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I can't be the only person that teared up a little when he realized there would be, at long last, a full-fledged live album featuring the late Criss Oliva of Savatage in his rightful spot on the lead guitar. The man was a major influence on my own playing from an early age, and to be perfectly blunt with you, the very idea of a Savatage without Criss performing, and without Jon handling vocals, is alien to me. Unnecessary, even. I mean no offense to the revolving door of musicians the bands used to fill in the blanks later in their career, but I've just never been able to get too into anything the band released after Gutter Ballet, so I was literally beaming with joy when this arrived in my clutches, and it's a real treat that this sounds as good as it does; one last hurrah with the wizard of the frets.
Ghost in the Ruins is not necessarily a 'proper' live outing, but a collection of cuts compiled from various gigs spanning the years 1987-1990, arguably the band's creative peak in terms of studio output. All of the performances are from here in the States, and it might have been slightly superior if they'd chosen to interject a few European festivals or tours just for variation, but in general the quality of the mix here is intense and vivid enough to carry a listener to those fateful, important years of their evolution. With Chris Caffery's rhythm guitar beneath Oliva's wilder lead tendencies, tunes like "City Beneath the Surface", "Of Rage and War" and "The Dungeons are Calling" sound tremendous. It's utterly fantastic that, even at this more 'rock opera' oriented stage (which would culminate with Streets and the later albums), the band was hammer out wonderful live interpretations of their pure metal roots, merging them into sets alongside the more delicate cuts like "When the Crowds are Gone" or "Gutter Ballet" itself. It's also impressive that, despite these being different gigs, the mastering keeps the varied levels relatively balanced so that it could almost pass for a single set on a single night of magic...
It's true that much of this material is drawn from Hall of the Mountain King and Gutter Ballet, with a few of the earliest tunes for good measure. I wouldn't have minded a few of my favorite numbers from Power of the Night making the selection, but then, that and its successor Fight for the Rock were divisive records, and I might have been alone in the majority for such a sentiment. Regardless, listening to Criss's leads here in "Legions", "24 Hours Ago" and "Hounds" alone would be worth the price of investment in this, and I'd rather experience this perpetually than suffer a family friendly Trans-Siberian Orchestra gig. The vocals have that classic balance of delicate, emotional resonance, grit and screaming, and the crowd response is good and loud without cutting into the instrumentation. Drums, bass, piano, everything is spot fucking on. I could live without the solo track (I rarely care for 80s guitar hero leads outside of the actual song context), and the 'post script' acoustic, but otherwise this is hands down one of the best live records from a classic US metal band of the 80s, whether you have to pay 10 or 20 or 50 dollars to track it down. In fact, even if it's not studio material and nothing new, it was the single most valuable Savatage record beyond 1989.
Talking fantasy tropes here, if most power metal bands aim to sound like magical, immortal elves, then early Savatage was the one band that was definitely dwarven (I’d hear an argument for Cirith Ungol). Theirs was a stocky, barrel-chested style that sounded like it had just clamoured out of a hole in the earth, songs redolent of dungeons, caves, dark corridors and subterranean ruins. They didn’t soar above the mountains; they were the mountain. 1995’s Ghost in the Ruins (known in some territories as Final Bell) is a collection of live ‘tage recordings from 1987 – 1990 released to commemorate the tragic death of guitarist Criss Oliva. Cherrypicking tracks from debut LP Sirens through 1989’s transitional Gutter Ballet, Ghost in the Ruins is a convincing reminder of just how great this band was in its prime.
Savatage songs rarely ran or galloped. They rolled and churned. The Oliva brothers seemed obsessed with finding the thickest, bulkiest riffs possible, but their rhythm section refused to let them wallow in doom. “Doc” Wacholz’s “barbaric cannons” (as credited in the Dungeons Are Calling liner notes) and Johnny Lee Middleton’s throbbing bass grooves are a great, coal-stoked engine pushing this granite freight forward, resulting in the chugging, cyclical tempo that was the band’s trademark. Sirens, Hall of the Mountain King, Hounds, 24 Hours Ago, City Beneath the Surface... I mean, goddammit. Savatage was what might happen if you took Dio-era Rainbow at its most moat rocking, and slowly transfused their blood with molten lead.
