Friday, December 23, 2016

LET THEM EAT METAL #3: Hall of the Mountain King by Savatage (Tis the season for crunchy guitars!)

In the days of yore, when pop music meant something, it was filled with nourishing musical ideas and showed the tides of progress.  But then something happened, the ability for it to fill our soul has nearly vanished, and the masses are starved on good music.  There’s the occasional quality track that stays good after multiple spins, but it has gotten to the moment where even good pop music gets stale.  We live in a white-bread world in mainstream music.  However, there’s salvation from the drek that the masses need to know about.  In the words of Marie Antoinette, or more accurately The Rods quoting her: “LET THEM EAT METAL!”

Hello degenerates, heathens, weirdos, and deviants.  I am the Rock Otaku, and I’m here to show you worlds such as hard rock, metal, punk, alternative rock, movies, TV, anime, video games, and anything that makes us scream and shout in the hall.  OF THE MOUNTAIN KING!  AHHHHHHHHHH, YEAH!

This series is dedicated to the best that heavy metal can offer.  As you will read, I will take you on a journey though the annals of heavy metal’s storied history from its beginning in early 70s, its crystallization in the late 70s and early 80s, its breakthrough into mainstream conscience in the early to mid-80s, its maturation in the late 80s and 90s, its dominance (sort of) in the 2000s and even today, and the rare moments that very few talk about unless in the company of like-minded fans.  Not in that order, but I’ll be looking at the footnotes oh metal history in the order I desire.  In short, this new series is about metal, plain and simple.

Today, let’s talk about Florida.  Ah, Florida, the Sunshine State.  The home of Disney World, Universal Studios (yes, there’s a Hollywood version), SeaWorld (and there’s both a San Diego and San Antonio park), Busch Gardens (unless you live in Virginia), Cypress Gardens (before it became another LEGOLAND), and Silver Springs (not the city, the park).  Plus there’s at least three world-renowned universities there with iconic sports teams.  If you guessed, unless you’re a native or an old person, Florida is not that good of a state.  In fact, it’s pretty overrated, now that apparently the Zyka virus is a problem.  It’s humid, hot, wetter than a lake, and you have gators, snakes, Limp Bizkit, Creed, and political ideologies of its people being as dense as an anime harem protagonist.  Unless you’re a Blockbuster Buster or a Rocked, the only city worth living in is Orlando. 

But because it’s the Christmas season, I have to say something nice to avoid coal in my stocking or being blacklisted before Star Wars Land premiers.  While I did geek out over the parks, there’s also Alter Bridge coming out of the state, Tampa’s the reason we have death metal, Matthew Mercer came from there (and you know how that turned out), and two of the most influential American progressive metal bands came from there: Crimson Glory and Savatage, the band I'm writing about today.
As you may have guessed, I am not limiting myself to British bands for this series.  If I did, then it’d get predictable about how I rate bands, and I would exhaust every possible Monty Python reference I can make.  Plus, the New Wave of British Heavy Metal isn’t the only metal movement that happened.  There’s L.A. Glam Metal, Bay Area Thrash, Teutonic Speed and Power Metal (plus the thrash), Scandinavian Extreme Metal, the aforementioned Floridian Death Metal, Visual Kei, and whatever trendy metal movement is going on at this time.  This blog is about using the best that metal can offer, well known or obscure, to show some new insights into heavy metal, as well as make it even nerdier than it already is (with Blind Guardian and Machinae Supremacy, that might be difficult).  Finally, there’s ample opportunity to show just how interesting metal can get, both in its history as well as where certain bands came from, and ultimately what happened to them.

In this case, Savatage may not be known as heavy metal icons like Judas Priest, Iron Maiden, Motörhead, Accept, Black Sabbath, Metallica, Megadeth, Slayer, and Anthrax, but they have both interesting origins and recent history.  Formed in the Tampa area of Florida in the late 70s, their name was a fusion dance between “Savage” and “Avatar,” their original name before pre-YouTube copyright nonsense forced them to change it.  They originally played in more of a speed metal style while having some unorthodox elements, and they got a deal with Atlantic Records a few years after their first independent releases.  During this time, they released Sirens and The Dungeons are Calling independently, then Power of The Night as their major label debut.  After that was the release of Fight For The Rock, an album that the band has ultimately disowned due to executive meddling, the reason for every time creativity is squandered.  As a result of their frustrations, they got producer Paul O’Neill and created the album I talk about today: Hall of the Mountain King.

