The Cassette Chronicles – Styx’s ‘Edge of the Century’

By JAY ROBERTS

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.

STYX – EDGE OF THE CENTURY (1990)

While I would go on to discover the earlier music (and hits) from Styx over the ensuing years, I’m one of those people who first became aware of the band because of the song “Mr. Roboto”. This is not something I’d bring up first upon meeting the current lineup of the band, but I was 12 or so when I first hear that song and much like the rest of the listening audience that made the song a major hit, I was all about that song. Not the album it came from mind you, just the song.

But as I said, the passage of years made me a much bigger fan of their most successful period of chart hit music. Until now, I’ve never really dug into the band’s music from 1990 onward. Call it willful ignorance or just the fact of only having so much time, but there it is.

After the success of the Kilroy Was Here album in 1983, guitarist Tommy Shaw departed the band in 1984 and for about a five year period various members of Styx set about releasing solo music to varying degrees of success. But they got back together as a unit and ended up with Edge of the Century coming out in 1990. The lineup was missing Tommy Shaw who was at the time part of Damn Yankees, the band he formed with Jack Blades from Night Ranger and Ted Nugent. In his stead, guitarist/vocalist Glen Burtnik was brought in as his replacement.

The band’s 12th album featured three singles with the ballad “Show Me The Way” being the most successful as it hit #3 on the charts. The album itself would be certified gold. But given the nature of the struggle the band faced between balancing the more hard rock style versus the pop ballads, I was curious to see what I thought of the album nearly thirty years down the road.

Well, I can say that the album’s first side was somewhat of a shock to the system for me. Despite it’s hit single status, I found “Show Me The Way” more than a bit offputting. I suppose given the pop radio aspirations Dennis DeYoung (who produced the album) had for the band’s music the song was fine but if I’d heard it upon its release in 1990, I would’ve been turned off to it. Much like the other Side One songs “Love At First Sight” (which hit #25 on the singles chart) and “All In Day’s Work”, the song came off as souless and calculated to me. I’m not opposed to hitting the singles chart with songs but the sappier the material, the less interest I have in it. And “sappy” was the name of the game on these three songs.

That said, the album’s third single was “Love Is The Ritual” and it served as the opening track for Edge of The Century. It started off a bit too “poppy” for me but once the music kicked in with some more rocking sounds, the track became far more interesting and I ended up quite enjoying the song.

As for the title track, that song is just flat out fantastic! A full-on rocker from start to finish with some really great guitar work enhancing everything about the song.

My disappointment with the first side left me a little wary of what Side Two would contain. I didn’t hold much hope for a whole lot of material to write good things about. But as the saying goes, “that’s why you play the games”. Or in music terms, why you actually listen to the entire album. The second side of the album is just GREAT!

The side opens with two pure rockers in “Not Dead Yet” and “World Tonite”. Besides the more obvious uptempo pacing to the music, the vocal takes/delivery on both songs is top notch. I’d venture to say that I’d hold these two songs up as the best tracks for me on the release. Throw in another rocking track in “Homewrecker” and you’ve got a killer triumvirate of fiery sounding rock and roll.

But things don’t stop there. The second side of the album has two ballad type songs on it. I know you are thinking that I’m going to dump all over them but surprisingly that is not the case. Instead I really enjoyed the songs “Carrie Ann” and “Back To Chicago”. While the softer nature of both songs are obvious, what made them winners in my opinion was the band did a far stronger job of balancing both sides of their sound. There’s the right mix of the ballad and some rock and roll on each song to make it a complete whole. That’s what I always hope for whenever any artist decides to do a ballad, that they don’t forget their rocking side in the quest for a song that people will now hold up their lit cellphones to.

The odd thing about writing about this album is that I’m pretty sure this is the first Styx album I’ve ever actually owned. Thinking off all their best loved releases and I have none of them made me realize I need to rectify this situation. I’m definitely not sold on the stridently commercial ballads on the album’s first side but given how much I loved everything on Side Two, Edge of the Century definitely piqued my interest for the band’s latter-days material!

