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high art in riff thunder

Rockhard Germany, January 2001
by Matthias Breusch
pictures by Matthias Breusch & Villalonga
translated by Yvonne Kluitman
corrected by Aaron 'Vegeta' Covarrubias

How the live band Savatage is going to develope after the voluntary departure of leadsinger Zachary Stevens is still open for the time being. But the long wait for "Poets and Madmen" payed off. The 12th studio album from the power metalmen, around the workaholic Poet Paul O'Neill, and the genius Madman Jon Oliva probably is gonna block the CD players of the people for quite a long time.

Manhattan, 23rd street, beginning of November. Barricades block a firebreak for the New York marathon; a flea market chased away the always "risking their necks" cab herd from Broadway; crowds pant to and fro. Obvious why the 15 European press guys, who climb out of the subway shaft in snail's pace, despite their messed up haircuts, and even on a quiet sunday in the Big Apple like this don't attract attention. On the 4th floor the crowd squeezes together in one of the rooms of the four soundtrack studios, where the band since "Dead Winter Dead" traditionally records their albums.

Producer Paul O'Neill just is trying to pull down an obstinate venetian blind, to lock out the odd daylight. "I never knew there was a window here", mutters the 100% nightman, who has pottered countless hours over the past 12 months on "Poets & Madmen", temporary interrupted for the none the less accurate work on the third Trans Siberian Orchestra album "Beethoven's Last Night". Paul did a lot more than "just" his contribution to the songwriting, miles of lyric designs, and crossing all limits mixing sessions.

Several record deals "on all continents" were worked out last year (lots of paperwork), the succesful TSO Christmas albums conquered the US mainstream audience and will do a sold out 40 cities tour with two bands at the same time this winter, and Hollywood was gladdened with a soundtrack made by Oliva/O'Neill (The Grinch/YK). In the passing they had to turn down some business relations who were informing them when the gentlemen were thinking to get started with the, meanwhile 5 years on hold, Broadway opera "The Romanovs".
Besides came the months long struggle for guitarist Al Pitrelli, who in the meantime signed on with Megadeth, and now the unexpected departure of Zachary Stevens.

Paul is a human being filled with positive energy through and through, but just once between lines the remark escapes: "I believe I'm gradually getting too old for all this...."
Bass player Johnny Lee Middleton is sitting tensed between the mob of press. He played his parts in May and is hearing the finished songs for the first time. After the first listen he's already nodding satisfied.
Jon Oliva turns around echanted in between the monumental hymne "Cantations" and the killer song "Surrender" and grins around: "Man I love this shit!"

The guys kept their promise, concerning Power, they push the gaspedal down to the floor again.
Involuntary Jon's inimitable vocals provoke similarities with his century performance on the legendary '91 "Streets" album and the piercing leads and riff thunder of Criss Oliva's legacy guard Chris Caffery, who could for the first time unrestrained let himself go as a songwriter, drive the red glowing pointers of the counter clearly into the "back-to-the-roots-zone".
It didn't become a revolution in the Doctor Butcher style though; despite the dreamteam Oliva/Caffery and the obvious more vivid drumming of Jeff Plate.
The orchestral bombast of the last two releases "Dead Winter Dead" and "The Wake of Magellan" is again to be found as well as the Savatage typical vocal counterparts.
The zealous poet Paul O'Neill didn't let the opportunity get by to get the essence out of 30 songs, that were innitialy written, and write a 15-track concept album verse.

Bass man Johnny explains: "It definitely isn't a step back to "Hall of the Mountain King". But we tried to look back a bit to our roots and bring in all the elements that accompanied us into this time. Now we've arrived spiritually were once "Sirens" and "The Dungeons Are Calling" arised. Musically considered not really of course, but mentally certainly. It's as if we were unchained again. We wanted to get heavier again and with Jon doing the lead vocals it was the best we could try."

Mr.Oliva singing the entire disc wasn't planned though. After 8 years together Savatage loses with Zak an excellent frontman. He contributed a lot to the survival of the band. As one of the most perfect Heavy Metal Frontmen of the last decade, he accepted the difficult inheritance back in 1992 to replace Jon's unique voice and to bring alive on stage more than dozens of different Classics, always with enormous volume and with an almost full proof feel for melody.

He came to the band as a die hard Savatage fan from out of the blue, and gave himself from the very first second with absolute passion.
Chris: "Until the very last second we really didn't know that Zak would actually leave. We let the songs open for him 'till this very last moment."
Jon: "Chris left the band once as did I. >From that point of view I can fully imagine what went on in Zak's mind. The decision was hard for him.

