savatage tso solo projects

believe - liner notes by clay marshall

In selecting songs for this album, Savatage did not simply try to select its "greatest hits." Instead, it attempted to encompass songs that represent key turning points in the band's storied history. Though it has endured many changes over the years, the band has always endeavored to experiment, trying to create something different while still remaining true to the Savatage ideology. This collection of songs tries to depict the causes and results of many of those changes.

Songs like "The Dungeons Are Calling" and "Sirens," both of which appear in the form of live versions here, represent the hard rock and heavy metal roots of the band. The lyrics to these songs were written by Jon Oliva, and possess both a raw power as well as a sense of majesty. After establishing the band's sound with songs like these, Savatage experienced its first major change came in 1986 with Fight for the Rock. On this album, the band added new bassist Johnny Lee Middleton, whose energetic and solid bass lines would become the backbone of the Savatage sound. At this point, the core lineup for the middle stages of Savatage's career was solidified.

In 1987, Atlantic Records hired songwriter/producer Paul O'Neill to produce the band's next album. The label sent O'Neill to Florida, where the band was performing live at the Ritz Theater. O'Neill was "blown away with Jon Oliva's vocal talent," he said, and just when he thought he couldn't be any more impressed with the band, Criss Oliva went into his first guitar solo of the show. "I was just in love, and I knew I had to work with these guys," O'Neill said.

O'Neill introduced classical influences to the band and became a key piece of the Savatage songwriting formula. O'Neill and Oliva would split the writing of lyrics for the next two albums, Hall of the Mountain King and Gutter Ballet, albums for which the band would tour extensively. Oliva penned the more raw and "streety" tracks like "She's In Love" and "White Witch," while O'Neill composed ethereal and poetic pieces like "When The Crowds Are Gone" and "Gutter Ballet."

Hall of the Mountain King gave the band its first widespread exposure. This album also marked the behind-the-scenes addition of classically-trained keyboardist Bob Kinkel, a major creative force who has since been involved with all Savatage releases. While there was a large classical influence present on the breakthrough Mountain King album, Gutter Ballet went even further. Here, the symphonic soundscape became more intense, showcasing a guitar and orchestra involved in a musical duel on the title track. This characteristic would resurface years later with the release of Dead Winter Dead. The Gutter Ballet era marked a brief addition of a fifth band member, rhythm guitarist Christopher Caffery, who would later rejoin the band.

Next, the band went on to record one of its most celebrated albums: a rock opera entitled Streets. The album would have been called "Gutter Ballet," had the title not been used on the previous album, and Savatage actually wanted to name it "Ghost In The Ruins." Originally conceived as a musical by O'Neill in the late 1970's, the "junked" manuscript was found in a drawer of O'Neill's home by Criss Oliva. He read it, heard the music, and then asked if the band could turn it into a rock opera. Songs like "Jesus Saves" and "Ghost In The Ruins" were "rocked up," said O'Neill, while many others, including "Believe," "Heal My Soul," and "A Little Too Far," all appear in the same version intended for their Broadway performances. Other tracks like "Streets" and "Strange Reality" were written expressly for the rock opera. This album marked the introduction of O'Neill as the band's sole lyricist.

With its next release, Edge of Thorns, the band experienced another major turning point. Jon Oliva decided to step down from his position as full-time lead singer in order to pursue side projects including the Broadway-bound musical "Romanov," while still remaining as Savatage's as co-writer and co-producer. After sifting through countless audition tapes, the Oliva brothers and O'Neill selected Zachary Stevens, not looking to replace Oliva, but to instead add another facet to the band. The songs on Edge of Thorns, including the title track, were specifically written around his voice. The song "Edge of Thorns" marked the band's first major American radio hit. However, tragedy struck and dealt the band its most significant turning point ever as co-founder Criss Oliva, whom O'Neill called "the spiritual soul of the band," was killed in a car accident in October of 1993.

Savatage soon decided that the best way to honor Criss would be to continue making music, and the band, though shaken and struggling, recorded the emotional Handful of Rain. Alex Skolnick, an old friend of Criss', was brought in to supply guitar parts, and O'Neill believes he did a "magnificent job." Skolnick joined the band on the tour in support of the album, as did Jon Oliva, who returned to the band full-time. This tour, part of which is represented on this album, also marked the addition of innovative drummer Jeff Plate.

Having already recorded a rock opera, Savatage wanted something to elevate the band to the next level. What band impresses us the most?, Oliva and O'Neill wondered. The answer, they decided, was Queen, specifically with the song "Bohemian Rhapsody." Using that song as a creative inspiration, O'Neill came up with the idea of using counterpoint, something "no other band had ever done." With this in mind, the band wrote "Chance," with Oliva writing the vocal harmonies prior to the counterpoint at song's end. This song, as well as others on Handful of Rain including "Castles Burning," saw the band directly comment on current political and social events for the first time. One such track, "Watching You Fall," addressed conflicts in Bosnia, and foreshadowed the band's next album, Dead Winter Dead.

