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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.