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savatage - surviving the pain

from Hit Parader 12/94
by Andy Secher
transcribed by Gilbert G. Morton

While the tragic passing of Nirvana's Kurt Cobain has gobbled up headlines around the world, it shouldn't overshadow the fact that his was not the only death the rock world suffered during the last year. Late last year a car carrying Savatage's Criss Oliva was struck by an on-coming vehicle on a Florida highway. The guitarist was killed instantly.

Though Savatage had never achieved the international accliam of a Nirvana, during their decade-long career this progressive metal unit had created some of the most challenging, intelligent, and entertaining music in the rock world. Despite a shifting lineup (that last saw the departure of Criss's brother Jon and the hiring of Zachary Stevens in 1992) and not-always-favorable comparisons to everyone from Queensryche to Rush, the hard-edged style that Savatage brought to their music served to make them a singularly distinctive entity within the rock community. But with Jon Oliva in semi-retirement and Criss Oliva dead, the surviving members of Savatage, Stevens, bassist Johnny Lee Middleton, and drummer Steve (Doc) Wacholz, faced a perilous decision; would they try to hire a new guitarist and carry on, or would they decide to merely call it a day.

"It was a tough call," Middleton said. "The last thing on our minds right after Criss's death was about the band - our thoughts were all with Criss. It was such a tragedy for both us and for the fans who we know really loved and respected him. There was so much to consider once we did start thinking about what was going to happen with the group. The music was really coming together with the addition of Zachary, and we knew that Criss would have wanted the group to continue. But we really didn't know what to do. It was the hardest decision of our lives."

Almost as if by fate, at roughly the same time Savatage were facing their momentus decision, nearly a continent away in San Francisco, guitarist Alex Skolnick was also pondering his future. He had poured his heart and soul into Bay Area Bashers, Testament, for six years, and had grown tired of what he termed that band's "restrictive" sound. So in 1992, the talented axe master had packed up his guitars and sought new horizons to conquer. He searched and he searched for the right forum through which he could express his unique musical stylings...then he came in contact with Savatage. It really wasn't fate or divine intervention that brought them all together - it was a more conventional convenience known as a telephone...but what the heck. After just a few minutes of conversation, both Savatage and Skolnick sensed they had found a salvation. Skolnick quickly traveled down to Florida to jam with the band and bounce around some musical ideas, and within weeks the structural elements of Savatage's latest album, Handful Of Rain, had been placed together.

"We didn't know what to expect when we all got together," Wacholz said. "We had all heard of Alex, but none of us even knew him. After working with Criss for so many years, it wasn't easy to even think about working with another guitarist. His sound was such a vital part of what Savatage was all about. I don't think Criss ever got his due as an instrumentalist - he was truly brilliant. But as soon as Alex started to play we sensed we were dealing with someone very special. He's very different from Criss in many ways, but at their heart they're the same - they're both great musicians."

Unlike Oliva, who unfortunately had to live his musical life in virtual obscurity, Skolnick's career has been hailed in metal circles far and wide. While Testament - like Savatage - never attained the lofty commercial heights predicated for them, Skolnick's guitar creativity was always noted as being that band's outstanding musical feature. As heard on such new Savatage tracks as Castles Burning and Taunting Cobras, in his new format, Skolnick has been given virtually free reign to take his guitar, as well as Savatage's music, to places it has never been before. From first note to last, it is a most exciting journey. Working once again with producer Paul O'Neill (best known for his work with Badlands and Aerosmith) who also twisted the knobs for Savatage's albums Hall Of The Mountain King and Edge Of Thorns, the band has created their most complete and satisfying album to date.

"I'm very pleased with the way things have worked out with the band," Skolnick said. "When I decided to work with them it was kind of an experiment on all our parts. They needed a guitarist, and I needed a band. I had always liked the direction of their music and felt that we could be a very good match. I certainly didn't come in trying to replace Criss, I have too much respect for him for that. I simply wanted to come in and do what I do - play the kind of guitar that I can play and see where it took the band's music. I think the results are fresh and new, but very faifhful to the attitude that has always been at the heart of Savatage's music."

But the questions that must be asked now is how Savatage's long-time fans will react to this "new" version of the band. Most have already suffered through the departure of long-time voice Jon Oliva - though they've readily accepted Stevens - and now comes the loss of Criss Oliva and the addition of Skolnick. Without Jon and Criss, admittedly long the heart and soul of the band, is this talented group of musicians really Savatage? Wouldn't it have made sense to drop the name, and start fresh, utilizing the abdundant talent displayed on the group's new album? Middleton admitted that the idea did cross the member's minds.

"We did think about that," he admitted. "But at one point we really didn't think that the band would continue on. Criss's death was such a shock to all of us. It was like being punched in the stomach as hard as you could be. He had come through a difficult period in his life and was doing really well. That's why his death was doubly tragic. In the weeks after he died, we didn't know if we could go on - or even if we should go on. But once Alex came along, we thought it was only right to try and keep Savatage alive. this band has a lot of fans out there and we felt a degree of loyalty to them - as well as to each other. We knew we had to continue on - to keep fighting the good fight. Anyway, we think Criss would have liked it this way.