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the calm before the storm

from PSYCHO! # 6, June 1997 (Italy)
by Alessandro Ariatti
translated and transcribed by Letizia Buraschi

PSYCHO! nosed once again into a recording studio. This time the object of our quest was the Italian kids' most loved metal band! Savatage has set the engine in motion once again, and at the steering-wheel there's always Jon Oliva!

Italy has become Savatage's adoptive country. Maybe it will be for their ' natural born loser' career, maybe it will be for the bad luck that has been dogging them with dramatic events (how could we ever forget Criss Oliva's tragic disappearance in 1993?), maybe it will be for their obstinacy in proposing records with impressive artistic values always and in every situation; in short, be it what you want, the Italian fans' most longed for true-metal record of the year is no doubt labeled Savatage. Yes indeed, the ingenious Jon Oliva and Paul O'Neill are called to the difficult undertaking of presenting us with a piece of work that will renew Dead Winter Dead's resounding success. DWD, the symphonic concept-album based on the war tragedy of Jugoslavia, has touched many classic-metal fans. It is a rarely seen thing the creating of a legendary halo around the name of a band, as it happened with Savatage. It is difficult to explain, but the sensation we feel about this magic name is that of a band that has become itself a concept-band, a tale that must go on independently of the characters, until the Mountain King Jon Oliva will utter the fatal "stop" And if Savatage's forthcoming new album will hit the bull's eye, 1997 will deserve the title of "year of classic metal": we refer to the wonderful works of Stratovarius, Fates Warning, and Simphony X, leaving aside the disappointing Queensryche's.

Those who follow Savatage's career from the pioneering times of Avatar, of Sirens and Dungeons Are Calling, have experienced the band's enlightened metamorphosis: from the metal anthems of Power Of The Night to the 80's hard rock of Fight For The Rock; from the apocalyptic power-dark visions of their masterpiece Hall Of The Mountain King to the final symphonic-baroque turn of Gutter Ballet. Not to mention Streets, which many consider the metal concept-album 'par excellence', together with Queensryche's Operation Mindcrime. After that milestone (Streets), Jon Oliva decided to leave the microphone to devote himself permanently to the songwriting and keyboards, leaving the steering-wheel to his brother in the beautiful Edge Of Thorns. We all know how things went with Criss, who was killed by a drunken driver, now presumably expiating his criminal deed in some filthy jail. And so Jon, in honor and in memory of Criss decided not to let Savatage go adrift, and he recovered the band leadership together with the fundamental Paul O'Neill. Handful Of Rain played a role of splendid consolidation, especially in Japan, while the above mentioned DWD brought Savatage to memorable business events till then unknown, and to an unexpected success even in the 'alternative' States, thanks to repeated radio plays of the single Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 24/12).

It was to be expected that Jon Oliva and Co. enjoyed some months of well deserved rest and their renewed international success as well, after the promotional toils of DWD. To this regenerating purpose, they released: the terrific live-tribute to Criss Ghost In The Ruins (Final Bell in Japan), featuring absolutely impressive recordings; the extensive collection From The Gutter To The Stage;and the side-project Transsiberian Orchestra which, as you read in Psycho!, had a rare and only live performance. Now the time is expiring, the fans' patience begins to waver and, as in the case of Dream Theater, Psycho! got in touch with monumental Jon Oliva in the recording studios, offering to you a preview of one of the most long-awaited albums of the year.

Psycho!- Jon, Italian fans begin to trample. What about raising the curtain on the new Savatage album?

Jon Oliva- We love Italy! We perfectly know that we have many faithful followers in Italy, and through your article I would like to send a hearty greeting to all of our fans, with the promise of meeting them as soon as possible. This time we will not play only in Milano during our new record's tour; we will play in Roma and in another city that is still to be defined. At last I will be able to enjoy your inimitable works of art, to admire the fruits of your culture, to taste your food and your wine. Last year June's date in Milano was my first time in Italy, and I was really delighted with the welcome we received there. The only drawback of that memorable night was the infernal heat we suffered in the club where we held the show. I thought I'd died! They could at least have put some fan here and there, just to give a little relief to ourselves and the audience, don't you think so?

Psycho!- Ehm, you're right Jon, but I was asking you about the new album...