Though Ghost in the Ruins focuses on the band’s heaviest years, it still includes a few nods to the theatrical, piano-driven sound the band would adopt with 1991’s Streets, most notably When the Crowds Are Gone, a splashy power ballad with overtones of light opera that benefits immensely from the beery, communal atmosphere of a live metal show. You can almost hear Jon Oliva’s sweat dripping on the piano. They would make considerable improvements to the template, but Crowds remained a leitmotif throughout Savatage’s later records and on into the Trans-Siberian Orchestra project. Then there’s Gutter Ballet, a song that is pretty much Eye of the Tiger crossed with Andrew Lloyd Webber, and yet is one of the greatest metal songs ever. Listening to it now, I will somehow always be fifteen hearing it on the radio late at night between Aerosmith and Godsmack and knowing that it was the coolest thing I had ever heard. The dramatic piano, Criss Oliva’s monster truck rally impression of a string section, Jon Oliva’s actorly phrasing... Gutter Ballet was operating on a different plane from any heavy music I’d yet come across.
Savatage always had ambitions to be more than simply a great heavy metal group, both artistically and, as Jon Oliva will readily admit, commercially. If Gutter Ballet represents how this ambition could result in fine work, Ghost in the Ruins also helpfully provides an example of how it occasionally hobbled the band. The only real sore spot on the record, Strange Wings is definitely one of those Songs About Girls by a bunch of guys who don’t seem to know very much About Girls. The lyrics are super vague and sappily emotional (and “She flies strange wings / Still tears she cries” is practically Engrish), and there’s some hilariously forced rocking out to compensate for how girly the whole thing is. Now, I want to be clear about this: I am not saying that all Savatage is like this, or that they can only be enjoyed ironically. Strange Wings is Savatage at their absolute worst, but it’s interesting in that it brings to bear some of the things that make ‘tage awesome that are hard to think about while they’re kicking your ass. Take Criss Oliva’s solo. Although he was a very inventive and technically skilled player, he couldn’t find it in himself to come up with the kind of rigidly heroic, orthodox lead that 99% of lesser metal guitarists could easily have fit into the song. Strange Wings is a song that is trying very hard to swell with doomed romance, but it’s almost like Criss can’t bring himself to bullshit you like that. When it’s time for the bridge, the band kicks into a goofy ‘70s rock-ish groove and Criss goes in for a loopy shred session that bears no relation to the rest of the track. It’s like he realizes the track is too mediocre to bother committing to. I guess what I’m saying in an extremely roundabout way is that moments like this show you that Criss Oliva’s playing is one of the few things in metal that you can trust completely. He was never willing to sacrifice his unique flair, particularly not for a song as pro forma as Strange Wings. When the songs were tailored to let Criss do his thing, Savatage killed the best efforts of other bands.
Jon Oliva is probably the most unselfconscious and theatrical of the great metal vocalists* (save of course for King Diamond). Oliva acts the hell out of every line, employing an array of ball-shrivelling shrieks, diabolical cackles, woozy muttering and fragile falsetto. He lurks in the valleys of The Dungeons Are Calling’s hammering, Gates of Babylon-on-crack riffage, rising to deliver sinister bon mots like “They think I’m crazy? / Well, what can I say.” He’s a mad monk inciting the mob to shout for blood on City Beneath the Surface, a snarling conspiracy theorist-cum-Lee Harvey Oswald on Of Rage and War, and if he takes a moment to be a yob screaming “LICK MY ASS” on Sirens, well, it’s hard to begrudge him the goofy vulgarity given how hard he throws himself into his witchy cawing. It’s sad that he lost confidence in his voice for a few years in the mid’90s, resulting in the hiring of Zak Stevens as lead singer. Mind you, ‘tage made some decent records in those years, particularly The Wake of Magellan, but they just weren’t the same band without Oliva front and center screaming and sweating like Meatloaf after a tonsillectomy.
If you only have room for one Savatage album on your media player, make it Ghost in the Ruins. There are probably another dozen Savatage songs of equal merit to those presented here (By the Grace of the Witch, Unusual and I Believe for a start), but no single Savatage LP can match Ghost’s collective might, and in many cases these live cuts are arguably the definitive versions on record. While it lacks the name recognition of Unleashed in the East or Tokyo Tapes, to my mind Ghost in the Ruins is every bit as essential. Listen close, and get your recommended iron intake for a week rammed through your guts.
* The Great (Classic) Metal Vocalists sit eternal on their thrones before a great table laden with food, mead and the skulls of their enemies. In no particular order they are Dio, Ozzy, Bruce, Halford and King Diamond, with Oliva, Geoff Tate, Ian Gillan, Klaus Meine, John Arch and Udo Dirkschneider seated just below their dais. Eric Adams is wandering around in the woods with his bow looking for the jackalope he was told to hunt. Blackie Lawless stands outside the Hall screaming to be let in, and occasionally gets a chamberpot dumped on his head by an absent-minded maidservant. This isn’t personal taste, guys, it’s just the way things are.
The thrash and extreme guys have their own Hall, which is built in the shape of Lemmy’s mole.
