Jon almost gets it right
I'll make no bones about it, I was a huge Savatage fan up to the exit of Jon Oliva at the vocal helm. Their albums 'Hall of the Mountain King' and 'Gutter Ballet' shaped my metal vision at the start of the 90s. This could be why grunge left me cold and I was left to seek salvation in power, speed and prog metal. It seems Jon Oliva has left Savatage behind choosing to pursue a solo career that perhaps gives him more creative freedom without being held down by the rock opera stylings of the current Savatage. In the sleeve notes (Sleeve notes? How old am I?) Jon states he wanted to visit his influences from the Beatles to Queen and travel in musical directions he hasn't been to for some time. Has he succeeded in his mission to expand his creative prowess and written an album his influences would be proud of? Nope, he's recorded a Savatage album without the label, and not only that, it's a bloody good Savatage album without the label.
Jon had already recorded the album before 'acquiring' former Savatage vocalist Zach Steven's backing band. Apparently Jon loved the band's 'feel', so he re-recorded the album with his new buddies, but I think this was a mistake as the production isn't very powerful. The guitars are fairly quiet and weedy but to their credit they are gritty which makes them cut through the mix better. Jon's vocals are as great as ever yet the drums lack a little definition and the whole mix is like a very good demo instead of a professional recording. With a stronger production the music would be more cut throat and in your face instead of just adequate.
'The Dark' kicks off proceedings and this is typical mid-season Savatage with it's rock opera approach. It's not the strongest cut on the album but for all Jon Oliva fans the relief couldn't be stronger as fears of a visit to ballad city was certainly in my mind. The anthemic 'People say-Gimme some hell' bites at your brain as Jon lets rip with his unique vocal rasp. 'Guardian of Forever' is one heck of a number. Epic sounding in its delivery it smokes slowly before a simple melody screeches over a slow thumping beat. The song, although slow throughout, has starts, stops, piano, harmony leads and deep menacing backing vocals all woven smoothly into its structure. Unfortunately all good things must come to an end, as 'Slipping Away' is truly awful. The harmony heavy verse ruins an already crap song and the joy of listening to the first three tracks is almost shot to pieces until next track 'Walk Alone' quickly saves the day. Its simple yet subtle vocal melody and piano verse adds a haunting feel to the proceedings.
'The nonsense ravings of the lunatic mind' (Great title) and 'Father Son, Holy Ghost' are both top-notch songs, and with the grinding 'No Escape' you feel like this is a rejuvenated Jon Oliva writing from his beating metal heart. For me, this is music from Savatage's glory days sounding like 'Hall of the Mountain King' and 'Gutter Ballet' rolled into one. 'Pain', the album's zenith could have come from Jon's underrated side project 'Doctor Butcher', and the goose-bumps come out in force as he screams 'From the agony of the PAAAAIN' in the chorus.
It's not all good news however, songs such as 'All the Time' and closing ballad 'Fly Away' are just plain rubbish. Thankfully there's enough great material to warrant any Savatage fan parting with their cash. Put simply when this album is good it's superb, when it's bad it's dire, but there's at least 43 minutes of quality music on offer which is a good return in anyones book. 'Tage Mahal' is part one of a trilogy and if this album is anything to go by I can't wait for part two.