After that, we got Gutter Ballet, Streets: A Rock Opera (their last with founding member Jon Oliva due to alcohol and drug abuse), Edge of Thorns (their last with founding member Criss Oliva due to a car accident), and Handful of Rain (the album that had Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick), and Dead Winter Dead.  And then something happened.  Every member at the time was convinced to orchestrate Paul O’Neill’s Christmas-themed project, and the result was the first album by Trans-Siberian Orchestra, who I’m sure most of you know about.  If you don’t, here’s a few snippets of their work:

If that doesn’t put you into the holiday spirit while banging your head, then this describes you perfectly:

For today’s album, the reason why I’m reviewing it the Friday before Christmas is because I was introduced to the title track through a combination of Sirius XM’s Ozzy’s Boneyard playing it and Brutal Legend, and I would listen to all the songs on it later through YouTube and through Spotify.  If you’re wondering, those are two ways that I can listen to full albums, and I’m capable of finding some very interesting albums that are either out of print, but have been uploaded online, are too expensive thanks to them having to be imported, or I just need to listen to them for a review like this.  That’s it.  There’s nothing truly special about this review except for the fact that I find the title track to be ONE OF THE MOST AWESOME HEAVY METAL SONGS EVER CONCEIVED!!  Seriously, once I get to it, expect me to act all “Notice Me, Senpai” towards it.  But beforehand, here’s a note about the album.

When it came out, this was considered Savatage’s beginning as a progressive metal band and the point where they became a quality heavy metal band.  A reason for is this due to how the band hated the previous album and started to get influences from classical music and progressive rock.  As a result, they decided to craft an album that started their path into progressive metal, concept albums, and later the majesty that is the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.  And this is the genesis of that.

Let’s get this venture into the underground place the mountain king roams all alone:

1.    24 Hours Ago:
Starting this album is one hell of an intro.  With an aggressive guitar, bass, and drum intro, including a guitar solo, that builds up to one hell of a vocal line, this establishes that whatever style of music you like, Savatage are here to rock!  After that, the intro riff is interspaced with the dynamic duo of Jon and Criss Oliva providing their skills on vocals and guitar respectively.  Throughout this track is a sort of dark undercurrent that is both awesome and creepy, with the lyrics dealing with going out on the road in your sweet car, running from something.  Alongside the aforementioned intro riff, performances, and lyrics is a bunch of different riff styles that gives this song an off-kilter feel that usually exists in progressive rock.  Hell, this is apparent in the first main guitar solo.  Also kickass is the chorus.  After the third usage of it, the song moves into a bass riff that turns into another killer guitar riff that leads to more guitar pyrotechnics with a neo-classical bent to them.  The final guitar line ends the song with said rage.  If there’s an overall feeling with this track, it’s like being inside the Hyperbolic Time Chamber for the last 24 hours (It’ll feel like a year in there).  However, there are some that can’t handle that, such as mainstream audiences that have the attention span of a squirrel, and, well, anyone who messes with Mr. Popo:
2.    Beyond the Doors of the Dark:
Starting with an eerie clean guitar intro, you get a low vocal performance from Jon that sets the tone for the rest of the song: dark enough to unsettle Gintoki Sakata.  The lyrics here involve someone calling out to the children of the night to come into his world beyond the darkness.  And after that creepy intro, the song builds into the kickass riff that would cause this in the weak-willed:
Said riff is pure guitar bliss, when you are demented.  Then the lyrics kick in, dealing with darkness and all that fun stuff, purely meant to make people scream like a little girl thinking about it, all with the sweet refrain of “A never ending suicide/Of nightmares you have inside.”  In short it’s pure word salad lyrics unless you consider the angle of one losing sanity.  Either way, it’s a dark track.  Plus, the instrumentation is stellar, with that riff, loaded with power chords, palm muting, and even some vibrato, thick bass, and pounding, thunderous drums.  Plus, the guitar solo also adds to the decreasing sanity of the listener, and it’s another strong showcase of Criss Oliva’s abilities.  In short, this is an awesomely creepy rocker that’s great to headbang to, and it could also scare your neighbors.
3.    Legions:
Ladies and gentlemen, the theme of Night Raid.  Well, unless the Jaegers are roaming the streets.  The opening bass line and guitar fills lead to a badass song that is about going out into the night and living by the motto “Let’s Get Dangerous.”  The verses give off this sort of going out to either bring terror to the masses through some dark means, or, based on the Akame Ga Kill reference, to bring terror to the corrupt and the crazy (The band should give Seryu a visit).  The chorus is just the title repeated for three times, with “Good God” added at certain points, then “Can I hear your battle cry” ending it.  It’s punchy, catchy, and surprisingly affective at showcasing the grit and tone of the song.  The instrumentation is equally badass, giving off a sort of punch that adds to the tone of the song, being dark but badass.  The guitars, bass, and drums are all excellent.  Plus that guitar solo is pretty awesome.
4.    Strange Wings:
Of the songs, this is probably the only sign of affections toward courting a mainstream audience.  That intro riff, the main riff of the song, is what gives me this thought, and the guitar solo is less crazy and more melodically tasteful.  After that, the song gets slightly lighter, while Jon croons about a woman who is, for some reason, riding a black Pegasus through the stormy skies, crying, while he decides to rush after her.  That’s where the song loses “mainstream” points due to its abstract lyrics that may be about a girl Jon knows in real life.  But here, because this is progressive power metal (and a 80s mainstream variant), the lyrics are fantastical, like an artsy picture you can find on DeviantArt.  Or anything out of Puella Magi Madoka Magica.  However, if this was about a normal girl at a Denny’s, then I’m sure Luke would have problems with it, but it isn’t, so I, and possibly Luke, can handle it better.  The instrumentation is fantastic, the guitars are catchy, melodic, and tasteful while being as sharp as a katana, the bass is righteously thick, and the drums are thunderous and provide an excellent beat.  The guitar solos here are all excellent as well.  Overall, this song may be weird, but it’s catchy enough to overlook that, and it fits well on this album.
5.    Prelude to Madness:
Such a classic line.
The intro of this instrumental begins with a stormy tone, before moving into a “Mars”-esque guitar line paired with a string section, then a guitar line that continues the tone.  Finally, the song kicks into a symphonic heavy metal version of Edward Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King” that gets faster, more aggressive, and ends in the orchestra performing it while Criss starts shredding on the guitar like a madman.  The rhythm section also manages to skillfully stay in sync with everyone else.  This is an excellent showcase of the band’s talents, musical abilities, and foreshadowing to two things: their later, more symphonic and proggy music, and the title track and its awesomeness.  Plus I have this reaction to the fact that this band’s guitarist died in a car accident six years after this album came out:
And I thought Clannad was depressing.
But enough with the sadness, this song ends with dark, stormy atmospherics that lead into the next song, a journey into further dark madness…
6.    Hall of the Mountain King:
With the previous song, you can call this a sort of sequel or successor to the Edward Grieg composition.  The song starts with the atmospheric sounds from “Prelude to Madness,” which segue into the kickass guitar riff that grabs you, then launches you into a kickass guitar solo that begins a journey into the underground kingdom, especially into the titular halls of the mountain king’s palace.  The lyrics deal with this adventure, going in and dealing with the darker aspects of such a perilous quest, and Jon Oliva’s delivery is pure heavy metal opera.  Adding to the metallic dungeon raid is the awesome rhythm section, several progressive moments (musically, this is still 80s metal), and Criss Oliva’s guitar solos, including a massive, face-melting one before the final verse.  For this adventure, you need a team that can handle the mountain king’s deep dark eyes watching them from his tower, with possibly some help from Log Horizon and/or any of the former members of the Debauchery Tea Party and their current guilds and parties.  However, do NOT invite this guy:
7.    The Price You Pay:
After that epicness, you’d expect the album to not be as good, but it’s still great.  However, the opening lyrics of this track, and Jon Oliva’s delivery of them, cause me to think that this song, which was started with another good riff from Criss Oliva, is Savatage’s addition to the canon of songs about creepy guys who frequent Denny’s (check out Rocked’s Regretting the Past series for that reference).  That’s just my opinion, but that may not be the lyrical meaning, as there’s lyrics about how this person, particularly a woman who’s worked hard, but nothing good happened to her.  But due to how Jon puts himself in this song, you get this view that he’s been creeping on her.  I, for one, find that disturbing.  Even with that, the song rocks.  With an ongoing trend of crunchy, textured, and melodic guitars, thick bass, and pounding, thunderous drums, interplayed with shredding guitar solos, Savatage continue to deliver the heavy metal glory.  Plus, the lyrics, no matter how creepy they are, have a sort of viewpoint that tells the viewer that there’s a cost to anything grand or big they try to do, even if it’s to get something you desire.  Look at the Elric brothers, there was a price they had to pay when they tried to perform human transmutation.
8.    White Witch:
This is pure speed metal bliss, that it is.  That intro pretty much tells you that this song will be a lot faster than what we got earlier.  As for the rest of the song, it delivers on the speed metal promise, with the drums being more thunderous than ever, and the guitars cutting with razor sharp precision.  As for the lyrics, they deal with Jadis and her dark magic on some unlucky shrub, possibly a Telmarine.  If you’re wondering the Narnia references instead of coke, when I hear the phrase “White Witch,” I’m going to think about the woman responsible for the enslavement of the land and its eternal winter before the Pevensie children came through the wardrobe so they can send her to the Shadow Realm with Aslan.  The instrumentation, as I’ve mentioned, is savage, with the aforementioned guitar and drum paired with thick bass lines creating a hard-driving song.  Plus the solo kicks ass.  Overall, this is the kind of song that you need to listen to when saving Narnia from the White Witch, but the Pevensie children are nowhere near this savage.  I’m sure that this guy would fit better song-wise:
9.    Last Dawn:
Giving us a minute to breathe is this instrumental track.  Continuing the aura of darkness is the ongoing usage of minor keys in the instrumentation, specifically the guitars and bass, the only two instruments heard here.  If there’s a story going on, there’s a sort of dark undercurrent that whatever’s going on this day, it may be the last for all of us.  That the dark forces will come and overcome good men.  That, to the purveyors of darkness, humanity is, well:
On to the next song, which defines that.
10.  Devastation:
I’ll have to give this song some kudos for having a sort of swing to the beat.  However, there’s a sense that, like the rest of the album, there is a strong influence from the British metal of Judas Priest and Iron Maiden, once this song gets into gear.  Even more so here, with its apocalyptic lyrics.  With the glee of Yuki Terumi on anybody’s bad day, The Joker around knives, and Bowser in a Disney Princess convention, Jon Oliva sings about, well, the Biblical end of the world, like this…