Some sinister words of introduction mean we will be witnesses of heavy metal feast. The major role: a band called Savatage! There is no doubt, this is not an usual metal concert with an usual metal band. NO! It is a tribute album to one member of the band. His name is Christopher Michael Oliva. He was killed in a car accident by a drunken piece of shit. 17.10.1993 is one of the most tragic day for heavy metal world. For sure I know that this irreparable loss and no one can change it…
The live show consists of songs coming from four albums (no tracks from “Power Of The Night” and “Fight For The Rock”, everything recorded during 1987-90), eleven pearls with two instrumental Criss shows. Although these tracks are taken from the different performances, together they create inseparable entirety. Only the last one instrumental short guitar outro called “Post Script” is something else and, to be honest, it rather doesn’t fit here. I would like here to hear some guitar sounds from the live shows, some solo created by the Master Criss. Musically Savatage is… just pure heavy metal band. They play here appassionato, with faith and hope, with rage and madness, this kind of Music is supported by above the ordinary and splendid talent. It comes straight from minds and hearts of two brothers: Criss and Jon. Savatage is their band and they exactly show it during listening to “Ghost In The Ruins”. The musicians/producers took care about very good sounding which is really heavy metal hammer crushing your brain. It is a raw, as sharp as a razor, but it is definitely proper and real sound for heavy metal band. This is a tribute album for Criss, so I would like to write something about his play. His PLAY. To put it briefly this Man is my favorite guitarist (beside Alex Skolnick) and it is very hard to find any words describing his genius. Although each song is rather similar because of very memorable structures to the fans, fantastic guitar work – excellent riffs, man, and these solo leads, you can decoct one song and admire these components enriched with beautiful mini solo guitar leads by Criss, I call it ornaments, for example, take a listen to “24 Hours Ago”, “Sirens”, Hall Of The Mountain King”… No, there is no point in recouting song by song. Simply Savatage recorded a masterpiece of metal music, but Criss (and His brother) made the difference to the other metal live albums. What a pity we won’t listen to the new Music Criss could create…
“Ghost In The Ruins” is one of my favorite metal album ever recorded till today. For sure the best live show (maybe beside “Live At The Fillmore” by Testament). Each listening to this is some kind of unique feelings galloping through my heart and soul. I am proud to be a fan of such a great man and musician like Criss Oliva and Savatage… Your Music will never die because immortality is tamed here. I can feel it. The title of this masterly show says it all. After the death there are only ruins and we can only listen to this Music and remember He is still alive in these Sounds as a ghost… RIP.
this album is a compilation of live songs taken from the Gutter Ballet period, 1987-1990, taken from various venues, and, boy, do these guys play live!! Criss sounds 10 times better and waaay more agressive than on the album, Jon Oliva`s shrieks of death give you chilles down your spine, Doc. Killdrums, well, kills the drums! I mean, rather than buying HoMK and Gutter, better off buy this album, it has most of the good songs of both + extras from earlier albums, but they sound so much different, they have everything that the studio versions lacked, and that is an agressive as hell distortion. It`s interesting the way they mixed the album, in most cases it sounds like it`s all from the same venue, but actually it`s spanned on 7 different venues and 3 years ('87, '88 and '90, no recording from '89). the best example here would be the guitar solo before Hall Of The Mountain King, recorded in 87, but the very song was done in 1990, but you can`t even tell the difference. the last song, recorded at a sound check, is defenetly the gem of the album, it`s a nice little acoustic solo that shines in melody.
and for the guy that wrote the previous review, there was a Criss Oliva Tribute Concert in 1993, but that`s unrelated.
Fucking perfect!!! That's what this album is! This album was created as a tribute to Criss Oliva, brother to singer Jon Oliva, and past guitarist of Savatage! Criss was killed in a car accident on October 17th, 1993. Now I have heard two stories about this album. One is that it is just a bunch of tracks with Criss playing guitar live, thrown toghether for him. I also read some where that it is a live concert titled Criss Oliva Memorial Concert, which was thrown on for him as a tribute. It took place on Saturday November 20th 1993, and a bunch of other bands played as well. Which story is the true one, I don't know for sure. I would have to go with the first one, since there is a solo from him, but it could have been a throw in track. Now let me talk about this album! Everything about this album is kick ass! Not only is it a live album, it works as a pretty good compilation album, hitting classics from all there albums with Criss playing guitar. The singing of Jon and piano is just kick ass, riffs are amazing, and the solo buy Criss is kick ass! It is truly a tragedy that such a young (30 years old) talented man should die. So it is a great compilation, great live album (everything is palyed to perfection, great production), and it is a great tribute to Criss. I recommend this to any Savatage fan, to all metalheads, and people who want to get into Savatage!