Savatage is an American heavy metal band founded by the brothers Jon and Criss Oliva in 1979 at Astro Skate in Tarpon Springs, Florida. The band was first called Avatar, and changed their name to Savatage just prior to the release of their debut album Sirens (1983).
Savatage has released eleven studio albums, two live albums, four compilations and three EPs. The band first reached substantial commercial success with their third studio album Fight for the Rock (1986), which peaked at number 158 on the Billboard 200. Their next four albums—Hall of the Mountain King (1987), Gutter Ballet (1989), Streets: A Rock Opera (1991) and Edge of Thorns (1993)—were also successful, though more critically acclaimed than Fight for the Rock. Criss Oliva died six months after the release of Edge of Thorns, on October 17, 1993. Following his death, Jon (along with producer Paul O'Neill) decided to continue Savatage in memory of his brother. The band released four more studio albums, and went through several line-up changes before going on hiatus in 2002. During the years—partly even before the hiatus—members founded various new bands such as Jon Oliva's Pain, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, Circle II Circle and Doctor Butcher. On August 2, 2014, Savatage announced that they were reuniting for Wacken Open Air in 2015; although the band has not performed any live shows since then, they are still active.
Early days (1979–1986)
Criss Oliva and his brother Jon formed their first band together, Avatar, in 1979, from the ashes of their former bands Tower and Alien respectively. In 1980, the duo met up with Steve "Doc" Wacholz and practiced in a small shack behind the Oliva home that was dubbed "The Pit" by the band. Wacholz originally tried out to be part of Jon's band, Alien, but when the first Savatage line-up was taking shape, Jon, who was originally on drum duties, was relieved of them by Wacholz. They also gave Steve a nickname that would follow him throughout his career: "Doctor Hardware Killdrums", often shortened to just "Doc" or "Doc Killdrums", which referred to Steve's hard playing style.
Criss, Jon and Steve played Tampa (where they had moved with their family in the late 1970s) and Clearwater area clubs for many years. In 1981, Keith Collins joined them to relieve Jon of bass guitar duties. In late 2006, footage was released onto the internet of an early performance by Avatar at a gig in a Clearwater, Florida parking lot and was prominent in featuring an early version of the song "Holocaust", which would later be released on Savatage's first album and a cover of Van Halen's "Eruption" and VH's version of "You Really Got Me". In 1982, Avatar took part in some heavy metal compilations, most notably "The YNF Pirate Tape", a promotion by Tampa rock radio station 95ynf for local Florida bands. Shortly after its release, "Avatar" was forced to change its name due to copyright issues. Combining the words "Savage" and "Avatar", the band decided on Savatage.
We wrote out Avatar on a big piece of poster paper... and Criss said, "Put a big S (like Kiss) in front of Avatar," and it was like, "SAVATAR." I was like, "That sounds like a really bad dinosaur," but we liked the way it looked. So then finally, out of nowhere, I don't remember who it was—it might have been Criss' wife or my wife—somebody said, "Take the R out and put a GE," and we did, and it was "SAVATAGE." I was like, "That was cool," not "SA-VA-TAGE," but "SAVATAGE," like "SAVA" for Savage and "TAGE" for mystical or whatever. From that moment on we were Savatage –Jon Oliva
Their first two albums, Sirens and The Dungeons Are Calling, were released on Par Records, an independent label. In 1985, they signed a contract with Atlantic Recording Corporation and released their third album Power of the Night. Power of the Night, which was produced by Max Norman, who would go on to produce Megadeth's 1992 album Countdown to Extinction, showcased the band's unorthodox approach to metal, which included Jon's liberal use of keyboards on songs like "Fountain of Youth" and Broadway-style song structures like the kind employed on "Warriors". It was well received by critics but fell short of sales expectations. Atlantic budgeted to provide funds to make a video for "Hard for Love", on the condition that it be retitled "Hot for Love" for broadcast purposes. The band refused to change the song and consequently a video was not released.
In 1986, after the release of their fourth album, Fight for the Rock, a failed attempt at a commercial approach imposed by the record company which the band themselves called Fight for the Nightmare, Savatage toured with Metallica, KISS and Motörhead. The band were not happy with the record, with pressure from the label to include two cover versions. Jon Oliva had been retained to write material for other artists on the Atlantic label, such as John Waite and other pop-rockers. Later, the label demanded Savatage record the material themselves. In a choice they would later regret, the band agreed. Not only did it destroy them in the press, it nearly destroyed the band and sent Jon into his early alcohol and drug problems. Oliva recently admitted however the album did have strong points, including the band's cover of Badfinger's "Day After Day". During this time, original bassist Keith Collins left the band, and Johnny Lee Middleton joined the band. Since 1987, Johnny has been the only consistent member of Savatage, performing on every album (except Handful of Rain).