NOTES OF INTEREST: This was the only album recorded by the lineup of Dennis DeYoung, James “J.Y.” Young, Glen Burtnik, John Panozzo and Chuck Panozzo.

While guitarist Young is still with Styx full-time to this day, bassist Chuck Panozzo has toured with the band on a part time basis due to various health issues (Ricky Phillips has been the full-time bassist for Styx since 2003). Dennis DeYoung has been out of the band since 1999 and recently has been on a 40th Anniversary tour for the Styx album The Grand Illusion.

Sadly, drummer John Panozzo died in 1996. The band paid tribute to him on their 1999 live album Return To Paradise with one of the three studio tracks included on the release. It was called “Dear John” and it was written by the returned Tommy Shaw.

Glen Burtnik was out of the band in 1991 and when the band reunited in 1995, Tommy Shaw had come back. But he was brought back to be the band’s bassist from 1999-2003 and recorded the album Cyclorama with them. He also appeared on three live releases during his second run with the band.

As for the current incarnation of Styx, they are still active and out on tour. In 2017 they released a critically acclaimed album called The Mission.

The Cassette Chonicles – Keel’s ‘The Final Frontier’

By JAY ROBERTS

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.

KEEL – THE FINAL FRONTIER (1986)

It was just about a month ago when I wrote about the 1987 self-titled Keel album. I found myself surprisingly taken with the album. After the article was posted and I had promoted it around the Internet, the majority of the feedback that I saw tended to mention that the reader recommended the band’s album The Final Frontier as well.

As luck would have it, I had the album in The Big Box of Cassettes so I decided to check it out and let those who had recommended it know what I thought. I need to mention that much like the Keel album, my copy of The Final Frontier played well enough for me to listen and write this article but I do plan to upgrade to a CD version as soon as I can.

The album was Keel’s third release and the second in a row to feature Gene Simmons as the producer (after 1985’s The Right To Rock). The album’s title track led off the release and in all honesty, I was kind of underwhelmed by it. There was just something that seemed to be missing that would’ve led to capturing my imagination. I could probably safely say the same about the song “Hear Today, Gone Tomorrow” as well.

But the other three songs are actually quite musically endearing! “Rock and Roll Animal” kicked up the energy level with the song infused by some quite notable guitar work, particularly the solo. The lyrics reminded me of that time in the mid-to-late 1980’s when I was still able to delude myself into thinking I was ever going to be some kind of rock god. Spoiler alert: That didn’t happen! But it sure is nice to get that kind of buzz from a song these days.

The band’s cover of the Patti Smith Group’s song “Because The Night” (co-written by Smith and Bruce Springsteen) was actually quite good. The radio station I have to listen to at work plays the original version and I’m always kind of energized when they do. Keel does up the more rocking nature of the music but I still found it to be a great version, one that makes the song their own while still maintaining a kind of faithful nod to that original version of the song.

I think Keel had an unintentional notion towards saving the best for last because my two favorite songs on the album are sequenced as the last song on each side of the album. Side One’s closing number is “Arm and a Leg”, a rip-roaring rocker that goes for the throat from the first note and shines an extended spotlight on the guitar playing from Bryan Jay and Marc Ferrari.

The second side of The Final Frontier breaks out at the start with a huge anthemic rocker in “Raised On Rock”. I thought the vocals on this song really set it up to be one of the better tracks on the release. With the song “Just Another Girl”, I thought there was the potential for the song to go off the rails but with a surprisingly strong chorus, the song really came together nicely. I wish I could say the same for the album’s ballad / power ballad type song “Tears of Fire”. I just didn’t care for it.

The light touch instrumental “Nightfall” gives listeners a brief respite before leading directly into the album’s closing track “No Pain No Gain”. As I said with “Arm and a Leg”, the band saved the best for last because the song is all fiery attitude and a blazing killer sound. I can’t quite make up my mind as to which of the two “last” songs I like best but both are just fantastic.

