I've been an obsessed hard rock & heavy metal fan and collector since the early 1980s. If it's got a good guitar riff and attitude, I'm in.
Savatage, "Dead Winter Dead"
Label: Atlantic Records
Year Released: 1995
Number of Tracks: 12
Run Time: 49:55
1995's Dead Winter Dead marked Savatage's return to the Rock Opera format for the first time since 1991's fan favorite, Streets. Co-written by longtime producer Paul O'Neill and vocalist/keyboardist Jon Oliva, Dead Winter Dead is set in war-torn Sarajevo in the former Yugoslavia, and follows the paths of a young Serbian man and a Muslim woman whose lives are turned upside down when their country breaks out in a brutal civil war. They eventually meet in the snowy ruins of the country's once-proud capital city at the end of the saga, and presumably fall in love, in spite of their cultural differences and the tragedies they've witnessed along the way.
Dead Winter Dead also brought yet another new Savatage lineup. Unfortunately, since the tragic death of guitarist Criss Oliva in 1993, such shifts were becoming familiar territory for the band. Long time drummer Steve Wacholz was replaced by Jeff Plate, and former Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick (who'd played on 1994's Handful of Rain album and tour), was replaced by two guitarists. Prodigal son Chris Caffery, who had last appeared on 1989's Gutter Ballet tour, returned to the fold, joined by journeyman six-stringer Al Pitrelli, whose extensive resume included stints with Dee Snider's Widowmaker, Alice Cooper, and Asia. Jon Oliva was no longer the band's lead singer (he'd surrendered the mic to Zak Stevens two albums prior) but he remained a shadowy figure in the background, assisting O'Neill with arrangements and receiving credit for "keyboards and additional vocals" on the Dead Winter Dead CD insert (even though he sings lead on two songs).
Under the Radar
Dead Winter Dead was released with little-to-no fanfare in the Fall of '95 -- the band were never particularly huge sellers for Atlantic Records, and at this point in time their brand of ultra-melodic, progressive heavy metal couldn't have been more out of step with the mainstream, so I think it's safe to say that Dead Winter Dead was not a priority release for the label. I only learned of its existence when I stumbled across a promotional radio-play CD single of the title track at a CD/Record swap meet a few weeks before its street date!
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Of course, on the day of Dead Winter Dead's release I was at the record store with bells on, just as I had been for the last couple of Savatage albums...but I must admit, I didn't care for it much at first. The performances were uniformly excellent as usual, the production was lush and orchestrated, and it was nice to hear Jon Oliva's lead vocals on two songs (he plays the villains in this story, a greedy politician in "I Am" and an illegal arms dealer in "Doesn't Matter Anyway"), but at first listen, D.W.D. just seemed TOO over-the-top, out and out musical theater for me, and not nearly enough "metal." (One of my friends actually compared it to a Meat Loaf album -- ouch!)
"Doesn't Matter Anyway"
Savatage barely toured the U.S. for this release, but I was fortunate enough to see one of their handful of American dates (which were basically warm-up gigs for the European festival circuit) in May of 1996 at the Birch Hill in New Jersey. As I expected, the band put on a fantastic show, and hearing the new material in a live concert environment helped me to appreciate the album more. After that, I began giving it fairly regular spins and soon Dead Winter Dead began to grow on me. Before long it had become part of my regular rotation, and my favorite tracks included Jon O's "I Am" and "Doesn't Matter Anyway," the moody "One Child" and the crushing "Starlight."
In an odd turn of events, Dead Winter Dead ended up producing Savatage's lone mainstream "hit" when the instrumental "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)" -- a metalized version of the Christmas standard "Carol of the Bells" -- suddenly started getting massive amounts of radio airplay during the 1995 Christmas season. Unfortunately, Atlantic Records had not pressed enough copies of Dead Winter Dead to meet the unexpected demand for the song. They suggested that Oliva and O'Neill spin it off into a full album of similar music to be released in time for the following holiday season. Thus, "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)" became the springboard that launched the massively popular Trans-Siberian Orchestra project.
Trans-Siberian Orchestra's debut, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, hit stores in October of 1996, and it became an instant multi-platinum smash. TSO has become a legitimate arena-rock juggernaut in the years since. They've released several more Christmas albums and their annual holiday-season concert tours (which utilize separate "East Coast" and "West Coast" companies in order to satisfy fan demand) have become a tradition for hundreds of thousands of fans. TSO has even outlived its creator, Paul O'Neill, who tragically passed away in 2017.
Looking back on it almost a quarter century after its release, it has occurred to me that Dead Winter Dead should probably be considered the first Trans-Siberian Orchestra album.
Savatage released two more studio albums after Dead Winter Dead, but the writing was already on the wall. Stepping out of the "heavy metal" ghetto and getting on the Trans-Siberian Orchestra train was clearly the best business move that Oliva and O'Neill ever made.
"Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)"
© 2019 Keith Abt