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SAVATAGE – Out On The Streets
Garry Sharpe-Young
Metal Forces, Issue 66 (1991)

Savatage (l-r): Johnny Lee Middleton, Criss Oliva (seated), Steve Wacholz and
Jon Oliva

Savatage, are in my opinion, one of the greatest metal acts never to have reaped the rewards parallel to their talents. Their career thus far has been littered with critical acclaim and seemingly disastrous errors of misjudgement, culminating in the appallingly weak Fight For The Rock album of ’86. Previous to that nadir Florida’s Savatage boasted such crushingly precise metal in Sirens (1983), The Dungeons Are Calling (1984) and their monstrous Atlantic debut Power Of The Night (1985).

Clawing their way up from the wreckage of Fight For The Rock, the band appeared intent on proving that gutter kissing exercise a misguided attempt by their record company at “commercialism” and with Hall Of The Mountain King (1987) and Gutter Ballet (1989) amply succeeded in ramming the point home. Class power metal, generally with a sordid lyrical twist, became Savatage’s hallmark.

Until now Savatage have paid us merely fleeting one stop Marquee visits and have either had great difficulty in grabbing the coat tail of a major act tour or suffered a management / record company disinclination to play the breadth of Britain. I had always felt Savatage could well break the UK big- time if only the shows were there to back it up. On the eve of this interview with vocalist Jon Oliva, rumours are afoot that this time round the band are putting that to rights and venturing out of the metropolis to bring power metal to the people.

Naturally, as Terry Wogan’s guests just by chance happen to have a copy of their latest book with them, so Savatage are plying new product in the distinctly awkward shape of, gulp, a concept album. Streets: A Rock Opera no less. As an ardent devotee of the band I find the whole thing difficult to swallow as a project, but positively revel in some of its choicer moments such as the industrial grind of ‘Strange Reality’, the unrestrained brutality of ‘Ghost In The Ruins’, ‘Jesus Saves’ and ‘Tonight He Grins Again’.

Jon, however, feels the concept has cohesion and relevance in a post Operation: Mindcrime (Queensrÿche, 1988) marketplace. Maybe I’m just narked at not getting Gutter Ballet 2?

Streets just felt so right,” he explains. “For Savatage now we knew this concept thing was there and if we left it till next time I doubt that time would come around. We’ve had this idea kicking around for a long time and we thought, hell, let’s give it a shot!”

Aren’t concept albums more than a touch risky career wise? “Sure are!” Jon agrees in good nature. “I tell ya, it took a lot of balls to do this record!”

So is this concept an extension of your normally compacted mini-epic songs of yore? All your songs seemingly had a valid story to tell. “I’m glad that the effort that’s put into the lyric writing has been noticed,” he jokes. “Seriously, yes we do like to tell a story that has maybe a little more depth than other bands. We like to convey something worthwhile rather than a whole buncha meaningless words like ‘Cherry Pie’ (from the 1990 Warrant album of the same name) or any of that shit. Of course, the challenge here was to make what we would previously have compacted into a song spread out over a whole record and still make it interesting. It was a severe pain in the ass!”

I wondered whether any of the Streets material has been made to fit the project or if it was entirely scored for this grandiose abstraction? “No, no,” the singer protests. “It was all new. Obviously Criss (Oliva, Jon’s brother and band guitarist) has riffs floating around waiting for the right vehicle and also Johnny (Lee Middleton, bass) and Steve (Wacholz, drums) all have ideas for songs and rhythms, but in essence the whole of Streets is new and untried. I think that not only have we broadened out by attempting this whole big idea of almost a movie script type thing, but we’ve definitely got more adventurous as musicians.”

Jon Oliva

Your albums successively go to more extremes of light and shade than the previous release it seems to me. Especially with the marked increase in tracks that may utilize only yourself and piano. “Yeah, that has always been a part of what we do, but now we really want to bring that aspect of Savatage to the fore. Yes, we can blow your head off with stuff like ‘Unusual’ (from Power Of The Night) and ‘Hall Of The Mountain King’ (from the album of the same name) but we can also diversify from that too. The lighter stuff makes you appreciate the heavier end of our music too and I really feel that if your record is total death metal from beginning to end you almost become immune to it after a while, so I think maybe what we do is lull the listener into a false sense of security before hitting them right between the eyes.”

I don’t want to delve into great detail as regards the plot to the concept of Streets but I am interested to know where the principle character DT Jesus emanates from. After all, a tale of a platinum rock star destroyed by drugs? Maybe this isn’t fiction? “Actually, Paul O’Neill, our producer, had the story written,” he confides. “It was kinda like what you hear now on the record. What we did as a band was to take his original story and add our own flavours to it in order to spice it up a little bit. In fact, you asking about the main character reminds me that originally he had a different name in the original story and we changed it. It was almost like what we did with Sirens in that we took what we saw on paper and put our own feelings into it. We hope that everything we do has a Savatage trademark to it because of my voice and the guitars and everything, and from what we’re told it’s working. I find it frustrating listening to ten bands who all sound the same y’know?”