Rise to popularity (1987–1993)
In 1987, Savatage released their first commercially successful album, Hall of the Mountain King, which became the base for the band rising into a more mainstream arena. The band recorded their first music video for the album's title song, which received extensive air play on MTV's Headbangers Ball and was followed up by a video for the song "24 Hours Ago". The album introduced a new musical style, featuring symphonic elements, strongly influenced by their new producer, Paul O'Neill, that would shape the band's future recordings. O'Neill contributed most of the lyrics for the rest of their career and gave them a more conceptual edge starting with their next album, Gutter Ballet.
Gutter Ballet, which was released in 1989, has been considered the band's true turning point. Since that album, the band has adopted a more progressive style, writing longer songs with more complex melodies and differing vocal styles, rather than the more straightforward power metal style that was apparent in earlier works. The change to a more progressive, operatic style was also precipitated by Jon, after seeing a performance of Phantom of the Opera in Toronto. The songs "Gutter Ballet" and "When the Crowds Are Gone" are examples of this influence from that album, as was the next Savatage's release (which even included "Opera" in its title). Again, two videos were made for the songs "When the Crowds Are Gone" and "Gutter Ballet" which received airplay on MTV. Many additional songs already written, before the decision of this change of style, were unused and subsequently published as bonus tracks, in the Sirens and The Dungeons Are Calling 2002 reissues, some of them were also re-worked and published by Jon Oliva's Pain.
Chris Caffery, who had been playing with Savatage in the previous tour performing rhythm guitar and keyboards offstage, officially joined the band in 1989. He didn't play on the Gutter Ballet album, but was credited with guitars and keyboards and was pictured in the album's booklet "both to prepare the fans for the line-up they'd see on tour and confirm his permanent member status". However, he left the band after the Gutter Ballet tour for personal reasons, but kept writing music with Jon Oliva and would later return to Savatage during the second part of the 90's.
In 1991, the band created their first rock opera Streets, featuring the story of a fallen rock star called DT Jesus who has hit hard times. The record did not sell as well as the band would have liked however, as it was released around the time that grunge exploded into the mainstream music arena, but a video for "Jesus Saves" was recorded and again got airplay, drawing a new audience to appreciate the band. Over the years Streets: A Rock Opera has become one of the most appreciated and a landmark album in Savatage's career. Originally, this record was intended to be a double album, but Atlantic Records didn’t like the idea, so it was trimmed down to 17 songs. The album was then going to have spoken tracks in-between all the songs but that was scrapped also. The final version scrapped the 17th song "Larry Elbows" and erased all the spoken tracks except for the intro to Jesus Saves. The cover had the story explained in it to make up for the lost spoken tracks. Atlantic somehow over the years managed to lose the master tapes to Streets so the left over songs truly are lost. Many of the riffs from these songs showed up on the next album Edge of Thorns. Another interesting detail about the album is that "Jesus Saves" was originally written as a midtempo song, not the rocker it became on the finished album. In 2013, some of the lost material was found and the album was re-issued with the title: Streets: A Rock Opera - Narrated Version.
After a tour in support of the album, in 1992, Jon Oliva left the band to concentrate on his side projects Doctor Butcher and his Broadway-bound musical Romanov, as well as continuing co-writing Savatage material with his brother Criss and producer Paul O'Neill. However, as of 2013, only one instrumental track from the Romanov project was released under the moniker Trans-Siberian Orchestra on the Dreams Of Fireflies EP. After this EP, together with a Broadway version of Streets named Gutter Ballet (including mainly songs from both these albums), even Romanov is planned as a future Trans-Siberian Orchestra album.
On 13 June 1992, during the Jon's Farewell Show at Rock-It Club in Tampa, 28 songs were played to cover all the main highlights of the band. This show was not intended, recorded or filmed for any sort of live album.
The new lead vocalist, former Wicked Witch singer Zachary Stevens, was discovered and introduced to the band by Criss's best friend and guitar technician Dan Campbell. The band recorded their follow-up to Streets, Edge of Thorns, in 1993. Drummer Steve Wacholz decided to record the album but he was not interested in touring, even though he stated he intended to return to the band in the future, and hand-picked his replacement as well in drummer Andy James. For the first time, Savatage began to enjoy mainstream recognition, including increased radio play and a world tour which gained international press as "the best Savatage has ever sounded live". However, tragedy struck when founder and lead guitarist Criss Oliva was killed by a drunk driver on October 17, 1993. Jon chose to continue the band, although he has since admitted that the band was pretty much over after Criss's death, but only kept going because of his memory and to "keep his music alive".
After Criss (1994–2000)
A short while after Criss' death, the band held a tribute show for the late guitarist, with the same line-up as the Streets tour but without Criss. Lead guitarist Alex Skolnick temporarily joined Savatage in 1994 for the release of their ninth album Handful of Rain, written by Jon Oliva and Paul O'Neill. Although the album is technically a Jon Oliva solo album, with Jon handling all instrumental duties except for vocals by Zachary Stevens and lead guitars by Alex Skolnick, the record was released under the Savatage moniker with bass and drum credits given to Middleton and Wacholz respectively, as drummer Andy James had left the band following the death of Criss Oliva to pursue other projects. The song "Chance" was the first Savatage song to contain the usage of counterpoint vocals, a style which they continued to use on following albums. The album's final track, "Alone You Breathe", was a tribute to Criss Oliva.