Jon Oliva- Oh, of course. I let myself being carried away by my love towards Italian fans. The new album, you said, well, first of all we still have to decide the title and to define many of the lyrics, but the music is completely finished, from the first to the last note. However, it will be released towards the end of August. The composition work, as usual, is Paul O'Neill's and mine; and from an artistic point of view I can tell you in advance that the new album will be a lot more heavy than DWD. Moreover, we will introduce some completely new element in our sound, such as the Hammond organ, of which I took care personally. Many songs will have a decidedly faster pitch than DWD, that is, they will be more up-tempo than in the recent past. Don't get it wrong, there will be space for classical and symphonical parts, and we will use a real orchestra in studio this time as well; however, compared to our previous album, there will be a greater number of rocker tracks in Of Rage and War style. In my opinion, the album will be the right interface of Gutter Ballet and Streets, the perfect compromise between our symphonic soul and the metal inclination of the beginning of our career. There will be 12 or at the most 13 tracks, two of which will be entirely instrumental tracks in which the orchestra will play a prominent role; and there'll be just one ballad. I can tell you in advance that the album will have its peak in a long 8-minute track that will sum up all the things that Savatage have ever represented: from symphonic-metal openings to theatrical parts; from hard rock moments to decidedly epic-oriented ones. It's going to be a real surprise, you'll see. As for me, I will play the keyboards and the piano and I will sing two songs as well; Zak will sing all the other songs and there will be a lot of backing vocals and choruses that will suit the orchestra's complexity very well. I can't help it, now it's inconceivable for me to compose music without the symphonic support that only a real orchestra can provide. As we are recording our album in New York, we are surrounded by the best classical musicians; if we need a violinist or any other, we just have to pick up the phone and dial his number to get a perfect work.

Psycho!- Is it going to be another concept-album?

Jon Oliva- We have not taken any decision as far. The music is already completed, defined and entirely recorded; we just need some solo parts from Al Pitrelli and a couple of orchestral retouch; on the other hand, we still have to begin the vocal parts. At present we are working in the studios from 6 p.m. to 6 a.m. included Sunday; it's quite an exhausting rythm, but from the results we are obtaining it's worth the price. The songs' spirit would be suitable for another concept-album; however we have prepared three different kind of lyrics so we can afford the luxury to decid only at the end if it will be a concept.

Psycho!- After many changes, Savatage have finally found a lasting line-up.

Jon Oliva- We've found a good chemistry among us, there's no denying it. A perfect harmony reigns in the studio, and we all are very satisfied of the way the album is coming out. But you can't forget the 7th element, without which Savatage wouldn't be what they are: I'm talking of Paul O'Neill, with whom I have established a compositive partnership going on from many years. This time also the other boys of the band have put a hand in Paul's and my songwriting, and perhaps it's for that reason they feel incredibly involved and excited. Just yesterday evening I was talking of the new album with Johnny, and he was saying that it was since GB and Streets that Savatage didn't produce such significant music. I think that also our fans will be very satisfied and pleasantly surprised with the innovations we introduced and of which I was telling you about.

Psycho!- Did you expect such a large success for DWD?

Jon Oliva- It was like a bolt from the blue. We'd never thought of having one single (Christmas Eve) in the first places of the American charts, considering how metal is considered here. The matter is radically different in Europe, where we can count on a ever-growing legion of faithful followers. In any case, we don't feel contented at all; on the contrary, we want to progress album after album, show after show. Personally, I am convinced that hard work and a professional attitude always pay in the long run. The commercial and critical responses of DWD have proved that we are right. Among other things, we are also planning the arrangements for our forthcoming European tour that will start in October. As I was telling you, I can't wait to play in Italy and to visit Roma at last.

Psycho!- Last year you told me that the 2nd album of your side-project Doctor Butcher was ready. What happened to that album?

Jon Oliva- Hey, you want to see me dead, don't you? My number one enemy is time; believe me Alessandro, I really didn't have the time to record that album. You're right, Doctor Butcher's songs have been ready for one year at least, but in the meanwhile I also devoted myself to the Transiberian Orchestra project and to Romanoff, a musical I wrote with Paul O'Neill for Broadway. At this moment Romanoff (a rock musical based on the character of Rasputin and the October Russian Revolution, written and created by Jon and Paul together with Bob Kinkel, the arranger of Savatage orchestral parts) is under production, and I think it will take at least one year and a half still before having it performed. As you can see, I'm really overwhelmed by engagements, and next time I'll have a couple of free months, sure I won't spend them in a studio to record Doctor Butcher's album, but rather sunbathing and swimming on a beach, an Italian beach even. People must see Doctor Butcher just as a studio project put up by myself and Chris Caffery and nothing more; we will record our new album when we will really feel like it, with no hurry. The GUN, the label for which we signed as Doctor Butcher, is aware of that and they're not putting pressure on us. Doctor Butcher are just fun, not a priority; Savatage come before everything else.

Psycho!- I'd like to assist to the composition phase between you and Paul O'Neill: after so many years, you'll do it blindfolded.

Jon Oliva- Between Paul and me there's a great friendship, and we share many of our interests. Our compositive partnership is something mysterious; we understand each other at once, without planning anything. Usually it works like this: I begin to play the piano and throw out some ideas, while Paul is incredibly good at elaborating on them the melodic lines. I think that melody is the most important element of a song; so, if you wrote excellent music but melody doesn't fit, the track is completely spoiled. Paul and me spend hours and hours on the melodic lines, which Zachary will sing on the album and on stage. Before Paul joined us, I wrote all the lyrics; but after his arrival I've had at last the chance to concentrate on music. Paul is an incredible storyteller; he's got a great imagination, while I don't consider myself a good song-writer. I think our strengths put together do work for that reason. Paul is a frustrated musician while I am a frustrated storyteller (laughter); well, we complete each other. Wait, talking of the Devil... Paul has just come in, I'll put you through just a minute. Hey Paul, it's Alessandro from Italy...