I don’t always take feedback suggestions from those who read the articles but I’m kind of glad that I did listen when it comes to The Final Frontier. One of those people who suggested I check out the album was my friend Jeff from Georgia. He and the others that said the same thing as him definitely didn’t steer me wrong. While I probably still prefer the Keel album just a bit more, The Final Frontier showcases Keel in the finest light and again makes me wish I hadn’t taken thirty plus years to actually “discover” them.

NOTES OF INTEREST: The information of the Wikipedia page for this album lists the title track as being co-written by Greg Chaisson, the brother of Keel’s bassist at the time Kenny Chaisson. Greg would go on to become the bassist for Badlands whose debut album I wrote about just last week.

The Final Frontier album had a number of guest appearances. Black ‘N Blue vocalist Jaime St. James did backing vocals on “Rock and Roll Animal”, House of Lords keyboardist Greg Giuffria did the same for “No Pain No Gain” and Michael Des Barres sang on “Raised on Rock”, which also featured Joan Jett on rhythm guitar.

 

 

 

Ninet Tayeb ‘blessed and honored’ to open for The Zombies

By JAY KENNEY

When The Zombies perform a sold out show at the Narrows Center for the Arts in Fall River, MA, on August 27th, the audience will be in for a special treat. Israeli singer-songwriter and actress Ninet Tayeb will open the show for the Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.

While Tayeb is arguably one of the biggest entertainment figures in her native country, she has been building a name for herself in the music industry since relocating to Los Angeles in July 2016. Progressive rock fans may know her from her duets with Steven Wilson (of Porcupine Tree), but she also has recorded five solo albums. Last fall, Tayeb recorded a powerful new song called “Self-Destructive Mind,” and she recently released a beautiful rendition of a Joni Mitchell’s classic song “Woodstock” in celebration of the Woodstock Festival’s 50th anniversary.

As Tayeb is in the midst of rehearsing for her upcoming East Coast tour, she took some time out of her busy schedule to chat with Limelight Magazine to discuss her move to Los Angeles, collaborating with Steven Wilson, coping with anxiety and how she’s chosen to blaze her own path as a female musician, among other things.

LIMELIGHT MAGAZINE: Next month, you will be performing select dates with The Zombies, including a show we booked at the Narrows Center in Fall River, MA, on August 27th. How do you feel about opening for such a legendary band who were just inducted into the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame?

NINET TAYEB: I feel privileged to have a tour with The Zombies! They are such a great and important band. I’ve heard so much about their live shows and I actually can’t wait to hear them playing live. I’m sure I can learn so much. I feel blessed and honored.

LIMELIGHT MAGAZINE: For this show, you will be performing as a trio. Who are the two other musicians joining you? Why did you select them for this tour?

NINET TAYEB: The two musicians with me on this tour are Joseph E-Shine. He’s the MD of this show and the bass guitar player. And Yotam Weiss, my drummer. He will be performing on percussion. We thought to have a special arrangement for this specific tour.

LIMELIGHT MAGAZINE: You’ve recorded five solo albums. How do you go about selecting songs for your set list?

NINET TAYEB: It’s actually both fun and frustrating as we have so much we want to share with the audience:) We build it so it will represent our style.

LIMELIGHT MAGAZINE: I was introduced to your music through your work with Steven Wilson. How did you end up collaborating with him? How do you best describe your musical partnership?

NINET TAYEB: Steven is an amazing musician and I owe him so much. He saw me playing many years ago and then after a while he sent me a song of his that’s called Routine, I’ve recorded this one and sent it back to him, his reply was “ok, I’m sending you three more songs” 🙂

And that was the beginning of a remarkable journey we both share till this day. He is a true artist and that’s what I love the most about him, constantly changing and evolving.

LIMELIGHT MAGAZINE: Are there plans to perform any songs from your work with Steve Wilson on this tour?

NINET TAYEB: Maybe 😉

LIMELIGHT MAGAZINE: Last fall, you released a powerful new song called “Self-Destructive Mind.” I’ve read the song was influenced by your decision to leave your native country of Israel and relocate to Los Angeles, CA, as well as your struggles coping with anxiety. Can you elaborate more on the meaning of this song?