It was around this time that usage of the internet began to become widespread. Under the guidance of Nathan Bradley, a website was designed exclusively by and for Savatage fans. Now located at, it is believed to be the largest website on the internet devoted to a musical artist, and puts the vast majority of corporately -designed artist sites to shame.

The release of Dead Winter Dead in 1995 combined a return to the rock opera format with the continuation of commenting on the current state of the world. Another key ingredient, counterpoint, was also far from forgotten, appearing in "One Child" and "Not What You See." For this album, after a long search for a new guitarist, the respected, well-traveled Al Pitrelli was hired. The album also saw the return of Christopher Caffery. Dead Winter Dead spawned a hit single, "Christmas Eve / Sarajevo 12/24," which was also included on the Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Christmas Eve and Other Stories. Material from Dead Winter Dead was even used by professional figure skater Jozef Sabovcik in his performance routine. The record also marked the addition of renowned engineer Dave Wittman behind-the-scenes.

With the 1997 release of The Wake of Magellan, it marked the first time in 10 years that the band's lineup was unchanged on consecutive releases. Solidified, the band joined forces with legendary manager David Krebs. The record also saw Pitrelli, Caffery, and Middleton becoming more involved with the writing process.

With Magellan, Savatage strengthened its identity as a band. "Everyone in the band brings a specific talent," O'Neill said. "Remove one individual from the mix, and the creations we aspire to achieve may not have been possible." With a solid rhythm section featuring Middleton, "one of the best bass players in the world," O'Neill said, and Plate, whose talents have helped the band's music take a progressive turn; emotional vocals provided by Stevens, who O'Neill said has "incredible range and incredible work ethic;" the dual guitar attack of Pitrelli, whose talent O'Neill believes is limitless, and Caffery, described as the energy powering the band; and Oliva, whom O'Neill describes as "truly a renaissance musician, and the most talented musician I've ever worked with," there appears to be nothing but promise ahead.

"Anything you can imagine musically, Savatage can create," O'Neill said. This compilation represents a sampling of those creations.

1. Believe

Taken from 1991's Streets, this has become the band's most popular song, and despite being over seven years old, is still the Savatage song mentioned most in fan mail. Featuring the powerful, emotional vocals of Jon Oliva and classic guitar work by his brother Criss, "Believe" acts as the climactic conclusion of the Streets rock opera, where main character D.T. Jesus achieves emotional and spiritual salvation.


This instrumental from 1994's Handful of Rain includes a tidbit of Savatage trivia-Jon Oliva performs every single track on this song, except for lead guitar and bass. Its title acts as a metaphor for the entire album, which presents different "visions" of select individuals and their surroundings. The song also supplies foreshadowing of the rich, lavish orchestration to be included in the band's future albums.

3. Taunting Cobras

The leadoff track on Handful of Rain, this incredibly heavy song definitively proved that Savatage was reasserting itself as a force in the hard rock world. Like the rest of the album, it showcased the lead guitar work of Alex Skolnick, who acted as a temporary member of the band while it tried to decide how to proceed following the 1993 loss of Criss Oliva. Featuring phenomenal vocal work by Zachary Stevens, it also included drum and rhythm guitar work by Jon Oliva. The lyrics to the song address the plight of one struggling with drug addiction.

4. Handful Of Rain

A lyrical masterpiece, this is another of the band's most popular numbers, especially live. Opening with a haunting acoustic riff, the song soon progresses into powerful verses and a driving chorus. The song deals with the plight of a lost, tortured soul, with the title acting as a metaphor for a cure to cleanse his soul. As it appears here, this is the only complete recorded version of the song-all other versions of the album outside of Japan delete the second verse to the song.

5. Chance

This could very well be the band's most popular live song. The epic track tells of the heroic Chiune "Sempo" Sugihara, a Japanese Ambassador to Lithuania who in 1939 wrote exit visas for some 8,000 Jews who would have otherwise perished in the Holocaust. "[He] saw a chance to do the right thing, and took it," O'Neill has said. The song is also significant in its structural content, as it was the first time a rock band had recorded a song with five-part, harmonized counterpoint, a fixture that becomes a defining element of the band in future releases. Here, these multiple vocal parts represent the arguments within Sugihara's mind before he committed himself to action, O'Neill has said, adding that the song, written in the studio, took two weeks to record and another week to mix.

6. Sarajevo

This delicate track acts as the introduction to Dead Winter Dead, the band's 1995 rock opera about the war-ravaged nation of Bosnia. It sets the scene for the rest of the storyline, telling of a gargoyle that overlooks the town and wonders, "What is laughter, what are tears?" As the tale develops, of course, both the gargoyle and the listener are exposed to a wide range of emotions.

