Savatage

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!

REVIEW: Black Sabbath – The Eternal Idol (deluxe edition)

I’m addicted to buying these deluxe editions.  I think this is the last of my Black Sabbath deluxes. Check out more of my Sabbath deluxe reviews by clicking here!

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BLACK SABBATH – The Eternal Idol (2010 deluxe edition)

The years of chaos were seemingly coming to an end as Black Sabbath stabilized into a solid core of Tony Iommi, Geoff Nicholls, and new lead singer Tony Martin. The drum and bass positions would continue to swirl for another year, right up until the Headless Cross tour. Getting to this point was not without struggle, and this new Deluxe Edition illustrates this beautifully.

I’m going to sidestep the issue of “Does The Eternal Idol really deserve the Deluxe Edition treatment?” and just be glad it’s out. There are, after all, two B-sides here that were ridiculously expensive to acquire on 12″ vinyl. Those songs, “Some Kind of Woman” and the original version of “Black Moon” (which would later be re-recorded on Headless Cross) finally complete the Eternal Idol picture. And they’re not bad songs either, particularly “Black Moon”. “Strange Kind of Woman” I haven’t wrapped my head around yet. It’s this uptempo boogie rocker, and aside from “Blue Suede Shoes” I don’t think I’ve ever heard Black Sabbath boogie before. But it’s not bad, Tony’s playing is awesome, but maybe…ill advised is the term I’m looking for?

The bonus disc is the entire album’s original recording with former vocalist Ray Gillen (their seventh singer) before he was replaced by Martin (their eigth). This had been mostly available on a very common bootleg called The Ray Gillen Years, but missing a couple tracks. Now, the entire album as recorded by Gillen can be heard, and in much better sound quality.  Gillen was a very different type of singer, bluesier, very Coverdale-esque.  He later reappeared with his Sabbath-mate Eric Singer in Jake E. Lee’s Badlands.

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I can still remember keeping up with the Sabbath story via their music videos on MuchMusic. I was surprised when I saw that the “new” singer, the bearded Glenn Hughes, had been replaced by the much cooler looking Tony Martin. Skeptical, I watched the video for the first and only single “The Shining”. Lo and behold, the song was awesome! The riff (which goes back to an old unreleased Sabbath song from 1984 called “No Way Out”, featuring a lineup of Iommi, Geezer Butler, Bill Ward and David “Donut” Donato) was powerful and epic.  As good as any riffs Sabbath had done with Ronnie James Dio. The new chorus shimmers with intensity. This new singer rocked! Unfortunately, Martin would spend his entire career with a “mini-Dio” or “Dio-clone” tag. The similarities are that Martin has a similar range and equal amount of power, but not the grit, and a different character. Fortunately for him, Martin would stick around for 5 albums, but never shook the “replacement singer” tag.

Aside from “The Shining”, I find The Eternal Album to lack lustre. “Glory Ride” is the only other song that was single-worthy, a great romp that reminds me heavily of “Strange Wings” by Savatage (a song that featured Ray Gillen on backing vocals, coincidentally!) The rest of the songs…well, they ain’t bad, I guess. They’re just unremarkable, which is not good for a band that has seldom been anything but.  “Born To Lose” is fast and furious, as is “Lost Forever”. “Scarlet Pimpernel” is one of those atmospheric Sab instrumentals that they were known for in the early days, and its inclusion was very wise. However, the songs so tend to meld into one another, with only “The Shining” and “Glory Ride” making my personal Sabbath road tapes.

I mentioned the creation of this album was chaotic. Aside from the replacement of the lead singer position mid-album, there were also two drummers: Eric Singer departed to be replaced by ex-Sabbath drummer Bev Bevan! But by the tour, Bevan would be replaced by ex-The Clash drummer (Dr.) Terry Chimes. Dave (brother of Dan) Spitz partially recorded the bass to be replaced by ex-Rainbow and Ozzy bassist Bob Daisley. Daisley was gone before the video for “The Shining” was filmed, to be replaced by a mystery man who nobody bothered to catch the name of. You can see him in the video. The story goes, they needed a bassist for the video and pulled this guy off the street. For the tour, Jo Burt filled the bassist slot. Neither Chimes nor Burt would stick around to the next album, Headless Cross.