NINET TAYEB:  Well, the song came to me while I was sitting in my balcony in LA, staring at the moon. It was two years after leaving my home in Israel and I suddenly realized what it means. The loneliness and despair that can come out of this kind of situation, the compassion and hope towards the future and everything in between. And yes, I’ve suffered from panic attacks. They show up out of nowhere with no warning signs and all you can do is cover your head under the blanket or write a song, in that moment, that’s what I chose.

LIMELIGHT MAGAZINE: The video for “Self-Destructive Mind” was directed by your husband, Joseph E. Shine. The video made the song come to life visually. Did you have any input on the video or did you leave everything up to your husband?

NINET TAYEB: Of course, I had input. We thought about it together and decided that was the best way to deliver a vision for the audio.

LIMELIGHT MAGAZINE: This song is also the first single from your forthcoming solo album. How far along are you in the recording process? When do you expect it to be released?

NINET TAYEB: The new album will be released in the beginning of next year.

LIMELIGHT MAGAZINE: Several studies show that women face difficulties breaking into the music business. You’ve chosen to blaze your own path. What would your advice be to aspiring female musicians who are looking to pursue a career in the music industry?

NINET TAYEB: Don’t listen to studies because few months from now you will hear about another study that says the exact opposite.

Women are powerful, period. To have a successful career is something that takes time, effort and devotion, and of course, talent. I can give you a long list of a VERY successful badass musicians, females who are out there playing and spreading their magic. It’s all a matter of perspective and the way you choose to look at things.

I don’t think we compete with men or are trying to overshadow them, we play together, all kinds, all genders.

LIMELIGHT MAGAZINE: Your music career has had number of noteworthy accomplishments, especially in Israel. What has been the personal highlight of your career so far?

NINET TAYEB: My highlight has not arrived yet.

MAGAZINE: Lastly, for many people coming to see you open for The Zombies, this will be their first time seeing you perform live. What do you hope they take away from your performance?

NINET TAYEB: That’s a very good and scary question! I really hope they will not regret;)

For more information about Tayeb, visit her website by clicking HERE.

The Cassette Chronicles – Badlands self-titled debut

By JAY ROBERTS

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.

Original advertisement for Badlands self-titled debut, released 30 years ago.

BADLANDS – BADLANDS (1989)

Ahh memories…oh do I have some when it comes to Badlands. Of course, any discussion of Badlands and Jake E. Lee has to start off with his time with Ozzy Osbourne. The Ultimate Sin album was the first Ozzy album I bought and it remains my personal favorite. Since Lee was the guitarist on that album, I obviously have a soft spot for him.

So when I first saw/heard the video on MTV (most likely on Headbanger’s Ball specifically) for the track “Dreams In The Dark”, I was quickly captivated. But instead of the high flying metal guitar of Ozzy, this was a far more gritty and bluesy guitar driven rock and roll record.

Of course, I was immediately in need of owning the album. Once I had it in my hands, I played it quite frequently. I have to say that I found it amazing from start to finish. I know that might be a bit of spoiler for the rest of the article but this was a case of a band starting out at the peak of their musical abilities.

Impressive as Lee was, it was the voice of Ray Gillen that really cinched my fandom. His relatively brief time with Black Sabbath couldn’t have really foretold the performance he would turn in on this album.

As I said, I loved the album. Each song is just full of blazing rock and roll. Side One (or the East Side as it is billed on the album itself) blazes right from the get-go with “High Wire”. You can hear each individual member’s performance blend into a singular whole. Drummer Eric Singer and bassist Greg Chaisson are just as key here as Lee and Gillen.

“Dancing on the Edge” and “Streets Cry Freedom” are also top notch rockers. Of course, there was a slightly softer side of the band which was displayed with the Lee instrumental “Jade’s Song” and the intriguingly intense and atmospheric “Winter’s Call”. Neither really rises to the accepted norm of what a ballad was in the 80’s but damn if I didn’t love both of the songs.

