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I must have soaked through at least a half dozen t-shirts in anticipation once the news arrived that Zak Stevens had left the Savatage camp, and that Jon Oliva would be fronting yet another of their studio albums. With the continued success of Trans-Siberian Orchestra, and the general lack of interest in the original band, I had no hopes of ever even hearing from them beyond The Wake of Magellan. Though they weren't officially 'disbanded', I suppose, Oliva has repeated down through the decade that the financial benefits and massive organizational undertaking that is TSO more or less precludes productivity from this old goat, but at least back in 2001 they were gunnin' to give it another try...
Well, Poets and Madmen is what we ended up with, and despite a few gleams of curiosity nestled beneath its solid surface, this isn't much more to write home about than Dead Winter Dead or its direct predecessor. The production is upgraded to a 21st century polish, and it's always great to hear Jon Oliva's maddening and monstrous inflection return to the metal sphere, but this serves as little more than a setup for his later albums through Jon Oliva's Pain, which has become the spiritual successor to Savatage in all things non-TSO. Chris Caffery's rhythm guitars on this are bludgeoning, rich and modern, but most of the actual riff structures are pretty weak and uninspired, suitable only as a bed for the orchestration and vocals. Poets and Madmen is not a full 180 back towards the epic metal of Hall of the Mountain King, because it still incorporates a lot of progressive metal elements, like the synthesizers slicing through "There in the Silence" or the sheer breadth of the vocal arrangements, which are comparable to Dead Winter Dead or TSO. Unfortunately, despite the array of weaponry being brought to the table, it falls incredibly flat.
I think ultimately it comes down to the guitars here. Where they once soared with eagles in the 80s, here they feel nearly as pasteurized and uninteresting as Edge of Thorns. The leads, many of which are performed by Caffery himself (Al Pitrelli had largely departed for Megadeth at this point), seem too tidy, lacking that wild animal magnitude Criss would explode into during the first decade of the band. Few of these songs are very exciting, they all just sort of fill out their skeletal framework with the minimal amount of enthusiasm. While it's cool to hear Jon again, his vocals naturally do not have that precise level of volatility that once made them such a distinct and beautiful component to the Savatage sound. I almost felt like the ballads on this record, like "Back to a Reason", provided its best moments, if only because the heavier material is so disturbingly mediocre. It's not an awful attempt to bridge the years between 1993 and 2001, but I feel like musically its just as quickly forgotten as half the albums that Zak Stevens fronted, and certainly it lacks the grandiose ambition of The Wake of Magellan, which was about all that album had going for it.
Even the concept here isn't so compelling, a fiction vaguely built up around a South African photojournalist named Kevin Carter. From the cover, I was hoping it would be about Poe...but Savatage had outsmarted me once again. Too bad they couldn't outsmart the songwriting process for this. Four years, and not much to show for it other than more musical chairs. If this was to be the 'new Savatage', then I'd say stick to the Christmas carols, stockings and candy canes.
This is pretty depressing stuff. The content on this and the dominating overarching feeling you get of which band actually composed it while listening to it. Now Savatage weren't always the most consistent of bands. With the exception of a few very, very noteworthy albums - particularly my choice of the bunch, Edge of Thorns - the band's output has always been a hit and miss. That's not detracting from the sheer brilliance of some of their work, though. Gutter Ballet had that rather snooze-worthy second half, but the first half more than made up for it with the kind of resolve and songwriting credo that seemed almost poised to break and tear apart any effort at constraining pure artistic merit.
The bands always had a bit of a problem with harnessing that capacity for artistic brilliance and channeling it over a work of any significant length, and with the death of Criss, it lost the hand that actually brought that kind of sanity to the ever unfocused ramblings of his elder brother. The tragedy of the death, though, can simply not be stated enough. Criss was and always will be one of the most incredible shredders of the '80s, with the kind of fluidity that pretty much eludes more prevalent forms and more famous shredders of his day and today. Suffice to say, every guitarist today really needs to listen to Criss Oliva for his tone and the absolute finesse in his execution. But more to the point of the matter at hand, it seems Savatage itself were utterly destroyed with his passing.
