I’m not kidding about that.  I distinctly remember the repeat.  Here are the Top Three Discs I Had to Listen to Until My Ears Bled, December 1995.

3. Boney M – Christmas Album

2. Don Henley – Actual Miles

1. TLC – CrazySexyCool

Trevor on the other hand was introducing me to Oasis and managed to get a few cool discs into rotation:

3. The Beatles – Anthology Vol. 1 (usually just disc 2)

2. Foo Fighters – Foo Fighters 

1. Oasis – (What’s the Story) Morning Glory?

We were also working with this new guy, Donnie, and we let him pick Dance Mix ’95 a few times.  Unfortunately, the Big Shiny Tunes series hadn’t begun yet.

I didn’t get to pick as many discs as the others — the boss didn’t like my picks.  When I did, I chose the new Def Leppard – Vault (Greatest Hits 1980-1995).

Looking back, there were also a few albums that I found utterly disappointing that season.  They included:

3. AC/DC – Ballbreaker

2. Lenny Kravitz – Circus

1. Savatage – Dead Winter Dead

All three were albums that I was solidly looking forward to, but largely disappointed me.  I never did buy Circus.  I own the other two, but only because I’m a completest (and I got AC/DC for $3).

Finally there were three albums that really got me through that season.  I had just been dumped by my first serious girlfriend and I was really angry about it.  Away from work (my boss didn’t want these ones played in the store) these three albums totally spoke to me that Christmas:

3. Alice in Chains – Alice in Chains

2. Ozzy Osbourne – Ozzmosis

1. Iron Maiden – The X Factor

Let me tell you something people:  I still fuckin’ hate TLC.  I’ll never go chasin’ waterfalls, ever again.

Next time on Record Store Tales…

A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away…

Part 206: Rock Video Night!

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RECORD STORE TALES Part 206:  Rock Video Night!

Last time on Record Store Tales, we talked about Andy and Ashleigh and the discovery of great rock bands such as Rush, Max Webster, and Van Halen.  Andy was even more curious now about what great rock was out there.

Rock music is about so much more than just the songs.  There’s the concerts, the live experience.  There’s the history of the bands, the stories and the context.  And there were the music videos.  How could one possibly talk about a great band like Van Halen without mentioning groundbreaking, defining music videos that they made?  Since a picture is worth 1,000 words, I decided the best way to explain these things was to have a Rock Video Night at my place.

90% of my video collection was from the Pepsi Power Hour.  Back in the days before YouTube, a channel like MuchMusic would have an hour or two a week devoted to the heaviest videos in rock, and I tried to record the show every week.  I had amassed a large collection of VHS tapes, probably about 120 hours of music videos, interviews and concerts altogether.  That’s not including the hundred or so officially released video tapes that I bought over the years.  We had a lot to watch so I had to hone down the set list for the evening.

Since I am and always have been OCD about my music collection, I had a meticulously typed list of every track on every video that I made.  I carefully planned the evening’s entertainment.  There were some videos that I know these kids had to see.  They were all one musical generation younger than me.  They grew up on videos like “Jeremy” and “Fell on Black Days”, not “Jump” or “Go For Soda”.  I had to make them understand my time, when it was OK to have sword fights and dwarves and laser guns in your videos.

Ash and Andy arrived along with my other employees Braddy D and Chris P.  The set of videos that I chose to share with them that evening included:

SAVATAGE – “Hall of the Mountain King”.  Summary:  Dwarf seeks Mountain King’s gold.  Must try to steal it without waking him, while band is playing in the same caverns.  Not sure why the King doesn’t hear Jon Oliva singing.  (below)

VAN HALEN – “Oh Pretty Woman”.  Summary:  Lady in distress has been kidnapped by two dwarves.  A hunchback in a treehouse (David Lee Roth) telephones a samurai (Michael Anthony), Tarzan (Alex Van Halen),  a cowboy (Eddie Van Halen), and Napoleon Bonaparte (David Lee Roth) to save her.  (below)

ARMORED SAINT – “Can U Deliver”. Summary:  Band driving a Buick with armor and an anti-aircraft cannon seek a glowy sword.  Band plays concert in front of rocker dudes and scantily clad babes while wearing leather armor.  (below)

GRIM REAPER – “Fear No Evil”.  Summary:  Band drive a DIY armored APC on a quest to free long-haired slaves from an evil half-man half-something with Wolverine claws. (below)

MIKE LADANO, BOB SCHIPPER and DAVE KIDD – “Nothing But A Good Time”.  Summary:  A highschool video I made, lip synching to “Nothing But A Good Time” by Poison.  We had our English teacher do the schtick at the beginning where he plays the prick boss who gives the kid a hard time before the song comes on.  We made it in ’89 and it was our school’s selection to send to the annual regional Film Awards! (no video until I get a USB VCR!)

Rock Video Night was a great success in many regards.  The kids had a great time finally seeing David Lee Roth doing the splits in “Jump”.  Ash was still not won over by the rock, but that’s OK.  What wasn’t OK is that I had really sour stomach issues that night!  I tried so hard to be a good host, and I kept excusing myself, but…they tell me the smell was wafting down from the upstairs bathroom.

So, Rock Video Night ended on a rather stinky note.

NEXT TIME ON RECORD STORE TALES…

Make ’em say uhhh!