Psycho!- Hello Paul, Jon and me were just speaking ill of you...

Paul O'Neill- I suppose he was telling you some nasty thing about me! Don't believe him, he's the one who doesn't feel like working (laughter)! Joking apart, we are very satisfied of the new album's songwriting; it's perfectly balanced between metal sonorities and symphonic scores. I think it's one of the best albums Jon and me ever created, and I'm sure that every Sava-fan will be proud of it. Now I'll put you through with the boss again, otherwise he'll fire me (laughter). And many greetings to all of our Italian friends.

Psycho!- Jon, Gutter Ballet was the album of your stylistic turn; what happened during those three years between Hall Of The Mountain King and Gutter Ballet?

Jon Oliva- We simply grew as artists and as musicians. Gutter Ballet was a sort of natural evolution process, because we were well aware that Hall Of The Mountain King was the best we could do in that certain sector. Repeating ourselves would just have been useless. Moreover, our fans knew Savatage since 1983, from Sirens, Power Of The Night and HOTMK which was released in 1987, but we were playing that kind of music since 1978, so after ten years of ultra-heavy guitars and screaming-vocals we felt perhaps the need to try to progress. But mind you, we didn't sit down and planned to change our style; it all happened very naturally. We simply wanted to introduce new instruments to enrich our sound, without denying our metal background. In fact, even if GB marked a new symphonic and orchestral approach, we kept on presenting heavy songs in every album. I think that to evolve without alienating oneself is the only way to be satisfied and to keep the public pleased. I can't see anything exciting in a band that gets you used to a certain sound and then changes style completely.

Psycho!- Are you still in touch with Alex Skolnick, who played on Handful Of Rain right after Criss' tragic death?

Jon Oliva- Oh my God, it's been a long time since I heard him. You know, Alex lives on the West Coast, so we can't meet very often. Alex is a good guy and a phenomenal guitarist; I'll always be grateful to him because he helped us when we were in need. Who knows, maybe one day we'll work together again. Now we are very pleased with Al Pitrelli's solo parts; he's a great musician with a large experience, and he was successful in fitting his style with Savatage's. And there's no need to mention Chris Caffery, who is part of our family since HOTMK tour.

Psycho!- The reasons that led you to quit the vocals after Streets are still left in the dark. Can you enlighten us about it?

Jon Oliva- Oh, there's no mysteries, just a question of physiological conditions. I was Savatage's frontman since 1978 to 1992, and I can tell you that 14 years of screams every evening have consumed me. To tell you the truth, I didn't enjoy that kind of life anymore, because to preserve my voice I had to follow very strict rules. With a voice like mine when you scream for two hours every night, during the rest of the day you can't even talk. Talking was a painful exercise, and the more I grew older, the more it tortured me. After the show I slept the whole day, it was the only way to recover. Believe me, as years went by, it was always more frustrating and restrictive to conform to rigid behaviors. I couldn't talk much, I couldn't smoke, I couldn't drink; in short, I couldn't do anything. I looked at myself in the mirror and said: "Hey man, admit it, it's no fun anymore!"; So I decided to devote myself to the piano and songwriting, and I advised my brother to find a younger singer, for Savatage's own good. Now I can sing three or at most four songs in a show; I can't do more than this for physical limits. Lately I sing a couple of songs in each album, as it happened in DWD and will happen in the new album. But I don't want to cause identity crisis: Zachary Stevens is Savatage's singer in all respects. My voice is not a normal voice, but it's always screamed, over the top. So, to go back to your question, I decided to quit the vocals because of definite physical limits, nothing else. Who wants to hear Jon Oliva's screaming can listen to our old albums or to Doctor Butcher.

Psycho!- Are you aware that when you sing Gutter Ballet live in duet with Zach the atmosphere turns magic?

Jon Oliva- I know what you mean, I remember well the roar when we played Gutter Ballet. By the way, I want to send a warm embrace to the boys and girls of "Hounds", the Italian Savatage Fan Club. Tell them that they're doing a splendid work, and I thank them with all my heart.

Psycho!- I think Savatage are a kind of concept-band, just like your concept-albums.

Jon Oliva- What you say is very true. Savatage are like a book full of stories to tell. As I told you, it's Paul who takes care of most of the lyrics, and when he conceives stories like Streets and DWD, we are all very happy. I think that who listens to the cd can be very satisfied with listening to great music and reading a great story at the same time. It's very different from usual ten/twelve songs about the devil, sex, the drinks you had last night, and so on. How long will these albums about depression and hate towards society last? Hey guys, come on! If your life is shit, try not to make other people's life so! We don't care if a story is based on real facts, as in DWD, or on imagination, as in Streets; the important thing is if it's a good story. It's like we give an extra tale as a present to whoever buys our albums; and I think that we will go on this way in the future. I believe it's also this combination of music/lyrics that distinguishes Savatage from most other metal bands.