Sirens

REVIEW: Savatage – Fight For the Rock (Steamhammer remaster)

Part Five of the Early Savatage series!

SAVATAGE – Fight For the Rock (Originally 1986, 2002 Steamhammer remaster)

Like many bands then and now, Savatage were led astray by bad management and poor direction by record company executives.  At least they tried.  Hoping to make some headway, Savatage leader Jon Oliva agreed with the record company’s plan for a change in style.  Steering towards hard rock and hoping to become the next Journey, Oliva and company said “what the hell”.  Meanwhile, Jon Oliva had submitted some songs to management to see if any other artists might be interested in recording them: “Lady in Disguise”, “She’s Only Rock ‘n Roll”, and “Crying For Love”.  They turned around and said “No, we want Savatage to record these songs.”

New bassist Johnny Lee Middleton was lined up to replace Keith Collins.  They flew to England on a tourist visa to record the album, only to find Steve “Doc” Wacholz detained at the airport for five hours.  “I’m a golf instructor,” he claimed at customs, but most golf instructors don’t carry drum sticks and sheet music in their carry-on bags.  This is a perfect metaphor for the album Fight For the Rock:  a band masquerading as something they were not.

A big echoey 80s sound blunts the sharp edge that Savatage gained on Power of the Night (produced by Max Norman).  “Fight For the Rock” is a good song, but obviously toned down in comparison to title tracks past.  Most obtrusive are keyboard overdubs by a studio cat, very different from the keys that Jon Oliva would eventually bring into Savatage himself.  These sound like added afterthoughts, not structurally part of the song.  Still, as stated, a good song in that Dokken-Crue mold.  Only the Jon Oliva screams really connect it with early Savatage.

Keyboards return on “Out on the Streets”, a song from Sirens re-recorded.  As a ballad, you can see why the suits thought it would be worth another shot.  A great tune is a great tune, but the pipe-like keyboards don’t do it favours.  “Crying for Love” is a re-recording of “Fighting for Your Love” and one of the songs Oliva wanted another artist to record, perhaps John Waite.  It’s a heavier ballad, not as good as the Sava-demo, but retains some balls.

Hard left turn ahead:  “Day After Day” by Badfinger.  Oliva decided to do this track since he’d be playing the very piano from the original, so why not.  He’d already gone this far.  May as well go all-in.  “Day After Day” is perhaps the least “Savatage” song in their entire catalogue.  A very different Savatage would have evolved had this been a hit for them.  A Savatage more akin to Night Ranger or even Stryper!

There are only two songs that Jon Oliva considers “real” Savatage songs today:  “The Edge of Midnight” and “Hyde”.  They occupy the dead center of the album, closing side one and opening side two.  Although they too are infected by the awkward keyboard overdubs, they are both metallic Savatage lurkers, dark and shadowy.  “Hyde” hits all the right notes, with perfect OIiva lyrics:

“A good man to evil,
From the potion on the table,
Taken by mistake, but now it’s far too late.”

“Lady in Disguise”, which exists in superior demo form, was largely rewritten to be submitted to other artists.  It exists on Fight For the Rock as the third ballad, watered down and rearranged to accommodate a big keyboard hook.  “She’s Only Rock ‘n Roll” is a little more Savatage even though it too was not intended for their use.  It’s a hard rock Savatage, a little Dio-ish and one of the few songs with a recognizable Criss Oliva guitar riff.

Not particularly Sava-like but very good just the same is the Free cover “Wishing Well”.  It and “Day After Day” remain the only true covers that Savatage have ever recorded.  It’s a pummelling arrangement, well performed and strangely appropriate for the Sava-treatment.  It’s like their “Green Manalishi”.  Concluding the album, “Red Light Paradise” has a touch of that occasional Sava-sleaze.  Good track with a nice chug to it, and plenty of screamin’ vocals.

As before, Steamhammer added bonus tracks to the 2002 reissue.  From the Gutter Ballet tour and featuring an expanded lineup with second guitarist Christopher Caffery, it’s two live classics:  “The Dungeons are Calling” and “City Beneath the Surface”.  Could that year, 1990, have been peak Savatage?  That powerful lineup was short lived, as Caffery temporarily left the band at its conclusion.  When he returned, Criss Oliva was gone, killed by a drunk driver.  To the point:  these are killer versions, (and not the same as the live album Ghost in the Ruins).

