Savatage – Hall of the Mountain King
1987, Atlantic Records
Being a grown up pretty much sucks. I loathe dragging myself out of bed at 6AM, rushing to work, often for a long, gruelling shift, to come home knackered, in a ratty mood, worrying about the bills, the endless piles of paperwork, the ironing, and all that other rubbish that I took for granted when I was younger. One thing about being an adult, however, is excellent: the ability to not care in the slightest what anyone thinks of you.
I wasn’t always the coolly confident, self-assured woman (those of you who know me well may take this opportunity to laugh) that I am today. As a kid, I was plagued by insecurities, and driven by a constant desire to be…. unique, I suppose. With my obvious interest in heavy metal, I had acquired a bit of street-cred, and by fourteen, I was hanging out with all the coolest musicians in town, most of whom were much older – adults, really. I drank in all they had to offer – bootlegged Y&T videos in a haze of smoke, Blue Oyster Cult cassette tapes, impromptu acoustic renditions of Megadeth and Metallica, and just talking about music – something I still (clearly) love to do.
I distinctly remember the first time someone asked me if I liked Savatage. I stuck my little chin out, defiantly, and shrugged – they’re okay. I had after all, heard one song by them (Edge of Thorns), and therefore considered myself perfectly entitled to an opinion. It was a close call though, and in case the discussion ever progressed beyond that, and I was found out for a fraud, I decided to do a bit more research.
The first full length Savatage album I ever heard was a dodgy, copied tape of Gutter Ballet. I really could write an essay, nay a book, on this album, but sadly, it does not make the cut for my USPM list. Suffice it to say, though, that I had fallen deeply in love. I managed to procure copies of Sirens, Streets, and the awful Fight for the Rock. And then, Hall of the Mountain King.
Now I know that everyone bangs on about the title track, yes – it is amazing. And yes, the arrangement of Grieg’s In the Hall of the Mountain King leading into it is amazing. And yes, the Spinal Tap-worthy video with the little people and the treasure is amazing. But, let’s talk about the rest of the album.
From the get go, this is pure darkness. A loyal and creative rhythm section provide a suitable backdrop for the star of the show: Criss Oliva. His handiwork on this album is truly effortless. Every solo, every little lick seems considered, and meticulously constructed. Side A finishes on a beautiful cliffhanger, Strange Wings, a song I wish was written about me, because I identified with it so instantly.
Jon Oliva certainly reaches his vocal zenith on this album, which is masterfully produced by Paul O’Neill – the man who would lead them far, far away from their heavy roots. It stands, musically, on the edge of a precipice: its desolate undertone and choppy riffs contrast starkly with the direction the band would take with their next release, the far more theatrical Gutter Ballet, which was undoubtedly their point of no return. Jon’s voice not only carries the melodies flawlessly, but has a real bite, a grit to it, creating an aurally pleasant paradox. His frenetic shrieks and cries punctuate almost every song, and by doing so lend an additional, frantic element to the tone of this record.
To write about Criss Oliva is difficult for me, so I won’t. I don’t know why it is – I never knew him, in fact, by the time I had heard any Savatage at all, he’d been long dead. And yet, the one minute instrumental track, Last Dawn, can fill my eyes with tears, or tighten my chest. I’m not religious, and I don’t believe in God. I do believe, though, that you can feel soul in music. And I’m sure that is my tie to this band.