Monday, August 24, 2015

Wacken pt. III: in which the author prefers thorns to roses.

The spectacle of Matt Sinner’s Rock meets Classical project seems a natural segue into the next chapter of our memoir, the incredibly bittersweet spectacle of Savatage.
      Possibly no band on the planet have had a stranger career trajectory than Savatage. These days, the name is not much more than a foot-note or prelude in the history of the great Trans Siberian Orchestra (TSO, not to be confused with the Toronto Symphony Orchestra).

            The TSO is in many respects a truly successful Rock/Classical hybrid: both elements are indispensable to the whole, and after a while the barriers between the two melt away and leave a kind of mish-mash of old and new. It’s admirable in many ways, and hugely commercially successful; the TSO sell out stadiums on both sides of the Atlantic. My take on them? It’s pretty. It’s nice. It gives one a nice warm, tingly feeling at Christmas time. But I don’t think it achieves true greatness of either realm, of either a great opera or a great Rock album. Such as the original Savatage records. Which brings me back to them. . .

            A large proportion of TSO fans don’t know who Savatage were. Others may vaguely be aware, having read somewhere, the brains behind the TSO first met in a band called Savatage. Others still may remember Savatage as the skeletal blue-print of what would become the TSO, a kind of musical Petri-dish. And then, there’s the tiny-tiny number of us who really miss the Savatage of old.

            When Savatage burst on the scene in ’83, they were about as heavy a Metal band as you could find in those days. They had a razor sharp guitar sound, courtesy of Chris Oliva, Demonic vocals from brother John, and a cold, echoey production that just sent chills down our headbanging spines. In that regard, the first three Savatage records are masterpieces: Sirens, Dungeons are Calling, and Power of Night. They’re hard, heavy and fast, cold as ice, hard as iron, tough as nails, whatever simile you like; Savatage were the last band you’d expect to one day evolve into a pseudo-classical collective. Tell anyone back in ’84 that the band that just released Dungeons are Calling would one day best be known for their piano balladry, and popular among upper-middle class retirees, they’d think you insane. And yet. . . there it is.

            Fight for the Rock was a misguided attempt at commercial breakthrough: old and new fans agree it doesn’t count (though hang onto that thought). Hall of the Mountain King was a triumphant return to form, and then. . .things got weird.      

            Gutter Ballet had bits of the old Savatage on it – but also traces of a new, mellower, gentler Savatage, more in line with Andrew Lloyd Webber than Ronnie James Dio. As a huge fan of musical theatre myself, I personally could not condemn the attempt, but could not bring myself to love these records either. My trouble with almost everything Savatage have done since Gutter Ballet is that it all pretty much sounds like “Gutter Ballet”. Long, meandering, piano-ey ballady preludes that always seem to be building up to something and not really amounting to anything. Too often I find myself wondering where it’s all going, what’s it all in aid of, where’s the meat-and-potatoes pay-off. I’m not a punk: I don’t believe that songs need to confine themselves to three chords in three minutes. But I do believe that build-up needs to justify itself in payoff, that disparate elements need to amount to something, and journeys have to go somewhere. Rush, Wintersun, Luca Turilli and Ritchie Blackmore have, to my mind, all pulled it off; I just don’t feel it with Savatage, though it be their raison d’etre as a band. And while I’ve marvelled time and again at the vocal acrobatics of “Wake of the Magellan”, I can hardly bring myself to sit through the album as a whole.

            This all came to mind as both projects took the stage at Wacken: a short set by the band Savatage heavily heavily favouring its latter period, morphing into what most folk consider the real point of the story: the Trans Siberian Orchestra. And there’s me in the crowd, admiring the undeniable artistry and talent of all involved, but not enough to erase the longing for the Sirens of old. 

            The Dungeons still call.

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