Steamhammer also provided in-depth liner notes, housed inside a blurry reproduction of the cover art.  That is an unfortunately win/lose.  One is tempted to have two copies of the album, just to have clear original cover art.  Collectors need more that one copy anyway, just to deal with the maze-like bonus track situation through the entire Savatage collection.

As Jon Oliva says in the notes, Fight For the Rock is not a bad album, if you like hard rock.  It’s not really a good Savatage album.  Hey, they tried, right?  They swung for the fences.  And when they failed to hit the grand slam home run, they lost credibility with fans and the rock press.  Still, for those willing to check it out, there are a few rewarding tracks amidst the muck.

3/5 stars

The story continues with these previously posted reviews:

Part Six:  Hall of the Mountain King (1987)
Part Seven:  Gutter Ballet (1989)
Part Eight:  U.S.A. 1990 (live bootleg)
Part Nine:  Streets: A Rock Opera (1991)
Part Ten:  Edge of Thorns (1993) – New singer and death of Criss Oliva

 

 

REVIEW: Savatage – Power of the Night (Steamhammer remaster)

Part Four of the Early Savatage series!

SAVATAGE – Power of the Night (Originally 1985, 2002 Steamhammer remaster)

Raise the first of the metal child!

If any fans were worried that Savatage would “sell out” after signing to Atlantic in 1984, those fears were swiftly cast aside.  Power of the Night, their first on a major label, was produced by metal-meister-to-be, Max Norman.  The band had plenty of material demoed (in a session with Rick Derringer) and were ready for the studio.

Nothing was toned down; if anything, Savatage turned it up.  Melting the speakers with the title track, a fancy keyboard opening might have fooled some.  When the patented Criss Oliva riff commences, you better hold on tight.

“Children of the metal movement,
The legions growing stronger,
Stronger than they believe.”

With Norman at the helm, Savatage achieved a sharp, biting sound.  Relentless beats courtesy of Steve “Dr. Killdrums” Wacholz helped them cement themselves as true metal competitors.  The foursome from Florida were not to be ignored.

Savatage were improving as songwriters.  “Unusual” puts atmosphere over headbangin’ riffs, and effectively so.  Singer Jon Oliva became increasingly interested in keyboards album by album until it eventually became the focus of the band.  Here it works to cloak you in a dark weave of ominous metal.  Then, if you were hungering for more riffs, bow down to the fuckin’ rad* “Warriors”.  Another Criss Oliva riff as only he could write them, “Warriors” rivals Judas Priest for absurd fantasy metal thrills.  It gets a little silly on “Necrophilia”, but the headbangin’ does not wane.   You might break your neck on “Washed Out”, a little speed metal ditty to cure what ails you.

Side two switches the gears a bit with a Scorpions-Dokken hybrid called “Hard for Love”, which generated some faux-controversy in the 80s.  It’s the most commercial Savatage song yet, but it works remarkably well due to the sharp edges; not blunted by improved production values.  Still riding high with quality metal, “Fountain of Youth” takes things to a wizardly world inhabited by Dio and his cohorts.  (Of note:  it’s one of the few Savatage songs with a Doc Wacholz writing credit.)

Savatage’s speed metal adventures can be hit or miss.  “Skull Session” is a miss, though you may enjoy the lyrics about an “X-rated lesson”.  There’s no real melody and the riff isn’t one of Criss’ most notable.  Plenty of screams though.  A mid-tempo “Stuck On Your” doesn’t get the car out of the mud.  It’s just a little dull compared to the scorchers on side one.

Ending Power of the Night on a ballad was a ballsy move, but “In the Dream” is one of the best from the early years.  Indeed, Jon Oliva re-recorded it acoustically for one of the many reissues of Sirens/Dungeons are Calling.  Dr. Killdrums does a fine job of punctuating the song’s drama with short bursts of swinging limbs.

Steamhammer included two live bonus tracks.**  From Cleveland in 1987, a spot-on “Power of the Night” is a furious rendition of a song already smoking hot.  “Sirens” live in Dallas three years later is just as furious, though Jon’s voice is more worn.  They also included excellent liner notes, lengthy and detailed.  Unfortunately the cover art on these Steamhammer reissues is atrociously blurry.

