Triumph and Tragedy on Savatage's "Edge of Thorns"
Savatage, "Edge of Thorns" (Atlantic Records, 1993)
On 1993's "Edge of Thorns," progressive metal titans Savatage replaced longtime screamer Jon Oliva with new vocalist Zak Stevens, and the result was one of the finest albums of their long career.
These masters of power/progressive metal are the true definition of a "cult" band. More than fifteen years after the release of their last studio album, the band is still revered in underground metal circles and solo projects from Savatage band members continue to garner interest from legions of fans around the globe. Not bad for a group who, despite having one of the most impressive catalogs in '80s metal, never quite broke through to the "big time" (not for lack of trying).
Savatage's early works like Sirens (1983) and The Dungeons Are Calling (1984) were standard Judas Priest/Black Sabbath inspired metal that quickly cultivated a fervent following amongst the headbanger crowd, but on 1987's near-breakthrough Hall of the Mountain King, the band began expanding its sonic palette and hinting at a more dramatic, theatrical sound. Piano and keyboards became an integral piece of the 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.
"Edge of Thorns"
Savatage wasted no time in announcing their new vocalist - the previously-unknown Zachary (aka "Zak") Stevens, a 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 Oliva, who had once been credited with "Shrieks of Terror" rather than "vocals" on an early Savatage album sleeve. 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 the band, Jon Oliva remained in the background contributing to the songwriting 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.
I vividly remember the day I went to Tower Records (remember them?) to buy Edge of Thorns in 1993. Savatage had been my favorite band since I'd seen them live on the Gutter Ballet tour in 1990 and I'd been gutted by the news that Jon Oliva had left the band. It seemed inconceivable that he could be replaced; afraid that I would hate the new singer, I originally bought Edge of Thorns on cassette (remember those?) instead of on CD. My reasoning for this was that cassettes were cheaper,and I figured that if I didn't like The New Guy at least I'd save a couple of bucks. (Yes, I realize how stupid that sounds now.) 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 hooked by the end of the first song, so Savatage's status as my favorite band was safe.
While maintaining the mood and feel of the preceding Streets: A Rock Opera album, was 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 would have fit on one of Savatage's earlier, 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." Edge of Thorns
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 ship on his own with his powerful shredding capabilities. Reviews of Edge of Thorns were 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, the band would have little time to capitalize on the success of the new lineup and album.
"All That I Bleed"
The addition of Stevens and great reviews for Edge of Thorns resulted in renewed interest in Savatage, but the band's future was thrown into doubt on October 17, 1993, when Criss Oliva was killed in an auto accident on Highway 301 in Florida. Criss and his wife Dawn had been traveling to the annual "Livestock" music festival when they were hit by a drunk driver. He was just 30 years old. Jon Oliva and the band eventually decided that the best way to honor Criss' memory would be to continue Savatage and keep Criss' music alive. Former Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick took Criss' place on 1994's Handful of Rain album and they continued to record albums and tour (with 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. The band members have remained visible in a variety of other projects since then. Jon Oliva, Chris Caffery and Zak Stevens have all embarked on solo careers, but the most visible Savatage offshoot would be the mighty Trans-Siberian Orchestra. T.S.O. was initially 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 began getting massive 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 Paul O'Neill, Jon Oliva and the other Savatage members created 1996's multi-platinum Trans-Siberian Orchestra debut, Christmas Eve and Other Stories. Paul O'Neill passed away in 2017 but TSO's annual Christmas season tours have become a holiday institution, splitting into separate "West Coast" and "East Coast" touring companies in order to satisfy fan demand.
Will Savatage Be Resurrected?
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 it was hoped that this gig would signal a return to active duty, it was only a one-off performance. Even if Savatage never returns to the stage or the recording studio, 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.
© 2012 Keith Abt