If there's any one band that I wish were still around and making music today, it would have to be the band Savatage, more commonly known these days as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which is comprised of most remaining Savatage members. A friend of my dad's turned me on to this band a couple years ago by sending me a link to one of their songs on YouTube. Now with me being the big metalhead that I am, it was love at first listen. That song was called Holocaust, a song about the possibility of the world coming to an end at the turn of the new millennium (mind you, this song was written in 1983).
From there I delved deeper into their catalog, eventually acquiring all of their albums. It was there I discovered two gems, two albums that were unlike any other. Those two albums were their 1989 masterpiece Gutter Ballet, and their 1993 album by the name Edge of Thorns. Both albums were phenomenal from start to finish, but with each one, the tracks that stood out most were, in fact, the title tracks. The songs Gutter Ballet and Edge of Thorns are, in my opinion, quite possibly two of the band's greatest achievements.
I'll start with the first of the two, Gutter Ballet. The song starts with a peaceful piano melody keyed in a very free tempo by vocalist John Oliva. As it progresses, the 4-chord melody slowly pieces itself together, as if it were an improvisation being recorded right on the spot to capture the spontaneity of Oliva trying to come up with the melody. When the melody reaches its climax, the other instruments enter with a simple 2-chord blast to follow the piano. Eventually the instruments all fizzle out again, only to breathe life into one of my favorite sections of all time, the main riff. The combination of the piano and the guitars in this section is nothing short of breath-taking. This is where the song starts to take on its very orchestral characteristicssomething the band tried for the first time with this album, and something that would be carried on to each release afterwards.
The first verse arrives with the heavily poetic lyrics, Another sleepless night / A concrete paradise / The sirens screaming in the heat / Neon cuts the eye / As the jester sighs / At the world beneath his feet, sang with great emotion by John Oliva with his unique voice. The guitars and drums weave in and out as a single chord on the piano keeps time. Then we approach the chorus, It's a gutter ballet / Just a menagerie / Still the orchestra plays / On a dark and lonely night / To a distant fading light, with that main riff I mentioned creating the backbone for the vocals.
After the chorus there's a small instrumental interlude that further sews in my orchestral analogy. The mix of strings, piano, and guitar provides an irresistibly beautiful sound to the ears. It's something I believe even someone who's turned off by metal but has an appreciation for music can still enjoy. This is another of my favorite parts of the song. Plus it's really fun to play on my own guitar!
The song then goes on to repeat the verse/chorus/interlude formula, and afterwards brings us to one of Criss Oliva's (brother of vocalist, Jon) most iconic guitar solos. It swings in at the end of the second interlude and shows off with a slight descending melody before Criss' fingers flip into overdrive and begin to set his strings ablaze. It would not surprise me if he melted a set of strings while recording this solo.
After the solo we're gifted with one last verse and chorus, and then the song goes into outro mode, comprised of a slightly altered version of the interlude from after the first two choruses with Jon Oliva providing It's a gutter ballet! at the very apex of his greatly impressive vocal range. The perfect end to the perfect song.
Next up on the chopping block is the title track to their 1993 album, Edge of Thorns. The first thing one will notice is different between this album and their last, 1991's Streets: A Rock Opera, is the addition of new vocalist Zachary Stevens, following Jon Oliva's decision to step down from the helm of the band in late 1992. This entire album in general is a very special one in the band's history, for it not only marks Zak Stevens' first album as vocalist, but it also marks Criss Oliva's last appearance as lead guitarist as well. On October 17, 1993, just 6 months after the release of Edge of Thorns, Criss' vehicle was struck head-on by a drunk driver, killing him instantly and severely injuring his wife, Dawn.
The remaining members of the band played a special memorial show in remembrance of him on November 23, with Jon returning as lead vocalist for the night to play a special set. Instead of having someone to fill in as guitarist, however, they chose to place one of Criss' guitars, the white Jackson Stratocaster from the album art of Streets, on a stand where Criss would normally be playing.
Now let's get back to the music! Like Gutter Ballet, Edge of Thorns starts off with a great piano melody in the key of D. The guitars soon slam in and fade out until a nice, tranquil main riff appears. Zak Stevens soon makes his presence known with the first verse of lyrics, An offering of reasons / We put them all in play / A covering of treasons / That one by one we let slip away / A solitary dancer / So lost upon her stage. From there he delivers one of the band's most powerful choruses, I have seen you on the edge of dawn / Felt you here before you were born / Balanced your dreams upon the edge of thorns / But I don't think about you anymore. When I first heard this song I couldn't stop listening to it because the chorus was just sofor lack of a better word, awesome! The band could not have chosen a better vocal successor to Jon Oliva than Zak.
After the chorus, the main riff surfaces again and verse 2 rolls through into the second chorus, Zak's powerful, yet emotional voice providing the perfect vocal melody. Once the second chorus concludes, Criss takes the lead with his guitar for a nice, zippy little interlude riff before going into solo mode. Again he mixes melody with furious shredding in a way no other could. After his first solo phrasing ends, the bass guitar and piano get a showcase with a simple 8th-note riff before Criss' guitar returns with its intoxicating luster. After a little bit of shredding over the bass and piano, the drums and rhythm guitar return again for the concluding section of his solo.
For the final chorus, Stevens really lets his vocals rip. He throws in numerous powerful yelps, proving he's more than capable to perform as vocalist for Savatage. The outro consists of the main riff with Zak Stevens further showcasing the power of his pipes. At the end of that section, the intro piano melody returns again to draw the song to a close.
Savatage is truly a unique band, and if I could I'd write about even more than just these two songs. But of their entire catalog, I'd have to say these are my favorites, and that is a very, VERY hard choice to make. I try to recommend this band to anyone I get a chance to because they're so unlike any other band out there. It's a shame the name Savatage never saw much success, but the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, formed by Jon Oliva and Savatage's producer Scott O'Neil in 1995 following the band's album, Dead Winter Dead, is seeing the success it deserves. And while it's not Savatage, at the very heart of the matter, it still is. I just wish Savatage would come back and make just one more album! But with classics like Gutter Ballet and Edge of Thorns, I'm sure I'll be okay if that day never comes.