savatage tso solo projects

gutter ballet review by jim gordon
Gutter Ballet, released in 1989, was the album that definitively progressed Savatage from a "heavy metal" band into more of a group that performs "art rock." While they still show their metal roots on this record, and demonstrate that they still have a dark side, a new side of the band is shown here. This is largely a result of the introduction of Jon Oliva's piano abilities, which add a new dimension to the group's music, and open another door for movement in a new direction. This disc is full of variety, and showcases the band's talent in different areas to the fullest extent. The tracks range from head-banging thrashes, to majestic, fist-pumping anthems, to a soft, almost medieval guitar instrumental. Here is a track-by-track description:
1. of rage and war - 4:46
This hard track opens the disc on a heavy note, with a thundering opening bass riff and a killer guitar line. The distinctive wail of Jon's voice enters shortly after, and his lyrics denounce war, asking, "When are they (terrorist groups, etc.) gonna learn?" In one of the harshest and most invading choruses by the band, the lyrics demand disarmament, and say that the world would be a better place without war-mongers. This is a powerful, booming track, one that the listener's head is constantly moving along with. The solo is a tad short for my tastes, but fits the song well.
2. gutter ballet - 6:21
The dark feel of Hall of the Mountain King is continued in this song, with its eerie opening, replete with smoky keyboard choirs, and harmonics galore eminating from Criss's guitar. The song rips into full speed suddenly, as Jon switches his voice from low register to full "grit". He paints a chaotic, nightmarish picture. I'm not sure what the song actually means, but it's pretty scary sounding no matter what. Another great night song which (thanks to the backing vocals [or are they keyboards?]) points towards the use of texturing which the band would master in subsequent albums.
3. temptation revelation - 3:07
This instrumental possesses an overwhelming sound. It begins softly, with Jon playing piano, quickly followed by Criss' melodic wailing along with him. The effect created is almost orchestral. About halfway through, powerful keyboards enter. The music picks up, and speedily progresses. Orchestral timbres and Criss' lightning-like abilities result in an amazing and powerful track.
4. when the crowds are gone - 5:47
Perfectly led into by the previous instrumental, this track begins somberly, with Jon playing piano and singing about the past, along with missed opportunities. The powerful sounds of the two guitars enter at the first chorus, creating an amazing effect. The song then becomes another fist-pumping classic, with majestic malodies and perfect lyrics filled with dramatic imagery. This is a driving, somewhat slow track (in speed, that is), and has a riveting solo, followed by Jon's distinctive voice. This is the first of Savatage's "I never wanted to know, never wanted to see" tracks, the others (so far) being "Believe" off Streets and "Alone You Breathe" off Handful of Rain. The dramatic effect created by the moving force of Jon's voice, the unbelievably vivid lyrics, the beautiful sounds of the piano, and the guitar majesty make this track a truly memorable classic.
5. silk and steel - 2:56
This instrumental is a true testament to Criss' ability. Having wowed the listener already with the driving sounds of his electric, he picks up his acoustic here, and creates a soft, melodic, gentle, almost medieval sounding compisition here. This is a constantly flowing track, with a somewhat classical effect. This is the kind of track that one would expect to hear by the likes of acoustic artists like Acoustic Alchemy.
6. she's in love - 3:51
This heavy, uptempo rocker is about the furthest possivle thing from a love song, so don't be misled by the title. It features thrashy riffs, the always cool vocal screeches of Jon, and powerful rhythms that make this blazing track an intense headbanging standard. It features quick, almost rushed verses, with a wailing (vocal and guitar wise) chorus, and a searing solo. A sharp contrast from tracks 2 through 5, this tune brings up the one real aspect that I don't totally love about this record: its playability. What I mean by this is that I'm not 100% fond of its song order, for as I've said, the first song on the disc is musically heavy, but the next few are more lyrically heavy. This track here kicks off another group of musical heavies, only to be followed by "Summer's Rain," which is an amazing song, but I'll discuss it more later. To sum up this track, "She's In Love" is an all-out thrasher.
7. hounds - 6:11
This track begins with a dark, haunting, quiet riff amd mellow vocals until it suddenly explodes into a pounding, heavy classic, with great rhythms, cool axework, and a perfect voice to top it off. The haunting riff returns after the first chorus, only to be quickly replaced by a full- speed-ahead solo. The opening riff then returns, and again progresses into something heavier. This song becomes a thrasher's heaven near the end, as it picks up speed and breaks into another speedy solo. The quiet riff comes back at the end as the track fades out. All in all, this is a pure fist-pumping anthem.
8. the unholy - 4:38
Opening with unaccompanied electric guitar, this track explodes into another heavy, uptempo thrash classic. Everything comes together on this song: the rhythms, the guitars, the vocals, and the perfect overall sound. This is probably the one track on the disc that best demonstrates where Savatage has been in the past, not only with the speed and overall sound, but also with the lyrics, specifically, "Beyond the gates of hell..." prior to the first chorus, which features the line "Prelude to disaster." When singing the title, Jon's voice probably reaches its highest pitches on the whole album. This is a track filled with pure headbanging bombastic fury, and it's difficult to remain still when cranking this song out over the stereo. It does slow down a bit at the end, with chants of "Unholy" booming in the background while guitars and drums pound the track to a thundering close. Again, the musicianship here is incredible, but what else have we come to expect from this band?
9. mentally yours - 5:15
Don't let the seemingly happy sounds of the unaccompanied piano at the beginning of this track fool you, for this is probably the most lyrically disturbing song that the group has ever recorded. The lyrics tell of lost opportunities, insanity, and being misunderstood. This track quickly becomes another heavy, uptempo rocker with a very cool riff and pounding, overwhelming rhythms. Jon's awesome sneer adds to the power of this tune. The solo is quick, but not too fast, and it fits the song perfectly. The track picks up after the solo, with a speedier riff, and a booming, powerful bass rhythm. The chorus then returns, leading to the song's fadeout.
10. summer's rain - 4:31
A beautiful, comparatively mellow track that one might call a "power ballad," a soft sounding guitar opens this song, soon to be vocally accompanied. The track then becomes a slow, pounding anthem, with some of the coolest (and most moving) lyrics on the entire disc. The wails of the guitars are absolutely amazing here, and this song should act as the model for the perfect sound of an electric guitar. The solo is amazing, as Criss awes the listener by dancing his fingers all over the fretboard. This is a powerful, moving, emotional track, another true testament to the band's variety, especially when compared to the previous four.
11. thorazine shuffle - 4:42
This somber track begins with a guitar accompanied by quiet laughing in the background. It then becomes a heavy rocker, about Jon's involuntary rehab stint. The sound here is almost invading, with almost Gregorian chant-like background vocals. The lyrics here are dark and mildly disturbing, but the pounding drum rhythms and wails of the guitars make it extremely enjoyable. The solo and the brief period after it before the repeat of the chorus feature more dancing fretboard action, as this track brings the disc to a pounding close.
conclusion
The best way to describe this disc is with the word "variety." This can be an excellent aspect, for it showcases the band's artistic growth and flexibility, but it also may hinder some listeners in the "playability" aspect of this album, for the sound doesn't remain the same track after track. I absolutely love this disc, Savatage's last of the '80's, and it was heralded by some at the time as "the new metal." There could not be a more fitting moniker for this album, as this disc leads into the new Savatage sounds: progressive, artsy, versatile, and operatic, created by a group of true musicians. We the fans would find out just how "operatic" the band really was on their next release.