One word epitomizes metal warriors Savatage: survivors. Over the course of its 20-year history, the band has suffered tragedy, endured endless lineup changes and resisted passing musical trends. Yet the group has continued to evolve on each of its 12 albums- 15 if you also include the three from its alter-ego, Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO) and on Poets & Madmen, Savatage begins a new chapter in its storied career.
The record, Savatage's first in three years sees the group further refine its dynamic sound, a mixture of the power of Black Sabbath and the drama of Queen. Although the band has experimented with politically charged, symphonic rock operas in recent years, Poets & Madmen features a more guitar-oriented sound, showcasing the talents of Chris Caffery and Al Pitrelli. But Pitrelli joined Megadeth while the album was in progress; meanwhile, Zachary Stevens stepped down as the band's vocalist. Suddenly, for the first time since 1994, Savatage was a quartet. And for the first time since 1991, its lead singer was Jon Oliva. Indeed, Poets & Madmen is a triumphant return for the 'Mountain King', whose distinctive, charismatic vocals add even more power to an already potent sound.
It's as if this latest personnel change has led Savatage to rediscover its identity. "What it did was make certain guys in the band namely myself and Chris 'step up'," Oliva says. "Though we've had guys come and go, the nucleus of the band is the same." Longtime producer, lyricist and collaborator Paul O?Neill says a new combination of members led to a fresh approach in the studio. "Knowing Jon was going to sing every song, you write differently for that," he explains. "When you change members, you get new ideas. I always wondered if that?s what keeps Savatage strong."
Oliva believes the strength of Poets & Madmen can also be credited to the band?s successful side project, TSO. "It helps make Savatage fresh again," he says. O'Neill, meanwhile, explains that distinguishing Savatage from TSO was a primary goal of the new album, and a reason behind its heavier sound. "They're brother and sister that have grown up in the same household, and now they're going their separate ways," he says.To that end, Savatage has signed with Nuclear Blast America, parting ways with Atlantic Records where TSO remains after 15 years. "Being with a label like Nuclear Blast for Savatage is like a rebirth," Oliva says. "When we first met with them, it was amazing. They were fans! They knew all our songs, the lyrics, the stories and the band?s history. They told us just to go crazy in the studio."
That mindset led to the creation of 'Morphine Child,' the centerpiece of Poets & Madmen and, at 10 minutes, the longest track Savatage has ever written. Described by Oliva as a labor of love, the progressive epic sees the band utilize counterpoint vocals, with which it first experimented on the 1994 song 'Chance.' "'Morphine Child', to me, is definitely 'Chance' taken two or three steps further," Oliva says. The song is one of 11 chapters not including 'Shotgun Innocence', a bonus track featuring guitar-work by the late Criss Oliva in the concept album, which tells the story of three teenagers who break into an abandoned mental institution.
There, they come across the file of Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Kevin Carter, who was traumatized by the African famine he hauntingly documented. But during their stay, the teens also encounter more than they ever could have imagined.Oliva offers a simpler explanation of the album?s concept. "Paul's the poet," he says, "and I?m the madman."
Jon Oliva (vox, keys, piano)
Chris Caffery (guitars)
Johnny Lee Middleton (bass)
Jeff Plate (drums)
Damond Jiniya (vocals)
Jack Frost (guitars)