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studio report

from Aardschok, Holland, Aug/Sept 1997
by Robbie Woning
translated by Patrick "boudie" van der Horst

Almost two years after the band has expressed the war in formerly Yugoslavia in a beautiful way on "Dead Winter Dead", Savatage is working on the successor. The new record, probably named:"The Wake Of Magellan", will be another rock-opera and is again based on a story by producer Paul O'Neill. When the recordings have come to the mix-stadium , an invitation fell on the door-mat to listen to a few songs. These are the offers you don't have to think about for a long time...

Sound Tracks is situated on the long theaterboulevard Broadway and is one of the most expensive studio's in New York. It's, like the name covers, not even a audiostudio. Though succesfull albums of Silverchair, Skunk Anansie, Faith No More, Helmet and the Beastie Boys have been recorded there, most of the 'customers' are from the TV-and movie-world. The soundprocess of the movie "Philadelphia" was done alone by Sound Tracks. Walking through the narrow hallway that leads you to the elevator, you can hardly imagine, that there are nine luxurious studios on the fourth floor. Later it is told, that the big and massive 72-canals SSL mixingtables that are upstairs , once where put up there with an hoisting crane. It was a tough operation, where the glass had to be removed otherwise it wouldn't fit. Upstairs I immediately run in to the always enthousiatic guitarist Chris Caffery. He shows me the way to a small relaxing-room, where colleagues Johnny Lee Middleton (bass) and Zak Stevens (vocals) are hanging out in front of the TV. The three look bored, so the Aardschok's that I brought with me with the Savatage-history are a pleasant alternative. Chris tells that the recordings have been delayed by a month. To gain time they are working in two different suites. While engineer Dave Whittman is mixing in one suite, producer Paul O'Neill is busy doing the last vocals with Jon Oliva and Zak Stevens.

Johnny Lee Middleton: "And we have to be stand-by al this time. Paul O'Neill runs into a small mistake now and then or wants to try out a new idea all of a sudden. Paul isn't sure, until the CD's are in the store!"

The musicians have, just like Dave Whittman, adjusted themselves to the lifestyle of Paul O'Neill. The producer works from 6 am. till 6 pm.

Johnny: "Very regular hours!! FOR VAMPIRES...!"

During the long recording-days and nights only a Sony Playstation brought by Jon,offers some pleasure. Later that evening I discover how long they have been busy with it, as I look at the skill with which Chris and Jon struggle through a basketball game. Chris smiles when he thinks of a dull-worked Paul O'Neill asking him who was winning.

Chris: "He probably thinks, we're watching basketball all day long....."

But first Jon's busy singing the vocals for "Paragons Of Innocence". Striking is the leading part of Paul. Heavyly gesturing, the fanatical producer tries to get the highest reliability out of every line of the heavy-smoking singer. Those efforts do take effect, every time Jon starts again it sounds better. In a recent Interview ' The Mountain King' told us the band wanted to do duets. Songs, in wich Jon as well as Zach is singing. On "The Wake" they aren't there, yet.

Jon: "The story didn't have it in it to do duets. That's why Zach did nine song and I did, just like on DWD, two songs. But we did the backing vocals together."

Savatage originally is from Florida, but New York is now there homebase for years.Zach and Chris live in the Savatage-apartment in Queens and guitarist Al Pitrelli has also bought a house in that part of the city. Drummer Jeff Plate lives within an hours-drive of the city. Jon is also looking for a house overthere.

Jon: "It's just getting too expensive, the phone-calls home and the flying back and forth. While one part of the year I live here, and the other I'm touring!"

During the four days I've been with the guys the atmosphere changes for the better. Everyday a few songs are mixed and the end is coming near.

Jon: "And it's about time, because it had to be done on the 15th of May. Our record-company is losing it's patience. The recordings for the second TSO had to be started already. And we haven't decided yet who would have to play on it."

The Trans-Siberian Orchestra project by Jon and Paul was one of the best selling Christmas-records of the US and Atlantic wants to release a new TSO-album,but in the meantime they don't have any delay: the budget is being raised during my stay here, without nagging of the record-company. The next day Johnny, Chris and Al tell how the music on the new CD was achieved. The band didn't take any risks. Starting in september '96 Jon and Jeff recorded the demos in Florida. In the beginning of 1997 they went to New York with 'enough material for sixty songs', to choose the songs, which fitted the best with the concept, together with Paul.

Al: "Music and lyrics just go hand in hand in Savatage. Just for that reason, there have been a few beautiful ideas left out. Too bad, but maybe next time we can use them. The album is a bit more guitar-oriented, compared to DWD and the parts done by Chris and me are more equal now."

Chris: "I always wanted to play in a band with two guitarists. On DWD we both played, but it was rush-hour back then. We were working in different studio's at the same time and we had hardly had an idea what the rest of the band was busy with. I was doing some rythm-sections, while Al was feeling bored. Eventually it came to me that he had already done al the solos. But this time we were both involved in it from the beginning."

Al: "We shared the guitarparts, like it felt to us. When Chris had an idea for a solo, I would let him go ahead."

Al has written for the first time with a Sava-record.

Al: "I have given them many idea's, and some of them were used. Jon and Paul were, of course, very critical if my riffs would fit within Savatage. But because I have a lot of influences in common with Jon my music wasn't very different. On top of that I believe that fresh influences aren't a disadvantage. The Beatles and Yes were bands, of whom you had to expect what they would bring you. It always sounded the same, but somewhere there was a surprise. I think Savatage is a band like that."

The last day of my visit I can judge about that. De lights in 'Studio J'dim and the red volume-knob is turned wide open. The solemn "Welcome" shall open the CD. It's a slowly swelling song, wich makes you clear what to expect: dynamical hard rock-music, screaming guitarsolo's, classical arranged piano-parts and beautiful vocal- parts. Later on Jon describes this bombastical opener as "very Queenish" -and that's right. The following "Blackjack Guillotine" is for Savatage very fat mixed. The slashing, riff-oriented song calls back memories of the early Savatage albums, but is thanks to the direct sound, very modern. The title-track "The Wake Of Magellan"is very changing. The song is a bit Queensryche-like in the intro, thanks to the fat bassguitar and the fresh and clean guitars. The chorus is again very Savatage-like. The solo by Al is a very nice one. And in the end there's a radio play of voices: the counterparts, so very popular with Savatage, who have been brought to a higher level thanks to Paul. "Turns To Me" is a very dynamic song, with subtle pieces, wich are played a few times and right after that the band kicks in massively. In this song the piano-play by Jon is very dominating. "The Hourglass' is the song that ends the CD. It's being started by a depressing piano-riff and is full of massive kick-ins. In this song there are the counterparts again, though a bit less than in "The Wake..."

When the rest of the CD sounds like this the band members don't have to worry about the near-future. "The Wake..." hasn't become a "DWD"-part II. The music is more dynamic, new perspectives have been chosen and what strikes me more is: the band sounds modern. The credits for this are for the direct mix. According to Al they have chosen for that specifically.

Al: "Everybody knew it, we should sound a bit more modern. Dave is the one responsible for this modern mix. He's a good engineer and has an important job, your music can be the best.....if it doesn't sound great, it'll never be something."

Johnny: "The drums and bass sound a lot better on this CD compared to "DWD". On that one there are a lot of digital drums and don't leave space for other stuff. With an normal drumkit, the other instruments sound a lot better also."

Chris: "We toured a long time with this line-up and we sound just very good. We wanted to create a natural sound on this CD and I think we've done it pretty good, I think."