Welcome to the musical meandering insights of Aaron Joy. Here you'll find 600 reviews of CDs & DVDs of rock & metal in all its variations, mainstream & indie. What they all share is that the album or band is unique in some way & not every submission was reviewed. Please share these reviews or link to them if you like what you read. Reviews are no longer being posted here but feel free to e-mail Aaron & post comments. (Formerly the Roman Midnight Music Blog) (last update 5/23/2017)

June 12, 2012

DVD: Savatage ~ Live Japan '94 (aka Live In Japan)

(Click on heading to visit official website.)
Style: prog-rock, heavy metal
Label: SPV
Year: 1994
Home: Florida/New York (disbanded)

Concert location: Club Citta Kawasaki, Tokyo, Japan
Year Recorded: November 1994
Length: 95 minutes
Bonus Features: none

Members: Jon Oliva ~ lead vocals/piano/rhythm guitar
Zak Stevens ~ lead vocals
Alex Skolnick ~ guitar
Johnny Lee Middleton ~ bass
Jeff Plate ~ drums

Kicking off with the fierce "Taunting Cobras" followed by "Edge Of Thorns", from the albums Handful Of Rain & Edge Of Thorns respectively ... with those two songs one should not anymore wonder why Savatage is my favorite band. These two songs pretty much set out everything that is great about Savatage at this point in their career: non-typical lyrics that you can sing-along with, neo-classical prog-metal arrangements with not a whiff of hairspray pretentiousness, great guitar playing & strong singing that isn't the usual 80's screaming & an array of studio albums churning out cult hit after cult hit. At this point in their career Savatage had tragically lost their founding guitarist Criss Oliva in a car accident, his heart-broken brother Jon had handed over the reigns of the band to producer Paul O'Neil who turned it into a progressive rock opera beast, while all other original members had moved on to be replaced with very different rockers including a singer with the voice of Thor & a famed thrash guitarist. This concert finds the band on the last night of touring Handful Of Rain that features Savatage in their second or third era depending on how one wants to count transitions. Fronting the ensemble is still rookie singer Zak Stevens, who'd later form Circle II Circle. He sings with amazing vocal chops that are deep & powerful, yet nuanced, without following into any of the rock cliches of growls or screams. Original drummer Steve Wacholz was on the album but replaced before the tour by Jeff Plate. The rhythm section is rounded out by second bassist Johnny Lee Middleton. Both of these guys would follow Savatage's morph into the less venomous but more profitable Trans-Siberian Orchestra ... the metal band for grandparents & kids alike. On the album Oliva only contributes some keyboards & is the omni-present co-songwriter, having left in a alcoholic stupor & working on his Romanov opera & Doctor Butcher with former Savatage rhythm guitarist Chris Caffery. Oliva is not even given a photo in the linear notes & with him gone its hard to call this Savatage anymore as there's few obvious similiarities with the group that turned out the proto-black metal treasures Sirens & The Dungeons Are Calling. Though, really, what the band became, as can be seen on this tour in some of the classically-tinged piano interludes, with Paul O'Neill writing & producing is the vision Oliva had in the beginning but was unable to reach on his own ... it's just ashame that it had to happen through tragedy. Oliva returned for this tour, even singing lead vocals with Stevens after a 2 years absence from the role. Replacing the late Criss Oliva for the album & tour was top-notch thrash guitarist Alex Skolnick who'd recently left Testament. After this tour he'd move on, replaced by Al Pitrelli, though would return for Trans-Siberian Orchestra where his second hat as a jazz guitarist had a better fit. Here Skolnick is playing both his creations & those of Criss Oliva, but gives all of them his own touch. Criss was very much in the mold of Randy Rhoads with a bit too much energy, while Skolnick is more of a prog-metal guy & the distinction is obvious. But, Skolnick is nothing but a worthy successor & there is no disappointment. Because his time with Savatage was so brief Handful Of Rain sometimes gets lost in the shuffle between the multi-year terms of Oliva & Pitrelli. But, this might be their last in your face album & certainly their most progressive before going full on classical & commercial with the follow-up Dead Winter Dead. All but three songs from the album (i.e. "Visions", "Symmetry" & "Alone You Breathe") appear on this concert making this a great introduction to the brief Skolnick days that should be anything but the footnote it has become. One can only wonder what would have happened if he'd stayed & been given the chance to create an album with a more active Oliva plus Chris Caffery on rhythm. This video is the first official video release by Savatage ... it would also prove to be their only video release, ironically featuring a band that was essentially in line-up flux, & it is by the grace of bootleggers that the rest of Savatage's days have been preserved. It's ashame that this is their only official video as it's an outstanding performance. Though, honestly, this is not the most visually exciting band preferring the stand & sing approach over the go crazy & scream tactic. But, then, it's no different than Megadeth, Metallica or any thrash band, all who Savatage had opened for many times. L.A. hair metal gave standing still a bad name. But, one doesn't need physical distractions as the music is heavy, the band tight & the arrangements sounding amazing transferred to the stage, which isn't always the case. The only bad part is that Oliva, grown quite heavy, wanders the edge of the stage playing piano with but bad fingering & playing rhythm guitar on an upside down right handed guitar. He's a shadow of the man that was given the name the Mountain King & once strutted the stage like Meat Loaf meets Ozzy. But, Oliva only returned because Atlantic Records wouldn't support his new project Doctor Butcher & Savatage at the same time. As he's said repeatedly, with the death of his brother came the death of Savatage in anything but name only so there is a sense that he is a sideman in his own band. But, he gets a moment to shine with "Gutter Ballet" now turned into a duet, which would remain that way for ensuing tours featuring Damond Jinya taking over the lead role. The new arrangement far exceeds Oliva's sole vocals on the original & makes one wonder what if it had been like if more duets had been proposed. It's surprising that the band has never seen the magic in this set-up even through Trans-Siberian Orchestra where the array of great, if not as distinctive as Oliva, vocalists make this even more potentially powerful. No bonus features as it this released only on VHS, with the label sold before a re-released on DVD could happen. It would take a decade to be available on DVD & then as a bonus disc on the greatest hits compilation Still The Orchestra Plays: Greatest Hits Vol. 1 & 2

Tracks include: Taunting Cobras
Edge Of Thorns
Conversation Piece
Nothing Going On
He Carves His Stone
Jesus Saves
Watching You Fall
Castles Burning
All That I Bleed
Stare Into The Sun
Handful Of Rain
Gutter Ballet
Hall Of The Mountain King

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