Savatage's "Edge of Thorns" (1993) - Triumph and Tragedy
Savatage - EDGE OF THORNS (Atlantic Records, 1993)
Florida's masters of power/progressive metal, Savatage, are the true definition of a "cult" band. More than a dozen years after the release of their last album, the band is still revered in underground metal circles and solo projects by the individual band members continue to garner interest from legions of fans around the globe. Not bad for a band who, despite having one of the most impressive catalogs in '80s metal, never quite broke through to the "big time," though it wasn't for lack of trying.
Savatage's early works like Sirens (1983) and The Dungeons Are Calling (1984) were fairly standard Judas Priest/Black Sabbath inspired metal that cultivated a fervent following amongst the headbanger crowd, but by 1987's near-breakthrough Hall of the Mountain King, the band was expanding its sonic palette and hinting at a more dramatic, theatrical sound. Piano and keyboards became an integral piece of the Savatage puzzle and the interplay between guitarist Criss Oliva's fretboard fireworks and the skilled ivory-tickling of his vocalist brother Jon quickly became the band's trademark. Hall of the Mountain King also signaled the start of a fruitful partnership between the Oliva brothers and classical-influenced producer/songwriter Paul O'Neill. Savatage's music matured by leaps and bounds under O'Neill's guidance over the next several years and they released critically acclaimed records like 1989's complex and atmospheric Gutter Ballet and 1991's Metal-Meets-Andrew-Lloyd-Webber concept album, Streets: A Rock Opera. Unfortunately, the rigors of the music business and life on the road were beginning to take their toll on Jon Oliva, who announced that he was stepping away from the microphone shortly after the release of Streets.
Enter: Zak Stevens
Savatage wasted no time in announcing their replacement for Jon Oliva - the previously-unknown Zachary (aka "Zak") Stevens, a trained vocalist and graduate of the Musicians Institute in Hollywood, whose prior experience was limited to local gigs with the Boston-based metal band Wicked Witch. Stevens' smoother, more melodic vocal delivery was a marked departure from the raspy-voiced Jon Oliva, who had once been credited with "Shrieks of Terror" rather than "vocals" on one of Savatage's early album sleeves. With Stevens in place, the band quickly went to work on their next studio album, Edge of Thorns, with Paul O'Neill in the producer's chair once again. Even though he was no longer an "official" member of Savatage, Jon Oliva remained in the background contributing on the songwriting front and recording piano and keyboard parts for the album. Jon would continue this outside "working arrangement" with the band till the end of their recording career.
"Edge of Thorns"
"I Don't Think About You Anymore"
I vividly remember the day I went to Tower Records (remember them?) to buy Edge of Thorns shortly after its release in 1993. Savatage had been my favorite band for several years by this time, ever since I'd been lucky enough to witness them live during 1990's Gutter Ballet tour. (Voice of Comic Book Guy from "The Simpsons:" "Best. Concert. EVER.") I'd been gutted by the news that Jon Oliva had left the band and it seemed inconceivable that he could be replaced. Out of fear that I would hate the new singer, I actually bought Edge of Thorns on cassette (remember those?) at first rather than on one of those newfangled CDs, since cassettes were cheaper and I figured that if I didn't like New Guy I'd at least save a couple of bucks. (Yes, I realize how stupid that sounds nowadays.) I walked out to the parking lot and immediately slammed the tape into my car stereo, chanting "Don't suck. Please don't suck. Pleeeeeease don't suck." Thankfully, I was immediately pleased by what I heard and by the end of the first song, I already had a smile on my face. Savatage's status as my favorite band was safe.
"All That I Bleed"
While still maintaining the mood and feel of the preceding Streets: A Rock Opera album, Edge of Thorns is definitely more "rock" and less "opera." A melancholy piano line kicks off the title track to start the album, and Stevens immediately impresses with his strong, confident delivery. Criss Oliva's tasty guitar shredding keeps things "metal" especially during his solo portion. The moody "He Carves His Stone" is next, which starts out slow-n-sinister but kicks into high gear during the choruses. "Lights Out" is a classic speed-metal burner that wouldn't have sounded out of place on one of Savatage's earlier, more straight-up heavy albums, and leads the listener into the album's "trilogy" in which the track "Follow Me" is bracketed by two instrumentals ("Labyrinths" in front and "Exit Music" in back), creating a ten-minute excursion into progressive metal at its finest. "Follow Me" is Stevens' strongest performance on the album thus far. "Degrees of Sanity" and "Conversation Piece" keep up the high quality and then the album goes for your heart - and your throat - with the epic power ballad "All That I Bleed." Savatage has always had a knack for ballads, and this one's a show stopper, bringing a tear to your eye even as you point your lighter toward the sky and sing along. Things return to more straight-up metal territory with "Damien" and the melodic shredder "Miles Away" before the album comes to a close with the acoustic "Sleep."