There was, of course, a work of rather redeeming nature in Handful of Rain, just nowhere as brilliant and more geared towards being peaceful. Settled. With an odd sense of melancholy floating above. That pretty much typifies all of Savatage's later work. While this may obviously please those who are looking for just that, it occurs to me that where Savatage once had this capacity for doing the most incredibly emotive things, they now simply strain towards it. Gutter Ballet was symphonic enough in its extent without irreverently abusing the keyboard as an instrument, but almost every latter day album falls guilty of it.
This album, too, is pretty much cut of the same cloth, it's just that it has a lot more volume to drown out the rather obvious similarities. And sadly, it falls in the same range. Perhaps less even. There's a point where all the meandering staccato riffing really gets intolerable and the lines blur between every song. This work is spirited enough, for you have to be inspired to be churning out concept albums and songs which only literally have layers to them. But much like the work of Daniel Glidenglow in latter day Pain of Salvation, this just has its head too far up its own ass to have any objective sense of merit.
The sad part is that the potential is very much there. The opener isn't by any means incredible, but it is lively, which seems to be something Savatage have forgotten in their overwhelming gloom. And oh, you can be lively with a sense of gloom. It follows through with something that's sort of memorable as well, if only for that chorus. And then once again the lines begin to blur. Morphine Child is almost intolerable in its tortuous, grinding length. But still, the potential is very much there. Check out The Man In The Mirror...the tension at the beginning, the way it's built with Jon Oliva's ever-ascending manic vocals, for once in the right place, but it all falls apart when they come back to where they began; the tension is lost, and although the heavier parts tacked onto the end are fairly redeeming, on the whole there really could have been a lot more to it.
I guess the only explanation I can offer besides the ones stated already seems to be that the name Savatage itself conjures too much of a sense of responsibility in Jon. There's a need to be artistic, elongated, antique - and it doesn't seem to fit together really well because it all feels forced. Now I haven't heard much of Jon Oliva's Pain, but what I have heard, I can appraise as pretty well, or at least better than this. Jon would be a lot better off working unencumbered by the tag Savatage bears, and the only demise here really is the demise of the title. While this does hold a sentimental attachment for many, Jon Oliva's Pain, for all intents and purposes and besides the absolutely asinine name, is frankly the same thing. Get over it.
Alright, I'm a huge Savatage fan, particularly of the later stuff from Gutter Ballet to Wake of Magellan. Poets and Madmen is a bit different from the albums which proceeded, though it is similar at the same time.
The first thing to notice about this release is that for the first time since 1993's Edge of Thorns, Jon Oliva is back on lead vocals for the duration of the album. I personally have always preferred Zak Stevens to Jon, so this takes a few points off right from the start, especially because I feel the album loses a lot for his absence. If this album had been a true return to form of mid 80s Savatage, Jon would sound very at place on it, but the music leaves me really wanting to hear Zak's voice as it's more reminscent of the 90s stuff.
Another thing I feel this album loses points for is the Jekyl and Hyde quality of the writing. The songs can't decide on what mood they are. There's very many melodic interludes more reminiscent of Zak's Savatage... piano and softer more melodic vocals, but at the same time, they randomly burst into more agressive riffs and angrier rougher vocals. For some of the songs it increases the mood but for others it nearly ruins it.
All things aside, I do like several songs on this album quite a bit. I feel like The Morphine Child and Back to a Reason are two amazing tracks, and for the most part, most of the rest have very good parts to them. I just feel like this album was not really taken to it's fullest potential. As if the band were rushed when making it. I feel this is especially bothering when it comes to the story, which I think is weaker than all the rest of theirs. It has good parts, but really isn't the same caliber of Wake or DWD, let alone the godly Streets. The other thing that bothers me is that this album comes off has a half-assed return to form. I personally feel that the band didn't need a return to form to begin with, but it bugs me that this album couldn't go the full nine and just leaves me wanting the full blown rock opera that they're come to specialize in through time.
