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madness with method

from RockHard, Germany 8/97
by Matthias Breusch
translated by Patrick "boudie" van der Horst

For the first time in ten years the Power Metal-Rockopera-Kings SAVATAGE have recorded two albums in a row with the same line-up. After months of practice and songwriting more than five thousand ideas are brought together to 14 tracks and getting the finishing touch in the studio. Rock Hard met the "Queen of the Nineties" in the Multicultural-Capital of Planet Earth.

New York City.Broadway, corner 23. The street. A warm summer night. The usual swarming of the colorful people, drowned in the sound of honking taxi's and howling cop-sirens, rules the streets of Manhattan. Untouched by the boiling life out there, a man stands behind a gigantic mixing-table on the fourth floor of the Soundtrack Studios. One hand on a switch, the other full of swearing gestures. At the same time he signs to sweating Zak Stevens behind the window of the recording-room for the x-th time, how thinks about the dramatical accent, and helps the frontman - always one of the best in his profession- for the 171-st time with a few motivating jokes on the right track:"Yes cool, but there is still more in it! You can do better! Way better! One more time the whole part, OK?" Paul O'Neill, his trademark Producer, Conceptgiver, Text-poet, Co-Songwriter and neversleeping, passionate stimulus of the US-legend SAVATAGE, is in his element. A healthy amount of madness included. The fact that the thin mastermind hasn't slept for more than 10 hours a week the last month and hasn't seen daylight since an eternity, can be recognised at a distance of 10 meters.

On the 15-th of May the successor of the genious "Dead Winter Dead"-rockopera should be in the stores. In the mean time it is the 15-th of June and the first 6 of the 14 songs are so far that they can be sent to the endmix. Paul O'Neill is a perfectionist like out of a picture-book. Here a changed guitar-solo, there an extra choruspassage, and sometimes a whole vocal-part is erased, because the master sees that a text isn't quite good and makes another one in the middle of the night. In between he tests children-choirs for the album-intro (" Sorry people that stinks- next please!"), goes through different orchestral-extra's together with Classical-arranger Bob Kinkel , jumps from one into the other studio and makes it once in a shift, to make a small order through to the pizza-delivery, in order not to become too thin. In terms of food, the man "with the golden heart" (quote - Johnny Lee Middleton) thinks , even on the streets, of an other before him self. He often takes homeless people with him to a restaurant, where they can fill themselfves with food.

"Paul orders the same food for two, three weeks in a row, because he hasn't got the time to look at the menu!" Says Chris Caffery shaking his head, Jon Oliva adds with a grin, groaning:" Of this kind of producer there are no two the same in the world .Paul is never happy, he wants even the slightest details to be run over. If he disposed of two years time instead of two months, he'd be asking for a few extra-days more at the end of the second year. He is an immensely intensive man, who even can blow up an endless budget! Ha ha ha!!!" That leaves us with the question how the boys can cope with this recording-rythm, like Def Leppard or Pink Floyd, with their relatively low budget.

Jon:"Paul never gets tired of drumming in my head:" It's not the money that counts. The only thing that really counts is the Art .But those arguments can't convince the bank though, whom I've to pay for my house every month. Those guys just want my money, haha "

That means also, that the boys again are working very hard for the income, just to get a great production. With a little bit of luck Jon can keep his bankers happy in the future, because the first listening-session of "The Wake of Magellan" (Working title) are excellent. After the succes of "DWD" it would be very strange if the sales of this one aren't going to rise far beyond those of "DWD".

Stylistically, "The Wake..." offers the Savatage-trademarks on up to 72 tracks: Pure melodical bombast, completed by very heavy guitars, like they were last time. On the one hand on "The Wake..."you clearly hear the influences of Old-School Axeman Chris Caffery, who has helped writing 5 songs, on the other Rock'n'Roll-maniac Al Pitrelli has fully intergrated in the Monster-company Savatage, while he was only on the end of the recording of "DWD" just to do some solo's.The same goes for drummer Jeff Plate, who was thinking in the time of two years to play electronic drum-pads, has bought himself a real drum-kit, which sounds very naturally, has made a gigantic step forward. The band could, apart from their producer, work very stress-free, till the idea came to make another concept-album with rock-opera feelings. "The Wake..." is based on a true story wich circled a few years back in the wolrd-press: a captain of a freighter threw a few stowe-aways overboard in the Mediterranean; Paul O'Neill grabbed the story and gave it a plot, which reminds in a wider stretch of Maiden's "Rime of the Ancient Mariner" or "The Flying Dutchman".

Jon who also sang two "cool, typical, traditional Savatage-songs" on "DWD" wich "start of with rectilinear vibes" has a very clear point-of-view on this concept:

Jon:" I wanted to give the fans something extra. Wherever I look: there's no band in our genre that makes something even close to what we do. Savatage has always been a band that had stories to tell. It wasn't just for the music, but also for the story that completed the song. These rock-opera's are just our thing, so I went to Paul and said:"Okay, let's look this through, forget about the money- haha!" The endless creativity of the guys led to the fact that this could be a double-album but, says Jon:"that means that we would have lived in the studio's till let's say next year."

Chris completes:" And they could have put me in a straitjacket by January"

Jon:"The last time we did that on "Streets"And there we did it with only four guys. But with the changed line-up and the vocal-parts and the more intensive orchestration it would have taken three years now to do a project like that..."

And the following years are already booked with a lot of things: the tours have the first priority, then the next TSO-album ( #1 sold over 200.00 times in the States and is being re-released Christmas 1997), and the incomplete Broadway-opera "The Romanovs" This takes so long because "we already have worn out two play-writers, who always spend a lot of months on writing a textbook, wich we threw away in the end." In the meantime workaholic Paul has taken over this job.But since his overburden it isn't a surprise that we have to wait a very long-time for the first night. What might seem to be too much of a good thing for anybody else, Johnny Lee Middleton explains:"It can be that we have too much to do, but there are a lot of bands who don't have anything to do for half a year or so! And the consequences of that? I know many musicians. who were doing very well ten years ago and who are now trying to sell a second-hand Pontiac at the car-salesman around the corner!"

This is also the opinion of Jon, who has been thinking for along time to leave the band as a live-musician and to specify himself on the concept and compositions. But there isn't any reason for that anymore nowadays:" For me the last tour was like a re-birth! I have found the fun again. I can work quietly in the studio now, to sing a song here and there, but mostly to focus on the background-vocals.It wasn't like that a few years back! Back then it was like leadvocals, leadguitars, full speed ahead- let's go! In the meantime we have four people who can sing, and that has opened a lot of new doors and I feel great!" The main reason for this change were the reactions of the fans upon his appearance during the last European tour.

Jon: "I was really pleased to see how much the fans like me, how enthousiastic they greeted me. Originally I would not even have dreamed of that. I thought, they had forgotten me! On top of that, when we flew to Europe our promotor told us that we would be playing in very empty or nearly empty halls. That demoralised us. And when we came there everything was sold out, and we didn't know how to act of joy! I'm thinking of countries like Greece where we never before played. There were 500 kids outside of our hotel. Many of them were waiting in the lobby of our hotel with all of our records. That made the flame inside of me , that had almost died , burn again. In the meantime I know we have the best line-up since 'Gutter Ballet' or 'Streets' - a very strong line-up upon wich we can build."