…and the band follows along with the doom-filled metal, with, as usual, razor-sharp crunchy guitars, thick bass, and thunderous drums, filled with guitar licks and solos from Criss Oliva.  Said riffs cut like a knife, and the solo is another addition to the great solos here on this album.  The rhythm section is in key unison with what the Oliva brothers want to do here, and is expertly crafted.  As far as beats go, I can easily recommend this single track to a lot of more groove-conscious music fans, even pop listeners.  As far as closing songs go, this is one amazing one.  And yes, due to how cohesive the album surprisingly is, the last review was mostly stuff you heard of with references that I’m sure some readers will get a kick out of.

I could go on about this album, or the bonus track “Stay,” but I feel that stopping here, as this is how the album originally ended, is probably the most charitable thing I can do before Kris Kringle makes his global trip this Christmas Eve night.  Plus, I’d rather wait until Second Christmas before I’d go into depth about the fate of the individual band members (after making sure Santa’s brother Don is still out for the count).

This album is a fantastic work of progressive power metal, and one of the albums that sets the standard for the genre.  Is it perfect?  Not sure, but I’m sure I’ve been getting some complaints of heresy from metal snobs over my comments from last week, sort of like this:
But with Trans-Siberian Orchestra getting the praise and attention, I’m sure that making multiple anime references in here is not going to lead to planetary destruction from the Inquisitors.  Thankfully, I really love this album and everything that the band put into it.  Jon Oliva is fantastic on this album, delivering some amazing vocals throughout.  The production from Paul O’Neill is well done and fits the album well, with crunchy guitars from Criss Oliva, thick bass from Johnny Lee Middleton, and thunderous drums from Steve “Doc” Wacholz, plus very great usage of keyboards, orchestras, and sound effects.  If there’s an issue, then it would have to do with the compression on some of the instruments.  It helps with their sonic attack, but it does help date the album, thanks to how metal is produced today versus the mid-80s, despite it being better sounding and more atmospheric than what passes as metal today.  Plus, there’s a metric megaton of guitar shredding on the album, even outside of parts that are designated for the main guitar solo, but that’s an issue with progressive metal, so it’s something you have to get used to.  Plus the flamboyancy throughout the record is not going to go over well with certain groups who want everything rock or metal related to be a never ending series of “Teen Spirit” knockoffs.  But for me, this is a great album, and worth adding to any heavy metal collection.

Finally, to all who read this between its release date and time and Christmas Day, I offer a simple phrase.  This is for all kids between the ages of 1 to 92.  Although it’s been said many times in many ways, Merry Christmas to you all.  Be excellent to each other no matter the holiday and season.  And.  PARTY ON, DUDES!

RIP Criss Oliva (1963-1993).  May you shred your way into the hallowed halls of Valhalla this Yuletide.

Final Rating: 9/10 (Finely crafted progressive power metal, and a great introduction once you pass the Mötley Crüe and Judas Priest intro courses in heavy metal love and appreciation).

Next time on Let Them Eat Metal: Ace of Spades by Motörhead

Coming Sunday: Rogue One Review!

Until next time, this is the Rock Otaku.  Live Loud, Play Hard, and Eat Metal.

All used references are done under the rules of fair use and are owned by their original creators.

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