As I said, this is still worthy of picking up, especially for the die-hard Savatage fan. It's got a few gems on it, but if you're new to the band try any of the albums from Gutter Ballet to Wake of Magellan before this.
Perhaps it was a response to the critics who said that Savatage, with "The Wake of Magellan", had turned into a slightly heavier version of the Trans Siberian Orchestra, or maybe because of the change in the band's lineup. Either way, "Poets and Madmen" shows a much heavier side of Savatage that hadn't been seen in a long time, possibly never before in the band's career. The fact that guitarist Chris Caffery is credited with helping to write most of the songs certainly is part of the reason. The songs are much more riff-driven than any of the previous albums; I actually found myself headbanging to several sections on the album.
Vocalist Zak Stevens left during the recording of this album, forcing Jon Oliva to sing all the lead vocals for the first time since "Streets," ten years ago. The band had to restructure some songs to fit his vocal style and as a result some songs, such as the title track, had to be left off (one of said songs, "Nonsensical Ravings of a Lunetic Mind," made it onto Oliva's solo album "Tage Mahal"). Oliva's singing is much more growlier than his previous work on "Streets" and the albums before that, but anyone who has listened to Doctor Butcher or the preceding two albums have an idea of what to expect. Even though Oliva's voice was always one of those love 'em or hate 'em types, his work here is surprisingly good, both his clean singing and his growlier yelling.
Al Pitrelli also left to join Megadeth; I guess Dave Mustaine was finally able to get back at Jon Oliva for kicking his ass years ago when the bands toured together. Some of his leads appear on this album while Caffery plays the rest. This isn't so bad as Caffery played several solos on the previous two albums as well.
Like three out of the past five Savatage albums before this, "Poets and Madmen" is a concept album. But unlike the previous concept albums, this was meant to be a straightforward album with no common theme, but two weeks before the album was due to the record company, lyricist and producer Paul O'Neill came up with a story to bind the album together, and of course the whole thing is an incoherent mess, despite a whole story explaining everything in the liner notes. Thankfully it does not interfere with the enjoyment of the album, so it really cannot be held against the album, as each of the songs are enjoyable on their own, and don't need to be listened to together with the rest of the album to be pleasurable.
It's nice to see a band that had been around for about 20 years refusing to write the same basic album over and over again. Check out that eerie synth intro to "There in the Silence" as well as that cool riff section in the middle. "Commissar" starts out with heavy riffs and squealing guitar before giving way to a fast section where Jon Oliva spits out the lyrics; just try and not get fired up. The song is capped off by a sweet solo section at the end. Then there is the ten-minute long epic "Morphine Child." Thankfully it isn't the disjointed mess some thought it would be. In fact, most of it is downright amazing. After a great solo section, the counterpoint vocals that Savatage has been doing since "Chance" make an appearance. With the absence of Zak Stevens, the band, as well as engineer Bob Kinkle and former Royal Hunt and Artension vocalist John West form a choir to sing each of the vocal lines and it works really well. There's a little too much on the end of the song, making it seem like they purposely prolonged it so that they can boast to having a ten-minute long song, and that part where Oliva sings in a sing-songy voice "I am the wizard-oz!" is somewhat cringe-inducing, but overall this song is a resounding success.
"Drive," despite its outstanding solo, doesn't work but is easily skipped. "Back to Reason" has a really cool middle part, but that is sandwiched between what sounds like a really bad Beatles ballad. "Awaken," although not terrible, is another throwaway. "Surrender" is a fantastic 5:00 song, but after that it goes into this cheesy "See the show" crap and hurts the song as a whole.
