METAL ON THE RISE
SAVATAGE


From: Canadian M.E.A.T. magazine, issue # 42, May '93

Story by: Metal Tim Henderson

Contributed by: Ellen Bakvis


 

For an outsider, it's difficult to fathom an erratic lifestyle of non-stop touring, recording and gallivanting in search of musical fame. This makes Savatage the epitome of the working man's musician - blue collar headbangers from Florida who are desperately seeking that white collar position in life.

In this scenario, upper class status is equal to heavy metal supremacy. Savatage have worked their asses off, moving the proverbial three steps forward only to be knocked two steps back with reality. They can only hope better days lie ahead with their deeply guitar-driven return to their roots in their new Atlantic/Warner release Edge Of Thorns.

Tightly ensconced in the depths of New York City performing press duties - far removed from the frivolities of sunny Florida - bassist Johnny Lee Middleton begins the Sava-up-date.

"we just completed our video shooting down in Florida," he begins, "We did it all basically in our backyards. This is the first record We've been able to record ( at Morrisound in Tampa ), and stay in our own beds, which is real nice. It takes a lot of stress off you when you don't have to pack up your whole life for a few months and try to work on something creative. We all live down in the St. Petersburg / Clearwater area. We're going back to Florida ( after press days ) to start rehearsing for the European tour we're going on in May."

As Middleton brings us up to the present, rumors have been flying regarding the status of the band, though far from the truth. Savatage have simply been keeping themselves tightly secured in the writing/studio environment for the past few months, working with a fresh face in unknown vocalist Zak Stevens.

"In Florida, Middleton motions, "everyone thought the band had broken up. We ( also including drummer Steve "Doc " Wacholz and guitarist Criss Oliva ) just kind of let these rumors fly and nobody even knew we were in the studio - just our close friends. Then we just came out with this new record, which we secretly recorded. "

Longtime screamer Jon Oliva forfeited his duties after the dismal response to 1991's Streets, A Rock Opera. A deep and convoluted journey into the land of the concept album - and a one way ticket to the poor-house. It was Oliva's final straw, as his son, and a fresh project ( by the name of Butcher ), reigned supreme over a long and frustrating period of his life.

"As far as Jon leaving the band, " explains Middleton, "there's been all kinds of rumors about that too. What happened was that he was tired of traveling, and after the depressing time the band had last year he said, "Fuck this! I want to stay home and watch my kid grow up. I've been on the road for eight years now, and I got an eight-year-old kid that I haven't even seen! "

"Him and Criss basically wrote the record," he adds, "and we all recorded it. Jon was producing it with us as well as Criss and Paul ( O'Neill, Savatage's longtime producer / writing partner ). It wasn't like Jon was out of the band - it was like he stepped aside 'cause he wrote all the shit, and wrote it for Zak to sing. Zak had a lot of input on the record, but Jon was basically coaching him through a lot of things 'cause Jon has a melody line in mind when he writes a song and he would like to keep it similar, to keep the context of what he was feeling."

With the Savatage writing team intact, the band have actually increased their offensive punch by continuing to involve Oliva. Apart from co-writing the entire record, he is also credited with the piano work and song arrangements. It's definitely a rock 'n' roll first to incorporate a former member as a vocal coach on the next album. Middleton is the first to admit that the Sava-team has a special relationship.

"The thing about this band, " he boasts, "is when we get into a rehearsal or a recording situation, we hang our egos up outside - everyone gets along real good. It was kind of strange though. I don't think that any band in history has replaced a member, and then had that member work with his replacement on the next project. Jon's still there spiritually. Jon's very talented, and Butcher has some real heavy, heavy stuff. He's doing real well."

With Stevens, Savatage went for a crisper and cleaner style than Oliva's deep-throated verbal bludgeoning. Stevens contains a remarkable grasp of the material, in the vein of Geoff Tate ( Queensryche ) and James LaBrie ( Dream Theater ). Middleton is glowing with the choice.

"He's got a thinner voice when it comes to the higher stuff," he professes, "and obviously he doesn't have the growl that Jon had. When we decided to get a new singer, we didn't want to have someone try to mimic Jon. We wanted something completely different. We met Zak ( who's from California via South Carolina ) through a friend of a friend on the Gutter Ballet tour. When we were searching for vocalists we remembered he had a good set of lungs on him, but at the time we weren't interested. We finally tracked him down, and he was in Boston. We asked him to send us a demo to hear what he was capable of in his voice 'cuz he hadn't been on a record before. We heard potential in this guy, and painstakingly got it out of him. He's improved tenfold during the past four months we've been together. He's like a diamond in the rough, and we polished him up. "

After thoroughly becoming ensued with their last mega-concept record, it was understood that a concept album is intended for a particular specific audience. Where Streets in itself may have been a little too in depth for the longtime Savatage fan, Edge Of Thorns requires less thought. However, it was disheartening to see such an immense piece of work in Streets ignored. How frustrating as musicians was it to watch a project of that magnitude flop ?

"It was pretty devastating actually, " Middleton sadly admits, "cause we spent a lot of time on it, and lots of thinking. But sometimes when you think of something that's too intense, a lot of people don't get it. we kind of alienated our audience because we were trying to get a point across - I think we went over a lot of people's heads. A lot of people don't give a shit about that - they want to hear the fuckin' guitar, the bass, the drums and the singer screamin' his ass off. We all thought it was good, but the economic situation, and a few other matters, forced the ball to stop rolling. We ended up saying fuck it, and we did something else. We didn't lose any money on the record, but it's disheartening to put a lot of work into something and break even. "

After last year 's dismal showing, Savatage sat back and envisioned their future. With all cards on the table, and a fan base that was threatening to falter, they, in turn, approached the recording of their latest with caution.

"We said to ourselves, 'What were our most popular records? Gutter Ballet and Hall Of The Mountain King,' so we tried to combine the two of them style-wise to see what we could come up with. We went for more straight-ahead, less orchestrated and intricate material. We stuck to plain and simple guitar - hard-driving stuff. If you notice there's a little piano here and there. It's a very hungry record. We did it very quick - from writing, recording, to mixing and mastering - in ten weeks. On Streets, it was six months. We wanted that grace under pressure feel out and onto a record. I think it's our best sounding record as far as sounds go. There's good separation between the bass and drums, and the guitars are in your face. "

As for an upward swing in 1993, the band can only hope that the return to heavier times is the key. Leaving the concept era behind them, they are intent on refueling old fires with new sparks.

"we basically waited out the storm, " Middleton seriously notes. "We were going to wait a little longer on the release of this to let things come around, at least in the States. I don't know the way it is up in CAnada, but things are looking up. Atlantic is really excited about this project, and we're going to go for our big AOR push - the band's never really been pushed before. That's going to be a first, and it's our approach this time. Instead of going for the cult status and not relying on FM, we're going for more the FM push with the video and single 'Edge Of Thorns'.

"It's frustrating," he continues, "We've been doing this for ten years now, and none of us have made a lot of money. We live within our means, but none of us are driving Porsches. We bust our ass, and it's like any other business - you've got to keep putting into it. So we've been basically putting all our money back into us without putting it into our pockets. We've got a ten album deal with Atlantic - one of the last ( of this kind ) that they signed, and we're on number 6. So, if it takes 15 years, we've got another five to go. So we're still willing to stick it out and do whatever it takes."