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savatage - studio report

Aardschok Netherlands, January 2001
by Gerd Van Vleugels
pictures by Villalonga
translated by Yvonne Kluitman
corrected by Aaron 'Vegeta' Covarrubia

It may have been a bit of a shock to some when it got known that Savatage has to work in future without guitarist Al Pitrelli and vocalist Zak Stevens. Whether or not the Savatage lover has to mourn all too long about it remains the question however. Firstly, Al Pitrelli worked on the new album "Poets and Madmen" and secondly no less a person than Jon Oliva himself sang the album. Aardschok can take a look in New York how things are at the moment in the Savatage camp.

Although the new album is still in scaffolding, and the release won't be untill March 2001, the fans are being made pretty anxious. Jon Oliva, the only bandmember from the first hour, operating on the background of Savatage for quite a while now. As songwriter he still fulfils an important role within the band but withdrew as a vocalist, except for some sparse studiowork (?/YK).
Despite the good performance of his replacement Stevens, everybody agrees that the nowadays Savatage is another Savatage than it used to be back then. First the frontman decides to leave behind the scenes and next the guitarist perishes. The distinctive Savatage sound will never be the same again. The studio in which the gathered European press will get a fortaste of "Poets and Madmen" actually is too small for such a big company.

With inch and pinch everybody manages to get hold of a standing room. The tension in the stuffy room is perceptible, as well with the band as the press, after it gets known that Jon sang the entire album. Oliva is flanked by Chris Caffery and Johnny Lee Middleton. Nervously twiddling their thumbs awaiting for things to come. Like the overseas journalists. Producer and sixth bandmember Paul O'Neill hands out copies of the lyrics. The tape can be started.

In all half a dozen songs pass by.
"Got to get back to a reason" is a strong semi-ballad, "Surrender" is Jon's favorite and according to him reminding of "Power of the Night". The up tempo "Drive", "I seek power" and "Do you see, commisar" are heavy like the old Savatage but as melodic as the later Savatage. Most striking song probably is the mini-rock-opera "Cantations", a long and very varied epic.
After the listening session it's as still as a mouse for some time, after which a loud applause breaks loose.
Everywhere satisfied faces. Somewhere in between "Streets" and "Hall of the Mountain King" mutters my German neighbour.
Everybody agrees: Savatage is back!

The question time can begin and Paul O'Neill answers the question to elucidate the band changes.

Totally we had 25 songs. Zak only took part in the beginning of the writing process. About three songs. He left Savatage with discretion. He is a father and wants to spend more time with his child and wife. Besides he wants to do something else with his life. He will work with us in future. As well with Savatage and TSO as other projects. Like everybody knows Savatage always has been a great adventure concerning line-ups. We truely believe that Zaks departure won't weaken the band. You all heard the new album, it's very heavy. Nobody is heavier than the Mountain King (pointing at the spherical Oliva). Nevertheless we already miss Zak and the future will tell whether our paths will ever cross again. Al Pitrelli changed over to Megadeth, as everybody knows in the meantime. He also is still a part of the family and shall cooperate on projects. Up till his departure he worked on "Poets and Madmen".

As replacement for Zak, Jon sang the entire album. Do you already have a replacement for the upcoming tour?

We are negotiating with some candidates. We can't name any because most still have obligations with their own bands. (Meanwhile it got known that John West is roped in for the job). Actually the same counts for the second guitarist. After the TSO tour knots will be cut, because we didn't have time sofar. Don't forget that both Savatage and TSO are full time bands. And actually the news of Zaks departure came very late. It wasn't easy for him to take that decision. I had to make a similar decision once and that was very tough. We made the news public as his departure was certain.

Savatage has musicians who are above avarage talented. They are people who also have other interests. Jon and I are lucky to be able to experiment in the film and theater business. Sometimes it's good to gain inspiration from outside the band. That can be very refreshing. When you have a family with young kids it's clear that you wish to see them grow up. I can understand Zaks decision completely. He takes his responsibilities as a father.

There's an extensive Christmas tour imminent for the succesful TSO. What can we expect from that project in the near future?

As well Savatage as TSO in fact are full time bands. Certainly during the winter months it's hard to attune agenda's. There's only one Paul O'Neill and he can't be cut in two. In December we are gonna tour with two different TSO live bands. One for the East coast and one for the West coast. It's the only way to hit 40 cities in 20 days. The December shows are very important because of Christmas. Because around 100 musicians participated on TSO it wasn't hard to form two equal bands.

TSO in the States is many times more succesful than Savatage. Does TSO maybe have the priority?

Only during this time of the year. The christmas rock opera's were incredibly succesful over here. Its known about Paul and me that we have a hard time keeping ourselves to deadlines. We could not leave anything to chance with this TSO tour. There was nothing else left to do then to make good preperations and to put "Poets and Madmen" in the fridge for a little while.

Due to the TSO project we had to wait three years for the new Savatage album.

It also got delayed because of our search for a new label. After the last album we changed our label on every continent. It took at least a year and a half to get everything worked out. Instead of doing nothing for a year and a half we've been busy with other projects.

I have a different look at it. Because TSO exists next to Savatage we stay fresh and inspired. After working with TSO for some time it's a relief to do something with Savatage again. It would be boring to make the same album time after time again. Many bands make the mistake to repeat themselves after a succesful album. I believe TSO nourishes Savatage with inspiration and insights. It wasn't for nothing that we wrote this many songs. The procedure reminds me a lot of that of "Streets". The song sequence on "Poets and Madmen" got changed around six times. It's not about quantity with Savatage, it's about quality. We want to produce a good album and therefore take the time. Our working-method and music style don't allow rush jobs.

How did the writing process go?

Chris and I did a lot of preparations in Florida, after which Paul took a look at the songs. I'm very content with the songs and I think they will work good on stage. Savatage got heavier, TSO got more theatrical. We wanted to prevent both bands from getting too alike musically.

Is "Poets and Madmen" a concept album?

The songs indeed get linked by a concept. We still have to dot the i's and cross the t's, so we don't want to tell too much about the concept yet. The story has a spectacular plot. At the moment our lawyers are busy solving the problems about that. It's kind of an extreme concept. Broadly speaking it's about three kids, breaking into a psychiatric institution where somebody they know is locked up. It's a very good story. We wanted to make something that wasn't done before.

Why did you choose to do a concept album again?

Music is art and art is emotion. There are three sorts of art: bad, good and fantastic.
Bad music goes in one ear and out the other.
A good song remains. It also often recalls the moment or situation you were in when it caught you for the first time.
Fantastic art is the hardest to make. It recalls an emotion with the listener that he never experienced before.
We want to write music that contains so much emotion that you actually don't need the lyrics. We want to write lyrics that still stand without the music. To add an extra dimension we try to put the music and lyrics within a concept. It's an atrocious job to make such an album, but the satisfaction makes up for it all. Also for the listeners, although they won't necessarily have to cling to the story. You also can listen to our albums on the background.
Hopefully we achieve that with "Poets and Madmen".