But besides a few minor flaws, Savatage once again deliver. The greater focus on riffs keeps this album from sounding like "Dead Winter Dead II," but there is still plenty of melody to go around. Some interesting song structures and other new ideas keep the band sounding fresh even after all this time. Don't overlook this album just because it isn't mentioned with "Edge of Thorns" and "Streets." The members may be getting older, but Savatage still can surprise everyone, and rock hard while doing so.
It's weird how Savatage went from being one of the best second-tier bands around (other illustrious of this category being Trouble, Accept, Helloween, etc.) to being metal's answer to the Andrew Lloyd Webber catalog. For the last few albums, they've really pushed the "opera" in "rock opera", pulling back on the guitars a bit to add in more piano and classical-pops stuff, and so my interest waned. It had already waned pretty badly when Jon Oliva gave up to the vocal spot to the competent-but-unspectacular Zachary Stevens, so even though the critics rushed to fellate the new stuff, I rarely pulled anything after Mountain King out of the rack. Poets and Madmen features the full-fledged return of Jon Oliva to vocals (yay...for now), but continues the love affair with the poncey sound and is thus a bit of a mixed bag. Sometimes the new Sav sound gels really well, as on the distinctly "Gutter Ballet"-ish "Morphine Child" and the driving "There in the Silence"...but sometimes it doesn't, as on "Commissar", which sounds like a bad Andy Kaufman routine, or the starry-eyed hippie-dip of "The Rumor (Jesus)", the title of which should answer your questions about whether or not this band has much of the ol' gothic doom left in them. The sound itself is fine, solidly crisp production with emphasis in all the right places, and the songwriting shimmers with professionalism, but I'm just not getting excited about this. It's probably a great buy for people who want to explore classical music, but can't handle Yngwie or Emperor. For folks like me, who would rather hear the noisiest Wagner opus than sit through fifteen hellish minutes of Cats, Poets and Madmen is just unnecessary and unnerving. Ironic, too, as my cat went fuckin' nuts whenever I played this and bolted out of the room. Maybe if the whole album thing doesn't work out, Savatage can get a gig with a carnival, making housepets sick or something...
the result can be a work that can have an everlasting effect on one's perception of greatness. This happened to me the first time I heard Black Sabbath's Heaven and Hell when I was a young boy. My immediate response was that I would never listen to music the same way again. I was overwhelmed by the contrast of beauty and aggression of the music and the various emotions it evoked. I knew that not just any music could accomplish such splendor.
However, I also realized that this would not happen with every metal album I would listen to. But, there were many that made me realize the greatness of metal. This is one of those albums. The difference is that this one did not hit me immediately like the others. As a matter of fact, the first time I heard it, I thought it was good......thats it. But, as time went on and with each listen, I realized the brilliance of this work. Now understand that Savatage are one of my fav bands of all time so the greatness of this album was not a shock. It was afterall the return of the Mountain King, Jon Oliva. Jon's voice is not what it used to be but it shines on this album. But, the key factor of this album's greatness is the songwriting. This is some of Jon and Paul O'Neill's best work.
It starts with "Stay With Me Awhile", a song that combines a loud chorus with a beautiful silent piano melody. It hits you like a brick and then immediately soothes you. This is followed by "There In The Silence" which has a heavy Iommish type riff and contains a great solo. The next three songs "Commisar", "I Seek Power", and "Drive" are a return to the old Sava sound circa Gutter Ballet and Streets. A sound that was quite forgotten a bit during the Zach era (which I also love).
Then comes the centerpiece of the album and one of the greatest songs of all time, in my opinion, "Morphine Child". Its bombastic and beautiful at the same time. The lyrics are some of the best they have ever written. The song just makes you bang your head and raise the horns and appreciate the form of art that is metal.
The rest of the album keeps up the level of greatness with some wonderfully written songs such as "Awaken" , "Man in the Mirror" and the soulful closer "Back to a Reason". Upon repeated listens, I realize that there are no weak moments on this album. As a matter of fact, there is a continuity of excellence that all blends into one wonderful piece of art that should be experienced by all metalheads.