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)

July 13, 2012

Savatage ~ Gutter Ballet

(Click on heading to visit official website.)
Style: prog-rock, heavy metal
Label: Atlantic
Year: 1989
Home: Florida (disbanded)

Members: Jon Oliva ~ vocals/piano
Criss Oliva ~ guitars
Steve Wacholz ~ drums
Johnny Lee Middleton ~ bass

Additional: Bob Kinkel ~ keyboards

Gutter Ballet is often touted as the moment Savatage went from a heavy metal band to a prog-rock band with epic inclinations. But, this isn't really true. With a good listen of their earlier albums one can hear the pieces were being laid down since day one. Founder Jon Oliva always wanted something that was more than ordinary metal band. But, one has to get out the door, build a reputation, move from a small recording budget to a large one, develop out a sound. It's a process. Also, Paul O'Neill was introduced as producer who dovetailed Oliva's weaknesses, while able to stand back from the music. But, the real difference here is that Oliva was driven. The previous album Fight For The Rock, often called the lowest point of Savatage's output, was a collection of songs Oliva had written for others & was forced to record by the label. Oliva now was feeling desperate & was ripe for a spark of inspiration. That inspiration came through watching the Broadway show Phantom Of The Opera. Oliva could now present an example of the feeling he wanted to achieve to his guitar playing brother, Criss, & O'Neill. It makes all the difference, as before Savatage might have sounded like a take on Meat Loaf meets Randy Rhoads, the band now introduced complicated arrangements & epics. The instrumental classical interpretations are still in the mix (i.e. "Temptation Revelation"), having been introduced in the earlier release Hall Of The Mountain King, not yet a cliched & worn out feature as they would become with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. While Oliva still churns out dark lyrics, but now he pushes his vocals to the max in every direction. Criss Oliva still churns out metal riffs that deserve more credit than he's given, but the range is more than ever including an acoustic instrumental (i.e. "Silk & Steel") & not always being the top most instrument in the mix. Gutter Ballet is a band wanting to make a statement. Such songs as the title track & the under-rated "Hounds" & "When The Crowds Are Gone" are indeed statements. There's even an inclusion of a story stretched over the final three songs (i.e. "The Unholy", "Summer's Rain", "Thorazine Shuffle"). But, Gutter Ballet not the grand statement it sets out to be. It's certainly a highlight of the Criss Oliva era, not that Savatage ever really did anything embarressing or cliched, but it's only the beginning. There are a few weak tracks that sound like they were composed in pre-Phantom writing sessions & give the album a bit of a bumpy ride as it sounds like two bands, one with a piano as its foremost instrument a la Queen (i.e. "Gutter Ballet", "Temptation Revelation", "When The Crowds Are Gone") & one with typical driven guitar riffs (i.e. "Of Rage & War", "Silk & Steel", "She's In Love", "Hounds"). Oliva pushes his vocals into the direction that would stay with him but sometimes he reaches the peak of his range to a painful listen (i.e. "When The Crowds Are Gone", "Of Rage & War"). The final three song suite, from now on Savatage would make a point of doing concept albums, is not a strong suite as the songs sound too much alike & fall into the riffing style that Savatage would move away from on some level. While in the download era one is not likely to be able to tell just from the lyrics that the songs go together. But, Savatage was giving it their all & more & on that's what's required to eventually find the comfort zone. Later albums such as Streets: A Rock Opera & the Al Pitrelli era of albums would smooth out the hurdles & ironically retire the band in the process as it morphed into the very different Trans-Siberian Orchestra. On later tours the title track would be turned into a vocal duet between Oliva & baritone Zak Stevens & later tenor Damond Jiniya. The change is minor but it completely turns the song into a monster & shows what might have been if the band had pursued such vocals on later albums. It's also the video I share with anyone when they ask why I like heavy metal - it has everything. It's strange that not even Trans-Siberian Orchestra has pursued the duel vocal approach given its array of strong singers, perhaps they will as they are currently re-recording Gutter Ballet.

(featured on The World Of Trans-Siberian Orchestra podcast: episode 91 "Gutter Ballet", July 2012, click here to listen)

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