Thursday, July 30, 2015

Review: Savatage, "Return to Wacken"

As Savatage prepares to take the stage for the first time since 2001 today at Germany’s Wacken Open Air Festival, I finally received my copy of their latest release, Return to Wacken.

First off, I’ve got to say that I should have done my homework on this before paying the import price. The title of the album is a bit misleading. I was expecting, perhaps, some live performances from the band’s previous appearances at Wacken. Instead, we have studio versions of songs that the band has performed at Wacken. It’s a bit disappointing to pay a premium for songs I already have, but that said, it’s still a pretty nice collection, if a bit heavy on their later work.

Return to Wacken opens with three bonafide classics for Savatage fans – “Hall of the Mountain King,” “Gutter Ballet” and “Believe.”

Though it was the band’s fifth album, Hall of the Mountain King was really the project that introduced Savatage to a wider audience in 1987. After a couple of tough, heavy records, Savatage had lost its way a bit and wandered away from its roots on the more commercial Fight for the Rock in 1986. Enter producer Paul O’Neill, who joined forces with brothers Jon and Criss Oliva to produce, arguably, the band’s most powerful album.

The main guitar riff for the title track is, in my mind, one of the greatest heavy metal riffs ever, and Jon Oliva is shrieking at his sinister best. Then there’s that maniacal laugh during the interlude that only he could have delivered. I agree that it’s the perfect song to kick off the collection, but it does give me a quibble with the running order, since “Prelude to Madness” appears later on Return to Wacken. “Prelude” is their take on Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” and serves, as the name suggests, as a prelude to “Hall of the Mountain King.” It doesn’t make a lot of sense to separate them to me.

These first three songs, though, show the progression under O’Neill’s tutelage, which would eventually lead to the arena-filling symphonic outfit Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Second in the order is “Gutter Ballet,” which gave Jon Oliva his first chance to sit down behind the piano for Savatage, and also hinted at the symphonic sound that was to come.

After a brief piano intro, Criss Oliva delivers some of his trademark cutting guitar riffs with a very classical feel, accompanied by strings, another first for the band and another nod at where they’d go in the future.

Despite those touches, though, Gutter Ballet remained an album firmly rooted in metal. It wasn’t until their third album with O’Neill, Streets: A Rock Opera, that a new direction really began to develop, and we see that here with “Believe.”

What can I say about “Believe?” Man. It is, without a doubt, my favorite ballad of all time. It’s also one of my favorite songs. It begins as a melancholy piece as the character reflects on a misspent life. Then it builds into this soaring and inspiring piece of music. I’ve listened to the song thousands of times over the years, yet it still has the power to raise the hairs on the back of my neck.

That brings us to another interesting choice in the running lineup. After Streets, Jon Oliva took a step back from the spotlight, though he remained as a writer and musician, and Zachary Stevens came in on vocals. But instead of going straight into “Edge of Thorns,” the title track of the first album with Stevens, we get “Chance” from 1994’s Handful of Rain.

What makes that choice interesting to me is that Handful of Rain was the first record after the death of Criss Oliva, who was killed by a drunk driver in the fall of 1993. Though the rest of the band gets credit on the record, the truth of it is that Jon Oliva wrote, produced and played almost all of the instruments you hear on Handful of Rain. Stevens came in to do the vocals, and Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick was hired to play leads.

Much of the subject matter on the album is dark, reflecting Jon Oliva’s feelings of loss about his brother, particularly the centerpiece, “Alone You Breathe,” which is notably missing from this collection. Instead, we get “Chance,” which is a fantastic, heavy song. It’s one of the more symphonic numbers on the record, and also includes the first instance of the counterpoint vocals, which would become a trademark of later Savatage and TSO.

We take a quick trip through the Zak Stevens years with “Edge of Thorns,” “Dead Winter Dead” and a couple of tunes from the, in my mind, underrated Wake of Magellan, the title track and “The Hourglass.”

Then, it’s back to the earlier work with “Tonight He Grins Again,” a dark song about addiction that’s another one of my favorites from Streets, and the misplaced “Prelude to Madness.”

The collection closes on another perfect note with the ghostly ballad “When the Crowds Are Gone,” from Gutter Ballet. The song really serves as a prelude for “Believe.” It has that same haunting air about it, and even introduces lines that are repeated in the final moments of “Believe.” “When the Crowds are Gone” marked the first time that I realized the kind of emotional punch that Savatage could deliver, which would be proven again on “Believe” and “Alone You Breathe.” With the subject of the song singing to the ghosts in an empty theater, it’s also a great closer to reflect where the band stands and the uncertainty of its future.

Of course, there’s no way for an 11-song collection to completely please fans of a band with a 30-plus year history and 12 studio albums. Many will be disappointed that there are no songs from the band’s four pre-Paul O’Neill records — and even of the albums that are included, most of us will have favorites that didn’t make the cut.

Those are small quibbles, though, when you consider the fact that Return to Wacken heralds the possible return of a band that we love. Paul O’Neill and Jon Oliva are currently billing the Wacken appearance as a one-off, but haven’t ruled out plans to do something more in the future. Here’s hoping that one day soon, I’ll be holding a new Savatage album in my hands instead of a compilation.

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