What remains is the question whether the band is gonna find somebody soon who is living in the spirit of Savatage and is able to convert that as professionaly as Zak did. At least one man is on top of the list of candidates, who already proved to be able to sing Savatage songs live with bravado: the indian John West, at the moment (as yet) employed with Royal Hunt. At the end of '99 he did a session tour together with friend Chris Caffery under the name American Rock Live and showed his talents impressively. Known is: the guy has brains, he has character and he knows how to pull through.
At the moment he's touring the states as guest singer with TSO taking a resistance test. Afterwards the band is gonna decide about him and two or three other candidates and about the future 2nd guitarist.

"Of course we miss Zak", Paul admits plainly, "he's a perfect frontman, he's got a face, a positive image and an excellent voice. But the band survived the death of Criss and the departure of Jon. Back then we didn't try to bring in a Jon clone but tried to find someone who could live with the situation and make the best of it from without himself. And this time we're not looking for a Zak clone but we try to find somebody who represents the same ideals as Zak did and the rest has to show."

But why did he absolutely want to leave?

Johnny:
It's quite certain that we're gonna do a heavy tour this time. That can't be done when you have a wife and a kid and you have to consider you might be away from home for maybe even more than half a year to play the rockstar somewhere on this globe. He just isn't the kind of guy to leave his 2 year old alone under the tree at Christmas eve. Okay some can, but I couldn't either

Was it ever a subject that he was "just" the voice, and hardly got a chance as songwriter and never as lyric writer?

Johnny:
No, that's the good thing about Savatage, from the very first day we never had ego problems in the band. And I've been a part for 16 years now. Look around, almost every band has some idiot who has an ego problem and gets on the nerves of the others with it. But not with Savatage. Zak never had an exagerrated ego. None of us do. If there would have been somebody like that he would have gotten into big troubles

The release of "Poets & Madmen" was innitialy planned in the spring of '99. Meanwhile 22 months have passed in which the Heavy Metal Scene in Europe experienced a straight boom from which Savatage didn't benefit....

Johnny:
I know what you try to say: stop wasting your time with the drowsy TSO and get on with Savatage hahahaha. But what the hack, you can look at it either way but a lot of bands don't have anything to do at all. We have too much to do. So we feel rather happy with it.

Paul:
In the best and perfect imaginable of all worlds we should have released the album purposeful and earlier of course. But to produce a band like Savatage you need a large production budget, working under that isn't possible. And once you've started working on this material it'll take at least a year.
Everybody says:"hurry, hurry, it must be able to get it done quicker." And in reality we live in this hole and work as hard as possible to get it all done as good as possible. We're not sitting around on a Carabean island doing nothing hahahaha. Jon and I haven't seen anything else but studios and venues for years now. We are really quite a bit nuts. In the film business you get a few thousand dollars for just one song easily, and we just rejected two of those kind of offers. On the other hand people ask why we reject those kind of offers and our answer? Man, it's Savatage!

And because it's Savatage there's just one question left, whether the album is gonna be released in the beginning of February or March.

Probably March.....

 

Not just Lemmy and associates can make jokes at press meetings. Some quotes:

What does the story look like for the concept album?
Paul: hmmmm, yeah, okay.....so, we still have to sort out some serious problems.
Jon: I say nothing because I don't want to get in jail.
Johnny: It's a psychological drama.
Paul: It's mainly about a former nuthouse.
Johnny: Actually the band's appartement.
Paul: And the main character turns out to be a former occupant.
Johnny: That's Oliva!
Paul: Whatever, it's a cool story that hasn't been on any album yet. Jon still doesn't believe me though that we get to the end with it.
Jon: I'll tell you something guys, we still are in the middle of the end mix of "Streets" but besides me nobody noticed yet.

Where's the drummer?
Jon: He got injured during garden work.

You are working with the old logo again?
Chris: Yeah, it's easier to spell.

Why do you always take this long to make an album?
Jon: We try to make it as hard as possible on ourselves to be able to play the stuff live also hahahaha.

Why another conceptalbum?
Jon: It's something extra for those who like it. When you don't like it, no problem, listen to the CD and close the booklet, that's it.

Why not play an entire conceptalbum live once?
Jon: When we don't play "Sirens" or "Gutter Ballet" live they will blow up our bus.

Are you still hungry?
Johnny: Fuck man, as long as I have fun I don't worry about that. This in not really a job. I'll show you what work is, come to Florida and I'll show you what the guys in my company do. That's a fucking job!