Power of the Night was the last Savatage album with original bassist Keith Collins.  Originally a guitarist, Collins’ bass wasn’t up to snuff at all times so Criss Oliva had to play on several tracks to fix portions they weren’t happy with.  Now that it’s encoded on a little silver disc forever, the final album is tight and punchy.

4/5 stars

Unfortunately, it didn’t sell well enough for Atlantic.  Bumpy road ahead!

* “Warriors” is “fuckin’ rad” according to Holen MaGroin

** Like all Savatage albums, different issues have different sets of bonus tracks.  These will have to be covered at a later time as a “complete” Savatage collection can be an expensive proposition.

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

Part Three of the Early Savatage series!

SAVATAGE – Sirens & The Dungeons are Calling bonus tracks

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

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


Metal Blade CD (1994)

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

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

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

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


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

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

The Dungeons are Calling

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

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

Sirens

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

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

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


Ear Music “The Complete Session” CD (2010)

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

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

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


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

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

Purchase accordingly!

 

 

REVIEW: Savatage – Sirens (1983)

WELCOME TO THE DUNGEONS!  It’s Part One of the Early Savatage series!

SAVATAGE – Sirens (1983 Music for Nations)

Welcome to the early Savatage series!  The first two Sava-platters, Sirens and The Dungeons are Calling, were recorded together in one day.  The 15 songs could not fit on a single record, and so the songs were released on an album and an EP.  Did you know you have to buy four separate CDs just to get all the bonus tracks?

The Savatage catalogue is a mess of reissues and bonus tracks, all but impossible to keep track of.  The worst of them for scattershot releases are Sirens and The Dungeons are Calling.  As part of this series, we will examine the first album, the EP, and all the associated bonus tracks & where to find them.  Today, let’s have a listen to Sirens.

Low budget, borderline thrash metal — that’s Sirens.  There are no hints of the progressive rock to come, but plenty of Criss Oliva riffs, a treasured commodity that we haven’t had any of since his untimely death in 1993.  The title track packs in slick lightning guitar licks with a concrete riff.  You can certainly hear the outlines of massive songs to come, like “Hall of the Mountain King” and “Gutter Ballet”, but this is straightforward headbangin’ metal, with a slow section in the middle to catch your breath.  Beware the “Sirens” or you too might end up on the rocks!

“Holocaust” delivers an atom bomb riff, the kind only Criss OIiva could write.  A nuclear apocalypse was reliable 80s subject matter for metal lyrics.  “What will 2000 bring?  The war of a billion things.”  I sure wish I could go back in time and tell Jon Oliva about Y2k, the disaster that wasn’t!  Good song though, with lots of punch courtesy of original bassist Keith Collins, and Steve “Dr. Killdrums” Wacholz.  The end of the world continues on “I Believe”, humanity’s search for their next homeworld.  Another great metal tune, made effective by the hard core metal shrieks of Jon Oliva blasting over the riffs of his brother Criss.  When they hit the warp speed, “I Believe” becomes Starship Motorhead!  The metal blitz ends the first side on “Rage”, a song that sounds exactly how you think it should.

Mid-paced metal dominates “On the Run”.  It’s the first less-than-impressive song on the album, but worse is the BDSM-flavoured speed metal farce “Twisted Little Sister”.  Filler without hooks.  “Living for the Night” delivers some thrills via the splendid riffage, as does “Scream Murder”.  The second side is clearly inferior to the first, but fortunately it ends on a ballad called “Out on the Streets”.  They would later re-record this song for the ill-fated Fight for the Rock album, but the original has an innocence and vibrancy the re-recording doesn’t.

Everyone will have their own takeaways from Sirens, but to these ears, there are a few songs in the middle of the album that should have been replaced with others.  If Sirens and Dungeons are Calling were distilled into a single 10 track LP, it could have been a landmark of the genre.  (We’ll look at the EP next time.)  Instead we have an album you’d call “good”.  Not “great”, simply “good”.  Which is a shame because the tunes “Sirens”, “Holocaust”, “I Believe” and “Out on the Streets” really are great.

3.5/5 stars