Did you get all that?

The Eternal Idol was a crucial step towards solidifying Black Sabbath once again, after the chaos of the previous years, but it would be the next album, Headless Cross, that was a resounding return. A much more solid album, Headless featured the new nucleus of the two Tonys and the legendary Cozy Powell on drums. Session bassist Lawrence Cottle (a great fretless player) was replaced for the while by Cozy’s longtime rhythm partner, Neil Murray. That lineup of Powell, Murray, Iommi and Martin (always with Geoff Nicholls on keys) would prove to be one of the most stable in the band’s history and the one that I saw when I first saw Sabbath live in 1995 on the Forbidden tour.

Anyway, I’m going off on a tangent. My point was to show that this album was really not the “comeback” that it could have been, but merely a step towards rebuilding Black Sabbath. You have to admire Tony Iommi for not giving up. The Eternal Idol is not for those fans who just like Ozzy, or just like Dio. Eternal Idol is for the metal maven who wants to know every chapter in the band’s history. Otherwise, I can’t recommend it, except for the two songs “The Shining” and “Glory Ride”. Purchase accordingly.

3/5 stars

Part 154: Cassettes Part IV – LeBrain’s Tapes (What Remains)

RECORD STORE TALES Part 154:  

Cassettes Part IV – LeBrain’s Tapes (What Remains)

I used to have a lot of tapes.  So many, that T-Rev converted my closet doors to shelving, just to store my numerous cassettes!  It was quite a feat of engineering on his part.

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If you’ve read the other three parts of this series on cassettes, then you’ve already seen some of the awesome artwork that T-Rev used to come up with for his tapes.  Doing those articles got me nostalgic, but very few of my own tapes remained.  A year or two before I met Mrs. LeBrain, I briefly dated this one girl who was getting into hair metal.  I had succeeded in replacing most of my tapes on CD (although still incomplete; I need a copy of Live Fast, Die Fast by Wolfsbane, and Phenomenon 1).  All my tapes were redundant, and I gave her boxes and boxes full of them.

God knows where those tapes are now.  I doubt she took them back home to Thunder Bay when it was all over, they probably ended up in a landfill.  No big loss really, the only shame of it is that, like T-Rev, I used to make a lot of my own custom artwork.

Mrs. LeBrain and I were visiting her mom yesterday, and I found some of my old Beatles tapes that I had made, at her place!  Her dad drove a delivery van with nothing but a tape deck inside.  He was more than happy to receive my old Beatles tapes, and he loved them.  And there they were, still at the house, complete with my computer generated J-cards.  Nothing elaborate, although I did paste the cover for Abbey Road onto that tape.

This inspired me to dig through some boxes here, and see if I had any of my own tapes left.  Surely there must be something here, with some of my own custom cover art!  There was just a handful left, stuff that I wouldn’t have parted with at the time, and lo and behold, there was my old artwork.  These sure brought back memories!

Back in the early record store days, cassette was my primary medium.  They were portable, you could leave them in the car and not worry about them getting banged up, so I recorded everything onto cassette.  It wasn’t until I had left the record store in 2006 that I got my first car with a CD deck.  Before then, I had one of those adapter kits to play a discman in the car, but it sounded shite.  I was glad to find the following treasures tucked away in a box!

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Ahh, Spinal Tap.  A Spinal Tap Reunion was recorded from a 1992 TV special.  Unavailable on DVD today, as far as I know.  That’s a shame.

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I bought Grande Rock by The Hellacopters on vinyl, to get that bonus track “Angel Dust”.  Or, more accurately, one of my record store compatriots got it for me at Orange Monkey Music in Waterloo.  I dutifully recorded it to cassette without making elaborate packaging, but I did put some effort into the cassette spine.

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You Fat Bastards by Faith No More was the full show that was released on CD in truncated form on the Live at the Brixton Academy CD.  This was from a VHS release.

Guns N’ Roses did a couple cool TV specials.  I recorded Live at the Ritz off T-Rev, who stuck on some demos for bonus tracks.  The cover was made by adapting an old Appetite For Destruction J-card.  I think this turned out pretty cool.  Invade Paris! was a TV special from 1992.