When the band were preparing to tour in support of Handful of Rain, drummer Steve Wacholz announced his official departure from the band. Jeff Plate, a former bandmember of Zak Stevens' old band, was hired to replace him. Jon Oliva agreed to do the tour to perform keyboards and rhythm guitar, and a live CD/VHS entitled Japan Live '94 (in later releases it has been retitled Live in Japan) was released at the conclusion of the very short tour with Skolnick's three-piece band Exhibit-A and power metal band Tempo Tantrum as supporting-acts. After this tour, Alex Skolnick left the band to pursue other interests.
In a 2011 interview, Skolnick had this to say about his time with Savatage:
Savatage was a very bittersweet situation. On the one hand I got to do an album with a band that I liked in high school. The flipside is that the gig came about because of a tragedy: Savatage guitarist Criss Oliva had passed away in 1993. That was around the time that I had left my band, Testament, because things hadn't been working out, and I found playing with Savatage appealing. It was like, "Hey, why not?" Then again, I knew I was heading in a different direction from the band, but I just didn't know where. For some reason, joining Savatage just didn't feel right. I'm not sure why that is ... It wasn't one particular thing. Maybe I felt I needed to ... be one of the main creative voices in the band. If I had stayed with Savatage I wouldn't have been.
While Skolnick adapted Criss Oliva's solos to his own style, former guitarist Chris Caffery, who had left after the Gutter Ballet tour, was convinced he could do them better. He then told Jon Oliva that he would rejoin the band to pay tribute to his friend and mentor Criss Oliva on the condition that he would play all of Criss' solos, which the band accepted. Atlantic Records, however, wanted a second, more well-known guitarist to join the band, and Al Pitrelli was chosen. Pitrelli was known for his previous work with Alice Cooper and Asia, among others, and would play the majority of the lead parts of the band's new material.
In 1995, Savatage released their second rock opera Dead Winter Dead, an even more ambitious undertaking than its predecessor, Streets. They also achieved cross-over success with "Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24", which received heavy rotation on multiple radio formats during the Christmas season. While they toured Europe and Japan, the group forwent an American tour to work on their new project, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, recorded by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO), comprising Savatage and a large orchestra. Jon Oliva has since admitted that he was annoyed to see the success of TSO with what was originally a Savatage song, leading him to believe that the biggest barrier to success as Savatage was the name.
Also in 1995, another live album Final Bell / Ghost in the Ruins is published with old recordings taken during the Gutter Ballet tour. This is intended as a tribute to Criss Oliva and an instrumental bonus track, played by Criss, named "Post Script" (basically recorded during a sound check and never appeared before) closed it. This release is titled "Final Bell" in Japan and "Ghost in the Ruins" elsewhere. "Ghost in the Ruins" was one of the titles the band previously considered for the album Streets.
The eleventh studio album, The Wake of Magellan, was released in 1998 after a break to deal with the huge success of TSO, and dealt with such concepts as the worth of a life, suicide and drug abuse, drawing on real-life events such as the Maersk Dubai and the murder of Veronica Guerin. Savatage parted ways with long-time label Atlantic after this release and eventually signed on with a much smaller organization, Nuclear Blast (although Trans-Siberian Orchestra albums would in the future remain on the Atlantic/Lava imprint). Jon Oliva said that this was a good move, as Nuclear Blast "loved the band and they know our songs and everything!".
Due to Oliva, O'Neill and Savatage's long time engineer Robert Kinkel's songwriting, the main differences between Savatage's last two albums and Trans-Siberian Orchestra are the usage of a real orchestra and the fact lead vocals are not played only by Oliva and/or Zachary Stevens, as in Savatage, but by a huge number of guest singers.
Power of the Night (1985)
Fight for the Rock (1986)
Hall of the Mountain King (1987)
Gutter Ballet (1989)
Streets: A Rock Opera (1991)
Edge of Thorns (1993)
Handful of Rain (1994)
Dead Winter Dead (1995)
The Wake of Magellan (1997)
Poets and Madmen (2001)
Jon Oliva – keys (1981-1992, 1993-2002, 2014-present), lead vocals (1980-1992, 2001-2002, 2014-present), rhythm guitar (1994), bass guitar (1980-1981)
Chris Caffery – rhythm & lead guitar, backing vocals (1987–1988, 1989–1990, 1995-2002, 2014–present), keys (1987-1988, 1989-1990)
Zachary Stevens – lead vocals (1992–2000, 2014–present)
Jeff Plate – drums (1994-2002, 2014–present)
Al Pitrelli – lead & rhythm guitar, backing vocals (1995–1999, 2002, 2014–present)