Zak Stevens may have made an impressive debut on this album, but the true star on Edge of Thorns is guitarist Criss Oliva. Always a talented yet underrated-as-hell player, Criss stepped out from his big brother Jon's shadow and proved that he was more than capable of piloting the Savatage ship by showcasing his amazing shredding capabilities all over this record. Reviews of Edge of Thorns were universally positive and the album sold well (except, of course, in Savatage's American home land, which was in the grip of the Grunge revolution at the time), but unfortunately, Savatage would have little time to capitalize on the new foundation that the album was setting up for them.
While the addition of Stevens and great reviews for Edge of Thorns resulted in renewed interest in Savatage, the band's future was thrown into doubt on October 17, 1993, when Criss Oliva was killed in an auto accident. Criss' car was hit by a drunk driver on Highway 301 in Florida as he and his wife Dawn were traveling to the annual "Livestock" music festival. After a period of mourning, Jon Oliva and his band mates decided that the best way to honor Criss' memory would be by keeping his music alive. With former Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick in Criss' place, Savatage released Handful of Rain in 1994 and continued to record albums and tour (with journeyman six-stringer Al Pitrelli taking over for Skolnick) until 2002.
"Shotgun Innocence" (non-U.S. bonus track)
Where Are They Now?
Savatage's last studio album, Poets and Madmen, was released in 2001. Since then the band members have remained visible in a variety of other projects. The most notable of these would be the mighty Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the theatrical melodic-rock outfit spearheaded by Paul O'Neill. T.S.O. began as an offshoot inspired by "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)," an instrumental track on Savatage's 1995 album Dead Winter Dead. "Christmas Eve" surprised everyone in the band's camp when it suddenly garnered a massive amount of radio play during the 1995 holiday season, providing Savatage with the closest thing they'd ever had to a mainstream "hit." Label execs requested an entire album based around that one track, so O'Neill, Oliva and the other Savatage members collaborated with musicians from the theatrical and classical worlds to create 1996's epic Trans-Siberian Orchestra debut, Christmas Eve and Other Stories. Since then TSO has gone on to multi-platinum success and performs regularly throughout the holiday season every year, splitting into two separate "West Coast" and "East Coast" touring companies in order to satisfy fan demand. TSO's newest non-Holiday rock opera, Letters from the Labyrinth, was released in 2015.
Jon Oliva and Savatage guitarist Chris Caffery have both embarked upon solo careers when they're not busy with TSO duties. Jon Oliva's Pain, has cut four albums to date, with the most recent, Festival, released in 2010. Many of JOP's songs are culled from a stash of demo tracks written by Jon and his brother Criss when Savatage was still together, but were never completed. Jon also released a solo album, Raise the Curtain, in 2013. Chris Caffery has recorded several solo albums under his own name. Zak Stevens formed Circle II Circle in the early '00s and has released seven albums to date with them, as well as one with Machines of Grace, a new project with his former Wicked Witch bandmates.
The fans who had been clamoring for a Savatage reunion finally got their wish in 2015, when the band headlined the prestigious Wacken Open Air metal festival in Germany on July 30th and August 1st. Though the Savatage fan base obviously hoped that the Wacken gig would signal a return to active duty, it was only intended to be a special one-off performance.
This writer would love to see Savatage continue and hopefully release a new album, of course, but even if that doesn't happen, we can be thankful that we have an amazing catalog of music to remember them by, including Edge of Thorns - an unjustly forgotten hard rock album that still sounds great today.
SAVATAGE Select Discography...
City Beneath The Surface single (as Avatar) - PAR Records, 1983
Sirens - PAR Records, 1983
The Dungeons Are Calling - Combat, 1984
Power of the Night - Atlantic, 1985
Fight For the Rock - Atlantic, 1986
Hall of the Mountain King - Atlantic, 1987
Gutter Ballet - Atlantic, 1989
Streets: A Rock Opera - Atlantic, 1991
Edge of Thorns - Atlantic, 1993
Handful of Rain - Atlantic, 1994
Japan Live '94 (live) - Zero Corporation, 1995
Ghost In The Ruins: A Tribute to Criss Oliva (live) - SPV, 1995
From the Gutter to the Stage: The Best of Savatage 1985-1995 - JVC, 1995
Dead Winter Dead - Atlantic, 1995
The Best and the Rest - JVC, 1997
The Wake of Magellan - Atlantic, 1998
Poets and Madmen - Nuclear Blast, 2001
Still the Orchestra Plays: Greatest Hits Volumes 1 & 2 - Edel, 2010
Return to Wacken - earMUSIC, 2015