The Cassette Chronicles is a continuing series of mini reviews and reflections on albums from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The aim of this series is to highlight both known and underappreciated albums from rock, pop and metal genres from this time period through the cassette editions of their releases. Some of the albums I have known about and loved for years, while others are new to me and were music I’ve always wanted to hear. There will be some review analysis and my own personal stories about my connection with various albums. These opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of anyone else at Limelight Magazine.
SAVATAGE – GUTTER BALLET (1989)
Author’s Note: This is the 100th article in The Cassette Chronicles series. It’s hard to believe what started as a lark on a message board that I remain part of to this day has now seen one hundred individual articles spotlighting some of the best (and worst) of the music of the 1980’s and 1990’s. I just want to say thanks to everyone at Limelight Magazine for giving this series a home these last three years or so. I’d also like to thank everyone that has taken the time to read the articles and send along feedback. This would include those spotlighted bands who have gone out of their way to share the articles on their own social media pages. I hope to bring you another hundred articles over the next few years!
As for this week’s album, I had a choice to make between three albums that I’ve wanted to spotlight for a while now. While the other two will eventually make their way to publication, I figured this anniversary of sorts should spotlight the band that over the course of a few years back in the late 80’s and early 90’s worked their way to becoming my favorite band. It is a title, that despite them not being an active band for years, they retain to this day.
I’m pretty sure that before I heard “When The Crowds Are Gone” on The Metal Zone on 94 HJY (out of Providence, RI), I’d never heard of Savatage before. But hearing that song found me instantly captivated by the way the song built itself into something that started out with a strong but spare piano soundtrack all the way up to an epic sounding number that lent itself to something far more cinematically intense than I could’ve ever expected to hear from a band I was completely unfamiliar with.
In fact, “cinematic” is a recurring theme for pretty much every song on Gutter Ballet. Before delving more into the album, I should note that even though Gutter Ballet was the first album I bought from the band, I went about grabbing up everything they’d produced to that point and was continually swept up into their music. I could say the same for everything that came after Gutter Ballet as well.
The album opens with a thumping riff in the intro to “Of Rage and War”. Singer Jon Oliva’s vocal performance on this song definitely fit the “rage” portion of the song’s title. At times, there was an almost beastial growling undertone to his vocals as he worked his way through the song that was filled with real world concerns about terrorism and other such topics.
While the band would go on to do four concept albums in the years after this album, Gutter Ballet isn’t a true concept album. However, there were some thematic similarities running throughout the album.
With the title track, Savatage launched into a what can only be described as a mini musical suite. It feels like something you’d find on a stage accustomed to hosting plays rather than concerts. The piano opening of the “Gutter Ballet” track gives way to a merging of both the strongly metallic and the strongly melodic. The video for the song and the entire vibe the track engenders that stage play feel I mentioned at the start of this paragraph. I should note that the cover art is a fantastic representation of everything going on with the album’s music.
The instrumental “Temptation Revelation” stands on its own while simultaneously serving as a table setter for “When The Crowds Are Gone.” As someone who writes, it is no surprise that I like words. So lyrics and the person performing them have always come first for me. The fact that I don’t play an instrument probably factors into my personal focus on singers and lyrics. However, it is songs like this that made me focus on the musical aspect a lot more than I usually would. Particularly on the performance of Criss Oliva. I became so enamored of his playing over the years that I ended up considering him my own personal favorite guitarist. There was just something so spectacular about his playing that it made him the first guitarist that I truly loved to listen to just for his own individual playing.
“When The Crowds Are Gone” starts off much like “Gutter Ballet”, with a softer piano-based intro that carries on through the first verse. But then a more explosive rocking soundtrack takes over. The lyrical themes the song builds upon in the song still resonates strongly with me to this day.
The first side of the album closes with another full-length instrumental called “Silk and Steel”. It showcases a lighter touch and I daresay that the song could be called beautiful without sacrificing any of the band’s heavy metal street cred. I should point out that while Jon and Criss Oliva are the focal point of many of the band’s credits, bassist Johnny Lee Middleton and Steve “Dr. Killdrums” Wacholz were just as important to the band’s sound and live performances.
Much like how “Of Rage and War” stands on its own to open the album, “She’s In Love” opens up side two of the album in a similarly singular fashion. The lyrics are pretty easy to figure out and might seem like something that would come from a band that came out of Los Angeles in the early-to-mid 80’s but when couched inside a more frenzied and blitzing soundtrack, the song manages to avoid becoming a cliche.
A more supernatural theme takes over with the songs “Hounds” and “The Unholy”. Both songs are ripping rockers. Though the title implies a plurality of beasts on the loose, I’ve always thought the song was kind of musical homage to the Sherlock Holmes thriller “The Hound of the Baskervilles”. The song does a great job of giving listeners a creepy kind of feeling, even going so far as mentioning the sun setting on the moor. Jon Oliva’s vocal is especially vicious on this track.
As for “The Unholy”, the fiery music combined with another tale that seems ripped from a horror novel, the song establishes itself quickly and drags you on for a scary kind of ride.
Savatage changes things up on the album’s final three songs which are apparently purposely interconnected. “Mentally Yours”, “Summer’s Rain” and the bonus track “Thorazine Shuffle”. “Mentally Yours” starts off with a piano before giving way to a heavier sound. It’s the opening salvo in the “story”. “Summer’s Rain” serves as the middle point of everything and then “Thorazine Shuffle” brings things to a crushing and haunting end.
There’s nothing bad to say about this album. However, much like everything Savatage did over the course of their career, it seemed to get little if any traction with the mainstream metal crowd. I’ve carried my passion for the band for years and will talk them up to anyone who asks (and more than a few times to people who didn’t). I was lucky enough to see the band three times in concert and I got to meet at least a few of the band members each time. They have been a huge part of my life in metal music fandom. I’ve made friends based solely on the fact they saw me wearing a Savatage T-shirt at a Def Leppard concert. And I’ve followed many of the new projects the various band members moved onto after Savatage packed it in as a going concern. My photo with the late Criss Oliva from the Gutter Ballet tour date in 1990 at the Living Room in Providence remains a prized possession.
It’s a crying shame in my eyes that Savatage never broke through to big time success until they morphed into Trans-Siberian Orchestra. I’m glad they saw that success of course, but still wish they’d gotten more recognition for what they brought to the metal world.
Still, Gutter Ballet served not only as my starting point with the band but also as an evolution point for the band’s overall sound. They moved from a more traditional heavy metal sound to more of a progressive metal viewpoint. It, like the rest of their albums, deserves a far bigger audience than it got back in the day and I will continue to tout the greatness of Savatage until my dying breath!
NOTES OF INTEREST: The album has been reissued on CD three times. The first was in 1997, then in 2002 and then in 2011. Each reissue featured bonus tracks. I have the 2011 edition on CD which comes with an essay from Jon Oliva.
Guitarist Chris Caffery is credited on the album as having played guitar and keyboards on the album. However, he didn’t actually play on Gutter Ballet, though he was hired to join the permanent lineup for the tour.
The album was originally slated to be named after the song “Temptation Revelation” and then it was changed to Hounds of Zaroff before the band wrote the “Gutter Ballet” song and settled on that as the album’s title. The song itself featured Jon Oliva not only on vocals but he played the drum and bass tracks as well.
Jon Oliva had a stroke in 2016. It’s reported that he recovered fully from it but recent reports say that he has retired from live performance and I’ve heard nothing about any new music being recorded. His 2013 solo album Raise The Curtain is utterly brilliant.