7. This Is The Time (1990)

The story accompanying Dead Winter Dead begins in Bosnia in 1990, the year after the Berlin Wall had been torn down. With the collapse of Communism, Yugoslavia was now a free nation. Accordingly, there was a large wave of optimism that swept the country, for as the poetry introducing this song states, "In the classic words of Dickens, it surely was 'the best of times.'" The powerful and hopeful chorus echoes these sentiments aptly, emphasizing that "the moment is now." Powerful vocals by Zak Stevens energize the song, as do the seemingly effortless guitar work of Al Pitrelli and the intensely solid rhythm section of Johnny Lee Middleton and Jeff Plate.

8. This Isn't What We Meant

This song acts as the conscience of Dead Winter Dead. Moving vocals from Zak Stevens and poignantly played keyboards by Jon Oliva create a haunting sensation here, as one character in the rock opera's story now returns to his homeland. He sees the suffering of the city, and knows that when Yugoslavians prayed for change, this is not what they intended-a feeling epitomized by the line, "And every prayer we prayed at night has somehow lost its meaning."

9. Christmas Eve / Sarajevo 12/24

This instrumental would become the most significant recording in the band's history. Leading into the emotional culmination of the Dead Winter Dead tale, the music represents one character's determination to prove that the souls of his country and of humanity were not dead. A primary melody here is based upon "Carol of the Bells." The dual guitar attack of Al Pitrelli and Christopher Caffery mixed with the lavish orchestration and driving rhythm section creates a truly chilling effect, reminiscent of "Gutter Ballet." Admittedly unexpectedly, the song became a big hit at American radio, becoming so popular that it led to the creation of a very successful Savatage side-project known as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra. The song has since been re-released during the holiday season.

10. Edge Of Thorns (Live)

This, the title track to the band's 1993 release, was also their first major hit at American radio. It was also the first song recorded by Zachary Stevens, as this album marked his Savatage debut. The lyrics ironically address one's fragile state of mind after the end of a relationship-the line, "But I don't think about you anymore" is proven false by the previous verses. This live version was taken from Live in Japan, a concert recorded in Tokyo on the Handful of Rain tour in 1994. The touring lineup here featured Zachary Stevens, Alex Skolnick, Johnny Lee Middleton, Jeff Plate, and Jon Oliva.

11. Gutter Ballet (Live)

Also taken from Live in Japan, this, the title track to the band's 1989 release, marked a turning point for Savatage. Here, the band began to add keyboards and orchestration as primary components of its songs. Jon Oliva, of course, originally performed the vocal lines, but for its live interpretation, this presented a mild dilemma. However, after "we just gave it a try one day in rehearsals," according to Zachary Stevens, the chilling duet featured here was born. The song, based on New York City, reflects upon the "menagerie" image that such cities project.

12. The Dungeons Are Calling (Live)

Savatage has progressed immeasurably since its inception, but its variety, showcased in the contrast between this track and others on this album, is one of the reasons the band has persevered. This is the title track of the group's 1984 EP, captured live here in a recording from the 1988 Hall of the Mountain King tour on which the band played with Dio and Megadeth. Another interesting bit of Savatage trivia: Christopher Caffery, who was not yet an official band member, played on this tour, off-stage or hidden behind amplifiers. Jon wrote this song about a friend struggling with heroin (hence the syringe on the album cover).

13. Sirens (Live)

Like "The Dungeons Are Calling," this live version originally appeared on Final Bell: A Tribute to Christopher Michael Oliva, a 1995 release featuring a compilation of live recordings from the Hall of the Mountain King and Gutter Ballet tours. The band lineup presented here featured the Oliva brothers, Chris Caffery, Johnny Lee Middleton, and Steve "Dr. Killdrums" Wacholz. "Sirens" was one of three tracks on the first official Savatage release (when they were then known as Avatar), the 7-inch City Beneath The Surface. It also became the title track of the band's first full-length album, released in 1983. This live version features classic performances by Jon and Criss Oliva.

14. Criss Oliva Guitar Solo (Live)

Recorded from a 1987 show in Cleveland, Ohio, this is also featured on Final Bell. It offers a short but poignant look at one of the most talented guitarists ever to record. Criss' majestic tone and extraordinary speed and accuracy are aptly portrayed here.

15. Hall Of The Mountain King (Live)

Another of the band's most popular songs, this has become the conclusion to the group's live set. Taken from a 1990 show in New York City, this song, also from Final Bell, was the first song for which the group filmed a music video. It was also the first time the group had worked with Paul O'Neill, and its first experiment with what O'Neill calls "symphonic rock." The song loosely derives from classical composer Edvard Grieg's "Hall of the Mountain King," parts of which the band incorporated into "Prelude to Madness." Like "Sirens," with its trademark vocal wails and catchy guitar riffs, this is classic Savatage.

16. Alone You Breathe

One of the most emotional songs the band has ever written, this is the last track on Handful of Rain, written as a moving tribute to Criss Oliva. The song reprises some of the lines featured in "Believe." Though Paul O'Neill prefers to leave the lyrics here open to interpretation, the song creates a touching portrait of Criss through which fans will forever be able to remember him.