And how would you define the Savatage sound? “Weird!” Jon laughs. “Very weird! We have the twist to our stories we tell, but we have that musical twist too in our arrangements, and of course Criss has a very obvious sound. We enjoy being that little bit different, we have an identity musically which is a great strength.”

So, can we expect slower, starker music on future Savatage albums? “Definitely!” he enthuses. “For years and years we’ve always done the real heavy stuff and now we want to experiment a bit more and show a different side of the band. The piano / vocal stuff has never been in the forefront as much as it has now, but of course when I say Savatage is slowing down a little, it ain’t no MTV ballad!

“The other reason as to why there was so much slow stuff on it was the record is so long, 16 songs, and we figure it would get a little boring to rage through it all.”

The ultimate question has to be how can you do all this live? Are we to see Savatage turning their whole set over to this piece? “It’s a major headache!” he offers before admitting the band haven’t quite decided how to tackle this problem. “We plan on doing a lot of this new stuff in the live show, maybe eight songs, but not all of it yet! So I would describe the new European show as having highlights of Streets. I feel to do the whole thing would be near suicidal at this point because our fans are going to want to hear stuff from Power Of The Night and all the Gutter Ballet stuff we played on the last tour. How we are approaching this is, depending on the success of the album, to gradually introduce more and more of the Streets stuff live.”

To change the subject totally, I now enquire as to whether Jon is aware of the more favourable press attitude towards power metal acts such as Savatage and Armored Saint and the prediction of greater rewards in the near future. “That’s odd, because stuff like that has been slowly filtering through over here, but of course we hear rumours like this all the time and we only get to know the truth when people either buy your records or they don’t! Y’know how rumours go, so it’s, yeah, let’s wait and see!

“I can see the logic of it though because over here thrash is taking more of a down swing and I really think that, like punk before, all these bands have taken it as far as they could go with it and there is nowhere else to go. You can only play faster to a point! So, yeah, I can see a developing market for kids who want that heaviness but also now want something they can listen to rather than something to impress their other thrashing friends with.”

Well, I think you could be surprised at the reaction when you get over here next Jon because there are definite predictions for Savatage success!

Savatage (l-r): Steve Wacholz, Jon Oliva, Criss Oliva and Johnny Lee Middleton

One question I’ve always wanted to put to Savatage is regarding their longevity with Atlantic Records. It’s fair to say that Savatage, as yet, have not had that killer mega selling record, and here they are on album number five for the label with increasing support. “I know what you’re saying there and not having that great selling record under our belts is kinda frustrating, but the thing that keeps us going every year is that simply every year we sell more and more records. Savatage is a growing process and Atlantic can see that upward turn on sales with every record. I think the band as a whole would be very, very disappointed if Streets died, but then again we were extremely nervous on releasing Gutter Ballet and that album went on to do better numbers than Mountain King and Power Of The Night put together! But, getting back to the question, yeah, it does kinda get frustrating when we see these flash in the pan bands like, y’know ‘Cherry Pie’-type bands, who make their quick killing before you never hear from them again, so it’s comforting to know that as a band we have a steady upward career going on here.”

It would appear on the surface that Savatage have a genuine long term deal with Atlantic because they have stuck with the band through thick and thin. “Yeah they have; a lot of thick and a lot of thin! Atlantic have been real good to us and we have no complaints at all. We just keep on plugging away, but I will admit that the buzz on this record over in Europe has been pretty incredible, so we are really excited about it.”

Savatage have always toured Europe (if not Britain) fairly heavily for an American act, so would you agree Europe is a stronger market than your home country? “I would say that Europe is more open to us,” he says guardedly. “On the live front we do better every time, although it has been difficult in the past picking up the right tour, especially in the UK. I really think that the lack in Europe of 24 hour MTV is a good thing because we’ve found that audiences are more receptive and open to what we’re doing. American music has become a big glamour fest and that is not the case yet in Europe, so for us it’s great because it’s as though the music comes first over there, which is how it should be!”

Now there’s a statement I would endorse wholeheartedly! Savatage may have exercised their right to play their biggest risk card of their career, but with the success of Gutter Ballet and the positive press murmurings towards the band, it could well pay off. All I can suggest is, if, as Jon hinted, they do tour the UK fully, you show up to check them out. You will not leave disappointed!

Interview taken from Metal Forces, Issue 66 (1991)

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