by Mike Smith
Savatage recovers from the loss of late guitar god Criss Oliva, and bounce back with their new album Handful Of Rain!
In October of 1993, the rock world lost one of it's greatest guitarists when Savatage six-string shredder Criss Oliva was killed in a car accident near his home in Clearwater Florida. Oliva had been returning from a festival show in nearby Tampa where Savatage had performed in support of their most successful album to date, Edge Of Thorns. It was a cruel twist of fate that the band had finally begun to get some recognition for a long career that began with the ground-breaking independent release Sirens, followed by a ten-year association with Atlantic records beginning with `85's raging Power Of The Night, and included releases that varied from true to form gloomy Sabbath/Priest-esque rifferama such as Hall Of The Mountain King, to more suspiciously corporate-contrived offerings like 86's Fight For The Rock.
The recording of Edge Of Thorns had already seen Criss’ brother and band co- founder/screamer from hell Jon Oliva's departure from the band. At first this had seemed to signal the end for Savatage, as Jon's one-of-a-kind voice was at least as responsible for their rabid cult following as his brother's powerfully fluid fret-burning. One pondered that he'd grown tired of record company would-be geniuses trying to turn a brilliant traditional metal band into a nutra-sweetened eighties-style video commercial rock success. This proved to not be the case, however as Jon stayed on as songwriter, co-producer. He even picked his replacement, Zachary Stevens, who joined Criss Oliva, drummer Steve "Doc" Wacholz (who founded the group with the Oliva brothers while still in high school), and long-time bassist Johnny Lee Middleton. The resulting Edge was a commercial success with its power-meets-progressive blend, but then tragedy struck...
At that point it appeared that the legendary Florida rockers’ story had come to an end. So it comes as a surprise--a pleasant one though--believe me, that I'm hanging with the members of Savatage in their record company offices discussing their new release, Handful Of Rain. Sitting with me are Zach, Steve, Johnny, and new guitarist Alex Skolnick, former Testament whiz who left the Bay area thrashers in search of a situation that would allow him to better express his versatile talents. So it looks like he found the ideal situation, but I still admit to the guys that I was a bit surprised that the band decided to carry on at all.
"I've heard that from a lot of people, and I'm sure that's what everybody thought at first." says Zach. "That's what I thought, too. But when time goes by you realize what you should do, and we realize that Criss would've been kicking our ass if we didn't go on."
"I was ready to pack it in," admits Johnny. "We'd been doing it so long, and then tragedy struck, for me personally, I was ready to pack it in - and pretty much did - until these guys started getting it back together again. Then I thought, ‘why quit now, we've been struggling so long.’ We've got ten years on Atlantic records, we can't quit now, Criss wouldn't have wanted it that way. Jon basically wrote the album for his brother, that's what it comes down to. He did it in his memory, in honor of his spirit."
"His spirit is what's keeping it going. We're just really happy to be doing it again," says Zach. "Jon and Paul (O'Neill, long-time Savatage producer) really picked up the pieces, they called me and said, ‘come up, let's be the three musketeers for a while’, ‘cause they needed me here while they were writing, so they could make sure everything worked for my voice."
"Jon writes everything," Alex explains. "He plays everything. He had all the rough guitar tracks ready when I got there; he showed me the guitar rhythms, and I just added a little, made it a little heavier and did the leads. I was happy we went for a harder sound, I was always a fan of older Savatage. I actually played a lot of Criss’ guitars on the tracks, and used this great Marshall amp that Jon had that they would use in the studio, I wanted it to be true to Criss’ sound."
It turns out that Skolnick was the key element in the decision to carry on the band, as Criss Oliva had been a fan of Alex's playing for some time. "We had toured with Testament on the Gutter Ballet tour and Criss really admired Alex's playing." Johnny explains, "That's why we were trying to get Alex to do the record, he was the perfect guy because Criss really respected his playing. It worked out good, because he would've been happy that Alex was playing the parts on the album. Jon mentioned Alex, and we said, ‘that's perfect.’ So, after a little convincing, we flew him down to Tampa, played him some tracks, and that was it."