These two Maiden tapes were from VHS releases.  It’s a shame that Raising Hell was never released on a CD.  Here’s hoping the band will put that out on a future box set.  It was Bruce’s “final” show.  I just edited out the crap sections with “magician” Simon Drake.   Maiden England is also taken from VHS, but this is the full show.  The CD release omitted two songs:  “Can I Play With Madness”, and “Hallowed Be Thy Name”.  My cassette didn’t!  I thought my J-card for Maiden England turned out pretty cool, using an old Seventh Son cover as its basis.

Unfortunately, this is all that remains of my old cassette art.  I did some much more elaborate things, which Thunder Bay Girl probably tossed out.  One was for Savatage’s Dead Winter Dead.  When I recorded that one to cassette, I actually painted the gargoyle onto a J-card.  Wish I kept that one.  Rush’s Test For Echo may have been the most elaborate one I’ve done.  Using some old cardboard and a full-page ad for the album, I created my own digipack for that cassette.  It would be nice to still have.  Ahh well.

It seems funny, in today’s age of mp3 files and players, that a format as crappy as cassette was anyone’s main format.  But there you go.  Before I could play CD’s in the car, they were the best way to bring music with me.  I’ve always believed a music collection was for showing off as much as listening to, plus I enjoyed making the artwork.  I’m glad some still survives today!

S*** LeBrain’s Dad Says: Howlin’ Banshee!

One day in the winter, I was getting up for another day at the record store.  My dad was already up obsessing about the Weather Network.

“Are you going to work today?”

“Yeah dad…why wouldn’t I?  It’s Thursday.”

“Well you better be careful, it’s a howlin’ banshee out there today!”

I look out the window, and saw literally two snowflakes floating through the air.

Sheesh!

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Most Unrightfully Ignored Albums of the 1990s – LeBrain’s List Part 4

This is it!  The end!  In alphabetical order, here’s Part 4 of 4:  88 albums that meant the world to me in the 1990′s but never got the respect I felt they deserved.   Thanks for joining in!

Savatage – Streets:  A Rock Opera (sheer brilliance, their first and best rock opera)
Savatage – Edge of Thorns (an album to give Queensryche a run for their money)
Savatage – Handful of Rain (recovering from tragedy to create a triumph)
Savatage – The Wake of Magellan (how did this band just keep getting more brilliant?)
Scorpions – Face the Heat (had a couple good heavy rockers on there like “Alien Nation”)
Shaw/Blades – Hallucination (Tommy Shaw, Jack Blades, campfire goodness)
Skid Row – Subhuman Race (when you’re pissed off and you know it, bang thy head)

Sloan – 4 Nights at the Palais Royale (one of the best live albums of all time – ignored internationally)
Dee Snider’s SMF’s – Live / Forever Twisted (fuck, I missed Dee in the 90’s!)
Spinal Tap – Break Like the Wind 
Stryper – Can’t Stop the Rock (a compilation with two great new tunes)
Sultans of Ping F.C. – Casual Sex in the Cineplex (see here)
Talas – If We Only Knew Then What We Know Now… (Billy Sheehan and the boys reunited for one night, and has the wisdom to record it)
Tesla – Bust A Nut (in some ways it’s better than their prior records)
Testament – The Ritual (really heavily slagged at the time as a sellout)
Tonic – Sugar (much better than the first record, you know, the one that was a hit)
Devin Townsend / Ocean Machine – Biomech (one of his more accessible albums)
Union – Union (Bruce Kulick + John Corabi = better than what the Crue or Kiss was releasing)
Steve Vai – Sex and Religion (Devin Townsend — lead throat)
Veruca Salt – Eight Arms To Hold You (their best album, better than the big hit one)
White Lion – Mane Attraction (it was a little mushy, but brilliant guitars by Vito Bratta)
Whitesnake – Restless Heart (back to his blues rock roots, it wasn’t even released here)

We’re done!  88 albums that meant a lot to me in the 1990’s, but in some cases were criminally ignored.  Check them out.