Metal Magicians

From: Hit Parader 1/94

By: Andy Secher

Title: "Savatage: Metal Magicians"

Transcribed and HTMLized by: Tracy Wrona

(references to Edge of Thorns as Crown of Thorns have been corrected)

(This interview with Savatage was conducted just days before the tragic death of guitarist Criss Oliva. We send our condolences to his family and friends.)

     Criss Oliva and Johnny Lee Middleton walk into a sports bar in their home town of Tampa, Florida, amid cheers and cries from the gathered throng of about 200 patrons. Unfortunately, the enthusiastic response is not for them-it's for a ballgame being broadcast on the giant size TVs that line the bar's walls. Their lack of recognition doesn't bother Criss or Johnny one bit-in fact they've kind of grown used to it during Savatage's 10-year tenure. They just grab a seat with their backs to the screen and turn their attentions to their two main loves-food and rock and roll.

     The sports bar is a somewhat incongruous place to talk to a heavy metal band-but then inconguity has long been one of the defining words of the Savatage dictionary. After all, here's a band many people think of as a "thrash" proponent whose true stock-in-trade is well-planned, brilliantly executed rock presentations that owe more to the work of Queensryche and Rush than they do to, say, Overkill. But it is the fate of guitarist Oliva, bassist Middleton, new vocalist Zachary Stevens and even newer drummer Andy James to live in this world of misconception, a fact that has continued to follow the band in the wake of the release of their latest album, Edge of Thorns.

     "We know what we do," said Oliva as he attacked a plate of "extra hot" chicken wings. "And I think a lot of fans out there know what we do. But there is that kind of misunderstanding about us. Maybe it's the name, maybe it's due to some of the albums we've done earlier in our career-I don't know. Anyone who takes the time to listen to our albums realizes rather quickly that we're not just throwing together a few chords and going from there. A lot of thought and preparation goes into making albums like ours."

     Even more preparation than usual went into the preproduction for Edge of Thorns, mostly due to the fact that the band's long-time vocalist, Jon Oliva (Criss' brother) decided to amicably part from the band prior to their going into the studio. In fact, the parting was so amicable that Jon helped write some of the songs on Savatage's latest opus, as well as co-producing the disc and adding keyboards. Yet, to many fans Jon's booming voice was the key to the Sav attack, and without him many wondered if the band could maintain the musical quality they attained on such previous efforts as Hall of the Mountain King and their 1991 rock opera Streets. With Stevens aboard, however, the band was able to quickly dispel those questions and prove that Edge of Thorns represents the dawning of a new day for this decade-old group.

     "The situation with Jon was a long time coming," Criss said. "He was just going through a lot of different pressures, especially when he was on the road, and his health wasn't benefitting from it. He certainly still loves this band, and he's going to start working on a band of his own, Doctor Butcher, very soon. But at the time we needed to start recording our album, he wasn't really up to it. We had found Zachary more or less by chance, and right after the first rehearsal we did with him we knew hw was the right guy for us. We're not trying to replace Jon, that would be impossible. All we have asked him to do was come in and add something new to Savatage-and that's just what he's done."

     While Savatage continues to struggle to gain a major foothold in America (though their latest album has proven to be their must successful ever), overseas the band are already major stars, able to sell out halls from London to Tokyo. While they're certainly grateful for their success in foreign markets, the boys would welcome the same kind of attention back home-if, for no other reasons, than traveling around the good ol' U.S.A. is a lot easier than getting around Europe.

     "Over there, we're packed in this tiny tour bus, and they don't have any air conditioning," Criss said. "We were there last at the start of summer, and believe me, it can get kind of funky in one of those busses after a few weeks-even with all the windows open. You tour over there for awhile, and it just makes you appreciate America that much more. We love the fans in Europe, but it's nice to be in a place where there's air conditioning and hot water whenever you want it. Believe me, after all this time, you begin to appreciate things like that more than ever."