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Reassessing Savatage pt. 1 - Kill the unicorn - 87%

Empyreal, October 11th, 2021
Written based on this version: 1989, CD, Atlantic Records (US)

I think Savatage was maybe a little too idiosyncratic for me only a few years into metal. I’ve decided to re-do a few of my old reviews and reappraise stuff I somewhat wrongly criticized back then. Gutter Ballet was the first real curveball of their career – I wasn’t around back then, but it is something to imagine the reaction to this from the band that had bashed out stuff like Sirens. A real evolution.

I think what I like about this album is just the sheer audacity and uniqueness of it all. There’s not much else like it even now. It’s a chimera mix. The band’s riff-heavy pugilistic sound and Jon Oliva’s coarse vocals, but also new elements introduced, brilliant delicate symphonics and pianos. Chocolate and peanut butter type stuff. It’s like a mad scientist boldly going where nobody has gone before. The effect of this, the blending of riff-hammer tunes like “Of Rage and War” and “The Unholy” with a song like “When the Crowds are Gone” ends up schizophrenic in a good way. A sort of tour through a demented mind, that kind of effect.

Obviously none of it would work if the songs were bad. The title track, especially, is stone classic – witness that inimitable opening piano lick, the stately riff, and Oliva’s utterly unique cadence and great vocal hook. It’s an elegant song, and one that has never left my head since hearing it in high school. “When the Crowds are Gone” is a similarly gut-wrenching piece, with maybe Oliva’s most emotionally fraught vocals and some great wistful, powerful and howling musical backdrops. Criss Oliva’s guitar isn’t as heavy here as it’s balanced out with the symphonics, making for a classy, almost anachronistic sound, recalling dusty ballrooms and elegant decaying old mansions – it’s quite a different vibe and atmosphere from almost anything else. “Hounds” is a winding labyrinthine epic and establishes a monstrous presence. “Summer Rain,” too, is another excellent piece and has some great hooks and classy, sentimental pianos going on.

Ultimately this is a bit inconsistent though. The instrumentals are fine if unmemorable and “She’s in Love” has never been the band’s catchiest or most powerful moment – a good song, if sort of in one ear, out the other. The really puzzling stuff comes at the end though. Who’s idea was “Mentally Yours” anyway? The lyrics are just bizarre and the chorus is probably the worst the band ever wrote – so annoying and grating. I’ve come a long way from the conservative thinking from my youth, when I thought Oliva’s vocal contrast with the music here was such a big detriment. But this song just sucks. The guitars are OK, but even those don’t sound as powerful as they should. “Thorazine Shuffle” is a little better, but ultimately just a slightly better version of the aforementioned song – not a strong ending to this.

I’ve come to really appreciate the iconoclastic, stand-alone nature of this. It’s a band relentlessly experimenting, which I like to see. They were at the peak of their powers and used them to really go into new places, which has no doubt had an effect on the scene – bands like Kamelot and Avantasia surely took some cues from this stuff. It’s not perfect but it’s bold. I can dig that.