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Time capsule candidate - 94%

gasmask_colostomy, September 13th, 2017

If you don't know who Edvard Grieg is, then quite frankly after listening to this album, you're probably still not going to know because you'll be circling back round to play '24 Hrs. Ago' again. The Norwegian composer, for whose piece the album is named, might have got a bit of free publicity back in '87 (although it's a shame he had been dead for 80 years), but nothing is going to take away from one of the finest hours of US heavy metal. The inimitable style of Savatage is stamped all over the 10 cuts from this release, happily sounding like few others back in the day and still having barely any competition in the same realm. You can pretend all you like that this sounds like Metal Church or Helstar or Virgin Steele, yet there's no band who ever managed quite such a provocative strut as this Floridian four-piece, nor another group who have ever managed to make mid-piece feel totally frantic.

I've already poured jizz all over my review for Sirens, so I'll try to stick to the facts. Criss Oliva, who had already turned in some intoxicating riffs earlier in the band's career, here proves that his touch for memorable, exciting, and unique solos far outclasses almost every other guitarist of the time, a fact made all the more obvious by opening his inventory 16 seconds into the opener and bringing that song to godlike levels of drama and resonance. The riffs remain the trademark lurch, brooding wonderfully in low, sexy fashion, while also ensuring that the listener has hooks to hang onto. The rhythm players don't have so much time in the spotlight, but the maintenance of that impulsive groove is their real triumph, supporting the two lead men in terrific style. The other of those lead men is Jon Oliva, who doesn't do anything quite as insanely brilliant as his shrieks on 'Sirens', though sings in a high register with more than a hint of visceral energy on 'Beyond the Doors of the Dark' and the title track, a performance made increasingly vibrant by the frequent use of vocal double-tracking.

The reason why Beyond the Hall of the Mountain King is such a great album is because - aside from Criss Oliva - none of the members are technically brilliant yet don't let that hold them back from ripping into most of the songs like their lives depend on it. There's very little wasted time in the likes of 'White Witch' and 'The Price You Pay', while even the longer songs don't seem to have a dispensable moment. The balance is mildly upset by 'Strange Wings', which is more power ballad than power metal (though the guitar tone is still pretty ballsy), allowing the energy and drive of the other songs to fall just as 'Legions' was beginning to let the foot off the gas. That means that the middle part of the album, including the introduction to 'Prelude to Madness' represents the greatest period of downtime; however, with a 40 minute runtime, that spot does prove the most vulnerable even if 'Prelude to Madness' climaxes in a second half that is an astounding neo-classical redo of Grieg's original theme. The close of the album is likewise a tad off the boil, 'Devastation' sounding for the first time like someone else (it's Iron Maiden) and the brief 'Last Dawn' feeling a rather unnecessary addition.

Now comes a brief moment of self-gratification where I say how wonderful everything else is, so if you are wary of graphic content look away now. There are three absolutely monolithic riffs in this album, the earthquaking opening of '24 Hrs. Ago', the barnstorming verse of 'Beyond the Doors of the Dark', and the simply unforgettable hook to the title track. It doesn't matter that Savatage repeat the shit out of the latter because you will never get tired of hearing it and I would suggest you give it about 20 listens before writing to me in agreement. The way that the Oliva brothers take it in turns to amaze is very useful too, vocals getting the upper hand on the slower 'The Price You Pay' and 'Legions', while 'Beyond the Doors of the Dark' and 'Prelude to Madness' are dominated by guitars. The real genius, of course, is when they both go at it hammer and tong, which is when they pull out the electric songs that make this an essential release. Honestly, the excellence of the two openers and the 'Hall of the Mountain King' sequence make everything else look a bit naff by comparison, regardless of the fact that it isn't the case.

If you've never heard Savatage before, I would advise you to listen to the first minute of this album to see if you'd be interested (you would), though I reckon that Sirens slightly gets first place by virtue of better consistency and album structuring. However, there are several songs here that show the absolute best of what the US had to offer in the '80s (yes, including all those bands) and would probably make it into the time capsule thing that we're supposed to send aliens to tell them about our culture. The aliens might be worried but, whatever, we'll teach them how to headbang at the very least.