My relationship with lead singer Zak Stevens has been a love-hate one. Well, maybe not hate, that’s a too strong word, but I have never been a fan. Still, he came in and pretty much saved Savatage at a crucial time in their career. I’m not gonna say that I have been a life-long Savatage fan but when I discovered them with the amazing Gutter Ballet (1989), I was forever lost to the band. I do like some of the stuff prior to that album but those records really couldn’t hold a candle to Gutter Ballet and all the records that came after. That’s why it came as a huge shock when singer Jon Olivia quit the band after the masterpiece Streets: A Rock Opera (1991), without a doubt Savatage’s strongest effort to this day. To me, Jon and his guitar playing brother Criss – with producer and co-writer Paul O’Neill (RIP) – were Savatage and I couldn’t really imagine the band going on without Jon fronting the band.
However, Zak’s debut Sava-album Edge Of Thorns (1993) blew away all my doubts. It was a brilliant album and even though I had – and still has – issues with Stevens’ high-pitched and shrill voice and forced vibrato, I love that album – and all the albums that came out after it. Zak became an important part of Savatage for me, even though Jon Oliva will always be #1. But Savatage more or less disbanded after their 2001 album Poets & Madmen and turned into the amazing Trans-Siberian Orchestra. Stevens went his own way and released albums with his own act Circle II Circle, a band that has made very little impact on me. He has also been a part of TSO.
Zak met with Secret Sphere guitarist Aldo Lonobile during the making of Timo Tolkki’s Avalon’s latest album where Lonobile presented a few song ideas for Zak, song ideas that were similar to the sound of old Savatage and Zak gave it his thumbs up. The label Frontiers, of course, jumped on the idea and put them in touch with guitarist Simone Mularoni of DGM – also the guy who so successfully made Sweet Oblivion being the most Queensrÿche sounding project Geoff Tate had been part of since getting the boot from said band – and Alessandro Del Vecchio, who joined in, working on songs for the project. For all of us who has missed Savatage, this is of course great news even though we all know that things will never be the same without Criss Oliva who passed away in 1993.
The opening title-track and leading single sounds like it was taken right out of the Edge Of Thorns sessions. It’s big, pompous, bombastic, slightly progressive with a big melody-arrangement and a huge sound-scape. It opens with the same sombre kind of piano that Savatage became known for and when the tune gets going, the whole thing comes across as the continuation of “Edge Of Thorns” without being a clone. There’s also a slight musical-theatre touch in the big vocal arrangements and even though the song isn’t radio-flirtatious at all, the song is catchy enough to stick around for a great while after it’s finished. I dig this lots.
The following “The Serpent” is darker and heavier with a symphonic punch and some rough staccato guitar riffing that at times borders to Thrash. At the same time it’s big, overblown and orchestrated and you get the feeling that they were looking for that old Sava-sound but still tried to not get too close. It’s an ok tune but it tends to get a bit unstructured which makes it fall on the way-side. “Rise” takes a turn of classic Metal with some slight Symphony X twists with some 80’s metal riffing over a stompy rhythm. It’s a robust, edgy rocker, very much in-your-face where the refrain takes a slower pace with a smoother main-melody which brings on the catchiness, the way old Savatage stuff were catchy. Good one.
“Under The Spell” is more melodic Metal laden, mid-paced on a classic Hard Rock ground. With a prominent piano, melodies with hooks all over the place and a striking chorus that hits home, the song is without a doubt one this album’s winners. Very good. “Twilight” is more straight forward, fast-tracked Hard Rock with classic Metal riffage, symphonic and gothic ingredients – and some massively orchestrated keyboards. It’s a fat, robust and beefy tune but somewhere along the way it loses me because of lacking melody structures. It’s not a bad song but it really could be more memorable. “Faces Of Innocence” holds a main riff and a chorus melody that’s quite similar to Queensrÿche’s “I Don’t Believe In Love”. It’s more of an upbeat rocker that’s more Hard Rock than Metal and the melody-arrangements even touches on AOR. A great tune with a huge single potential.
“Hit The Wall” hits the ground running on a straight-forward, kicking and rowdy rhythm, very much influenced of classic Metal where a song like “Skraggy’s Tomb” seems to have been the template. I have always thought that “Skraggy’s Tomb” was the weakest spot on Edge Of Thorns which in turn makes this a non-impressive number at all. In one ear and out the other – nothing sticks. There’s more “Spreading The Disease” Queensrÿche over “Who’s In The Mirror” than any old Savatage but that said, Stevens’ voice and melody-lines brings on a slight Wake Of Magellan twist. It’s a bouncy and stompy number, based on Metal but the distinct and hook-laden refrain is close to Melodic Rock. A clear high-light of this record.
“Brought To The Edge” is an acoustic guitar based atmospheric and stripped ballad with an organic outlook but when the added orchestral keyboards comes in, it builds up the soundscape to something bigger and grandiose. It’s a quite sullen and emotional ballad with a gorgeous melody-arrangement – to compare it to “Sleep” isn’t far-fetched at all. A memorable chorus and distinctive melodies makes the song a winner. Closer “Return Of The Storm” opens with a Savatage-like piano riff and a massive vocal arrangement where a few different melody-lines meets in one, just like Savatage did in a few of their tunes. On a progressive mode, the song then speeds up, taking on a more metal-fueled outlook with a faster rhythm section and razor-sharp guitar riffing with both piano and orchestrated keyboards included and prominent all the way through. A damn good track and a perfect closing track.
While I have been waiting for something like this to come out, I can’t help but to feel a bit let down. Firstly, too many of the songs doesn’t pass good and fades a bit too quick and secondly, just like the Sweet Oblivion record, the topic comes across as forced. To me, both albums are made from the head and not the heart where the outcome’s style are more important than the actual songs where the guide-lines are followed slavishly. At least Sweet Oblivion was filled with really good songs. Still, the starved Savatage fan in me is not able dismiss this as some kind of clone without conviction because there are some damn good songs here and to be honest, there are no crap ones either so until Jon Oliva, Chris Caffery and the rest of the Sava-team decides to get their shit together, this record will remain in my music library – and I will be thankful that Zak and Aldo decided to go ahead with this project.
2. The Serpent
4. Under The Spell
6. Faces Of Innocence
7. Hit The Wall
8. Who’s In The Mirror
9. Brought To The Edge
10. Return Of The Storm