Savatage


From: RIP - December 1990.
contributed by: David Rosenberger
HTML by Ellen Bakvis


Savatage isn't exactly a secret- not with the several hundred thousand copies of Gutter Ballet that were gobbled up by discerning rock fans- but there's a lot more to their story than most meatalheads know. Certainly they have delivered two very powerful and interesting albums in a row that belong in any collection, Hall of the Mountain King and Gutter Ballet. If they're not in your stack of tapes or CD's at home, you have my sympathy for complete lack of imagination and metal capacity.

Now for the metal history buffs in the audience, here are the facts: The Savatage Saga, proudly coming to you from Florida, is six albums deep, and the band is just now going full speed. On record they have released Sirens, Dungeons are Calling, Power of the Night, Fight for the Rock, Hall of the Mountain King and Gutter Ballet. Digging up the first four nuggets was tough enough when the records came out but, with sporadic distribution, trying to find 'em now is a nightmare from hell. Suffice it to say that the band feels like they have had two different periods in music making: one through the roots underground metal strata, and now a real chance with major-label attention focused on the last two albums.

"We look at it like we have two albums",Jon Oliva said, holding court on the tour bus outside the Ventura Theatre during the summer U.S tour. Savatage was set to record a live album at the Hollywood Palace the next evening and Jon was reflecting on the band's career to date."The early years were so messed up. It never mattered how good we were. All of the business was so screwed up, itr could never have worked. Now our shit is together and we're taking giant steps instead of baby steps."A couple of these strides included absolute domination of the metal charts in the radio trades newspapers that monitor metal shows and college radio when Gutter Ballet first hit the streets. The core metal fans had a handle on Savatage, now it was time to twist the rest of society into form.

Savatage is a very unique metal entity. The band revolves around the creative talents of brothers Jon (keyboards, vocals) and Criss Oliva (lead guitar), the steadiness of Johnny Lee Middleton on bass, and the solid drumming of Steve 'dr. Killdrums' Wacholz. Added reinforcement on rhythm guitar, Christopher Caffery, has toured before with the band, and is now an official member. Jon Oliva is the dramatic one. He's outgoing, a creature of life's experiences who hungers for new adventures, has paid for past extravagances, but still has a lot of stories to tell. Criss is more comfortable in his own zone, wrapped around his guitar, putting his heart and soul into swirling and climbing riffs that are distinctive and unique. His solos can cradle, rip apart and redeliver the melody very cleverly. Criss Oliva is one supreme shredder, a very underrated player, "It really pisses me off when I see the winners of some guitarplayers' polls in magazines- who Criss could wipe the floor with- gettin attention", Jon Oliva said. "Criss will have his day. He's one of the best players out there, a complete natural. He couldn't tell you in a million years what he's doing. It just rips when it comes out."Jon does admit giving Criss his start and learning a little about himself at the same time. "First I bought Criss a bass",Jon said, laughing a bit at the thought of where it has lead them."Later, for his birthday, our older brother and I bought him a guitar, and after about two weeks I got the hint - he was becoming incredible. So I said, "Why don't you play guitar and I'll play keyboards and sing?. He said: "All right, give me all your other guitars". It sent the Oliva brothers into motion.

Now it's 1990. Savatage is rolling across the land, playing to more people than they ever have before and building a solid foundation for a long career. They've also left us a souvenir. " We listened to live tapes before, and considered doing a live album",Jon said."But we wanted to do it right. With Chris Caffery in the band now, it sounds fuller live, and it makes more sense. Since a lot of people can't find the earlier albums, it gives them a chance to hear songs from those records. Another reoson why we want to put out a live album at this time is because we wanted to work for a full year on the next Savatage album, and it could help us bridge that gap."It is a wise move, considering how many changes the band went through between the past two releases." Hall of the Mountain King was a very 'live' record",Jon said as he started to explain the band's evolution since they started a management partnership with producer and writer Paul O'Neill. "We recorded most of it live in the studio. Gutter Ballet was really thought out, very experimental and creative." It's quite evident from Jon's remarks that this experimentation, although a bit of a risk to a band with a solid core audience, does signal the band's future direction."When Ballet came out, we thought we may have thrown everybody a big, wide curveball by coming up with something that was unique and versatile. There are a lot of records that are thrown together without too much thought. Slap a bunch of effects on it, get 'em some hairspray, a few tattoos, and then ask 'em: "Can you guys play this stuff live?". In many ways, it's the nature of the beast, the record industry itself. We didn't want to get caught up in it. Do you think some A&R guy told Jimmy Page, when they were making Led Zeppelin 1, that he wanted to hear the tunes to make sure they were acceptable?"Jon continues. "Never happened. Records in the early 70's to mid- '80's wrere put together by bands, not record companies. We're a band. We put a lot f thought into making our records open and different. We use our vicious little brains."

It shows, and the crowd response caught even the band a bit off guard. Jon admitted that the fans on the road are always commenting on 'Crowds' and 'Gutter Ballet', the two songs that bounced furthest from the wall when created, but which are also perhaps the most interesting musical ideas on the album. 'Crowds' is about a musician who has had his heyday and can't do the things he did when he was 25 years old"Jon confesses. "He wants to kick ass just one more time , but he knows he can't do it, so he bends down at the end of the song and dies. I always said that this song is not about me, but afterabout 300 people had asked me if it was, I started laying awake at night thinking: Well, is it? 'Gutter Ballet', the song, came very late. We were doing overdubs in the studio, finishing up the album. I had gone to see 'Phantom of the Opera' one night, and walked back into the studio at 3:00 a.m. I wrote the song on the patio, ad when I finished it, I thought...Is this a Savatage song, or did I write it for me? I played it for the band. They loved it, so we decided to do it. If I had written it two weeks later, it would never have been on the album."Much less the title track.

Savatage has made enough of an impact that Jon Oliva and company have lured a large portion of the metal audience into their aural and sonic web. Yet the biggest surprise is still to come. "Our next album, it could even be a record is going to be a heavy concept album,"Jon stressed."It could even be a double album, a rock opera, a 'Tommy' for the 90's. It will be based on street life, the serious problems of our times. We have all the pieces, and now it's time to put them together. The main character in this adventure is going to go through some serious shit, experiencing different life-styles and reacting to them."Sounds like another series of questions from rock journalists and fans alike, asking if Jon Oliva has done any personal research into this story line and, yes, if it is autobiographical. It's too early to say. But one thing is for certain: Jon Oliva is a very interesting and unique musician. "There is no one out there that sounds like me, and there is no one out there who could do my gig. And if someone did try, I'd challenge him and kick his ass."

'Gutter Ballet' was a risk, Jon admits that, but it paid off and is good for the music scene in general, hopefully encouraging other bands to use their brains to write music instead of their crotches. "We wanted to bring more ideas into the music without going off at a 90-degree angle and losing everybody. We've taken the audience that's been into us for a while, screwed with their heads a little bit and let them hear something unique before I come along with something real wild and say: 'Stick this one in your pocket!" Most Savatage fans are of the patient variety, having seen the band struggle through logistical quagmires, and having been rewarded with a very advanced and interesting band. A live album would fit in nicely into the collection, with the tunes pumped up and energized a bit.You say it'll take Savatage a year to get this album together, Jon, but look at it this way: Don't underestimate us. We'll have a year to get ready. Give it your best shot; we can handle it!