Savatage is a heavy metal band from Florida. Formed in 1979 by the Oliva brothers, Jon and Criss, they survived the 1980s, the tragic loss of one of the best guitar players to ever exist (in my opinion), and their iconic vocalist stepping down. Even with all that going on, they put out a series of phenomenal records. In 1987, after a bad experience on their previous record, they came back stronger than ever, thanks in part to Paul O’Neill, a man who would change the course of music over the next three decades. This is the beginning of that incredible journey.
- Jon Oliva – Lead Vocals, Piano
- Criss Oliva – Guitars
- Johnny Lee Middleton – Bass, Backing Vocals
- Steve Wacholz – Drums, Percussion
Hall Of The Mountain King
On September 27, 1987, Savatage released an absolute gem. Hall Of The Mountain King is a serious shift in how Savatage approached the creation of their music. Working with Paul O’Neill changed how they wrote and what they wrote. This is the start of a band going from fairly standard heavy metal to a mixture of classical and progressive music that included storytelling. This led directly to the creation of the Trans Siberian Orchestra. This album had a significant influence on where my musical tastes would venture.
- 24 Hours Ago
- Beyond The Doors Of The Dark
- Strange Wings
- Prelude To Madness (Instrumental)
- Hall Of The Mountain King
- The Price You Pay
- White Witch
- Last Dawn (Instrumental)
Steve “Dr. Killdrums” Wacholz is a colossus behind the kit. With precise timing and the ability to add little bits of flair at the perfect moment, the drumming on this record is particularly excellent. Steve was a driving force behind this band for a lot of years. Johnny Lee Middleton was the perfect partner for Steve. They built a critical infrastructure that supported the rest of the instruments. That foundation created something special on this album. Music theorists can probably describe this in detail using fancy music terms. I can only describe it in terms of how much I loved the record.
Criss Oliva’s guitar playing was a crucial part of the success of this record and Savatage as a whole. This was the album where it seems he picked up the mantle of Randy Rhoades and took it to the next level. The infusion of classical guitars into his playing was something new yet familiar. It was not the overly technical work of Yngwie. This was something much more relatable. This was a new standard. The way he wove the rhythms together with the lead work was incredible.
And Jon Oliva’s vocals? How can anyone not love those? He has such a recognizable tone. The emotion he could put into a song was legendary. He could scream, whisper, belt, and soar. He has clean tones and some of the best grit in the business. He could go with the backing vocals or move in the exact opposite direction. Even his laugh became a thing of legend. His iconic voice is part of what made Savatage great and established them as the metal powerhouse they are.
The last piece of the puzzle was the addition of Paul O’Neill to the mix. This was the start of a relationship that created something… magical. With his incredibly creative mind, vision, and the direction he took, the band ended up being so much more than I think Savatage would have become without him. The decision to experiment with the classical paid off, not just on this album but also on future releases.
This potent mix of personnel went on to create some of the best music. This is the precursor for everything Savatage went on to achieve, including the creation of the Trans Siberian Orchestra. The biggest Christmas touring act in music history is a direct result of the trend-setting music Savatage created. That writing relationship started right here, and “Prelude To Madness” was but a test-fire. So much more was to come. The rest of the Savatage catalog proved they were far ahead of their time.
From straight-forward metal with heavy riffs and furious rhythms, just check out “24 Hours Ago”, “The Price You Pay,” and “Devastation.” Those songs are absolutely killer. There is nothing like a Criss Oliva riff paired with Johnny’s bass. Those two worked together for the greater good. You can’t really separate one from the other now. And never one to shy away from showcasing his own talents, check out the bass intros for songs like “Beyond The Doors Of The Dark” and “Legions.”
“Prelude To Madness” and how it leads into “Hall Of The Mountain King” were, at the time, just excellent playing. Turns out they were also a bit of foreshadowing of what was to come. That classical influence that permeates the rest of Savatage’s work is on full display here. The stunning composition and performances kept coming for the next 15 years. Even now, there are tribute bands and new groups doing covers of these works as an homage to one of the greatest bands far too few people have ever heard of.
My personal favorite on this record, though, is “Strange Wings.” Jon uses some extra warble and hits some amazing notes on this one. Then, add in the backing vocals of Ray Gillen for a bit of a battle that neither singer wins. However, every fan of the band feels they won just by getting to experience these epic voices in harmony. The fact that Criss soloed under those two amazing voices is mind-blowing. This is the song that makes me air drum and air guitar and turn the volume up so much I can’t hear myself butchering both vocal lines. This is one of the greatest songs ever written.
These four musicians created such a massive soundscape. They carried a “devil may care” kind of attitude and made something unique. The classical influence in the body of work, the transformation of Jon from the lead singer to “The Mountain King,” lifting Criss to near guitar god status, and the solidifying of Johnny and Steve as the premier bass/drum duo made this record something astounding. It was the start of one of the most incredible runs of albums in the history of music. I mean, the next two records were Gutter Ballet and Streets: A Rock Opera.
Savatage was always criminally underrated. They still have a significant fan base. Without issuing a record in 20 years now, there are still groups on social media hoping for a comeback. Even if that is just a farewell tour to allow us to find some closure. 2022 marks the 35th anniversary of this album, and I dream about hearing this album in its’ entirety live. I know it wouldn’t be the same without Criss Oliva. That would be a hard thing to deal with, but I would be willing.
Will Savatage ever do anything like a reunion? I don’t know. I hope so, but I’m a selfish fan. I want one of my favorite bands to still be a thing. I respect the band too much to get mad at them for not touring or doing what I want. I would never want to force a band to do something against their will. That would show in the stage show and make the whole thing feel less authentic. If it happens, I will pay whatever the ticket price is. If it does not happen, I can live with the knowledge I did get to see them several times back in the late 80s/early 90s. I saw them on this tour with Dio and Megadeth. I’m one of the lucky ones.
Why did this album hit me so hard? I’m not 100% sure. This may have been one of the first records where I heard technical skill at this tempo. Sure, Iron Maiden and Judas Priest were fast, but this felt different. It was not NWOBHM, it was not thrash, but it was not wholly progressive metal. This was one of the first true blendings of genres that really grabbed my ear. This band is legendary, even if only within a niche group of listeners. True fans know. 20 years on, they still put Savatage on and rock out. That is something that few bands achieve to this level. Long live Savatage!
- Guitars – 10
- Rhythms – 10
- Vocals – 10
- Songwriting – 10
- Production – 10
- Overall – 10.0