"I was already a fan of the band and of Criss’ too," adds Alex. "My favorite albums were the really early ones, but by the time we were touring with them his playing had just tripled, he was one of the best, and it made me happy to replace someone I liked." It also gave Skolnick a chance to take his lead playing in a direction he’d wanted to for some time. "With Testament, we'd always have this rhythm guitar drowning out the lead guitar," he says. "Here, there's rhythms that aren't always ninety miles an hour, the drums aren't always doing what the guitars are doing, and the solos are heard on this record. A lot of the people I played it for were happy that you could finally hear what I was playing."
With tracks that vary from straight-ahead rock such as opener "Taunting Cobras" to full-out progressive workouts ("Chance" borders on "Bohemian Rhapsody" complexity and drama), this album should please Savatage fans old and new alike. "The band’s always been able to grow," Johnny agrees. "Grow with the audience. A lot of bands, they start at this one type of music, and they stay there, and five years later the audience is having kids and getting married. Where this band, as we've gotten older, our music has kind of changed as well as ourselves. The people who bought "Sirens" when they were sixteen can see how the band's music has grown. And a lot of the audience has stuck with us and grown."
And those who missed the chance to hear early cult Savatage classics like "Sirens" are about to get a second chance to hear some of the most brilliant doom ‘n’ gloom metal masterpieces ever recorded. "Sirens and Dungeons Are Calling are coming out with extra unreleased tracks being added," explains Steve as he recalls the early days of the band when he first met the Oliva brothers in high school. "We wrote those albums at a place called The Pit. We used to go around here at Atlantic handing out little pieces of The Pit. We were superstitious about it, like this place had special powers. It was a chicken coop about the size of this room, it was rat-infested, and we just used to sweat and play our balls off. I was playing with the band when I was fourteen, Criss was the same age and Jon was a couple years older. Mr. and Mrs. Oliva bought this piece of property because it had this chicken coop, and we converted it to a jam room. We were just kids, I remember seeing Criss in a band, Jon was playing drums, and I just thought these guys were unbelievable. And the next day I met them, and things just started clicking."
"I remember hearing about the band for the first time because there was a band called Sabotage, a terrible band," laughs Alex. "And they opened for a band that were friends of ours, and there was this guy who came up and was like ‘You've got to hear Savatage, with a ‘V’, from Florida, check ‘em out!’ So a year or so later, everybody was just starting to go see Metallica, who were just starting to play clubs. And Sirens was the rage. Everyone at those shows was talking about it and no one could get a copy. I remember people cranking it on their stereos, and they were cranking third-generation cassettes!"
"So that's why we never made any money," laughs Steve. Apparently money's still an issue for the members of Savatage despite a decade of recording and touring with the backing of a record company giant. "People find it hard to believe that a lot of musicians have regular jobs," explains Johnny. "They think it's all caviar and Lear jets when you're on the road, but when you're home sittin' on your ass, no one's paying the mortgage payment. I work for my father, I'm an air-conditioning mechanic, I help him run his business." Still, he's not complaining. "I can't sit on my ass," he says "If I had ten million dollars in the bank, I'd still have to work, I'd have to do something." Steve agrees that despite everything he's still happy to just be playing in his band. "It's hard to believe that we signed with Atlantic in '84 and ten years later I'm still sitting here."
So as the Savatage guys plan to start touring behind their new album and leave the exciting worlds of air-conditioning repair and pool-cleaning behind (both fairly lucrative professions in Florida, no doubt), one question remains on my mind. Aside from writing and co-producing Savatage's material, what the hell is the master of the blood-curdling scream, Jon Oliva, the mountain king himself, been up to?
"He finished up an Opera that he and Paul have written to be performed on Broadway!" explains Johnny. "And he’s putting his Dr. Butcher band back together ..."
Dr. Butcher's his little side project band, heavier than Savatage," says Johnny. "Way heavier,"' adds Alex, a guy who knows about way heavy. "It's got a humorous side too," adds Johnny. "He played this show in Florida and he had this guy chopping meat on a table and the band starts playing and all of a sudden Jon's head comes popping up through a hole in the table!"