The album’s West Side continued the band’s intense and hook laden blues rock with the opening track “Hard Driver”, a song whose title sums up the viciously rocking nature of the track. The song “Rumblin’ Train” sounds like a swampy blues drawl that you’d hear in a kind of backwater bar if it wasn’t for the far more powerful sound behind it. “Devil’s Stomp” might start out a little slow but soon earns its name as it rocks and stomps it way through your ears. “Seasons” becomes the “ballad” of the 2nd side of the album but still, I found nothing wrong with this song at all. The closing “Ball & Chain” brings down the house with another fiery guitar driven rocker.

I got to see the band twice in concert. The first show was a headlining club date at the Living Room in Providence, RI. The show was packed (the club routinely oversold their capacity) and by the time Badlands hit the stage, I had moved off the main floor and watched most of the show through the side of the stage area. The opening act was D.A.D. and I spent part of the Badlands set standing next to their drummer. I took some photos at that show but this was long before digital cameras and when I got my pictures back, most of them had been destroyed by the developer. However, the one shot that I didn’t throw away was this amazing shot of Ray Gillen in mid-performance. It actually was a mistaken photo that came out better than anything I could’ve shot on purpose. The band’s performance during the show was great even if I didn’t get to see it straight on.

The second show saw them as the opening band for Tesla and Great White at Great Woods in Mansfield, MA. That show was solid but it was obviously far shorter given their status as the opener.

While the band’s commercial fortunes didn’t match the quality of their material, I have no qualms saying that the Badlands album is without a doubt one of the best debut albums released during “The Metal Years”. It’s an album that found the band with all their combined experience already at the top of their game. If they’d been able to fend off all the problems that came their way (feuds, splits, death and withdrawal from the spotlight), I think they would’ve ended up as a far more important band than most would see them as these days. I think they really had that kind of potential. Don’t believe me? Check out this album and I believe you’ll change your mind.

NOTES OF INTEREST: After years out of the music spotlight, Jake E. Lee is back with his band Red Dragon Cartel. They’ve released two albums thus far. Eric Singer left Badlands after this first album. He was replaced by ex-Racer X drummer Jeff Martin. Singer went on to join Kiss where’s he’s been for years. Greg Chaisson had a solo album released in 1994 and made appearances on a few albums since the split but there’s no credits to his name that I can find since 1998. Ray Gillen died from AIDS-related complications in 1993.

In 1998, third album from the band was released in Japan. It is called Dusk. I have it and it is actually quite a good album.

The album was produced by Paul O’Neill, who among his many credits, was responsible for Trans-Siberian Orchestra (and a number of albums from Savatage before TSO came into being). The keyboard programming on Badlands was done by Bob Kinkel who was also a driving force in TSO.

And on a personal note, if anyone knows where I can get an inexpensive CD copy of this album it would be most appreciated as my cassette is pretty close to giving up the ghost.

The Cassette Chronicles – BEGGARS & THIEVES self-titled debut

By JAY ROBERTS

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.

BEGGARS & THIEVES – BEGGARS & THIEVES (1990)

Ahhh memories…I wish I could say that I had some when it comes to writing about Beggars & Thieves. Though I remember the band getting a promotional push when this first album of theirs was released, I’d be lying if I said that I remember much about them beyond that the lineup featured bassist Phil Soussan. I didn’t buy the album and can’t truthfully recall ever having heard any of the songs on the radio.

Of course, that’s part of the fun of this series. I get to look back at things I missed way back when and listen with mostly new ears. Sometimes that doesn’t quite pay off because the music isn’t great. Other times, it becomes a revelation because the music is so great that you find yourself becoming a belated fan. And then there are times when it is a mix of both of those trains of thought.

Such is the case with the band’s self-titled debut album. The album kicks off with a somewhat overlong intro to the song “No More Broken Dreams”. The intro went on long enough that I started wondering if the song was supposed to just be an instrumental. After that buildup the song started off in earnest. At first I wasn’t all that charmed by the track. However, the longer the song went on, it strangely grew on me. I think the vocals by singer Louie Merlino are what really captured my imagination.

Now I can’t say that I was that big of a fan of the rest of the songs on side one. Leaving aside my relative disdain for the ballad “Your Love Is In Vain”, the remaining three songs are all fast paced rockers. But the songs (“Billy Knows Better”, “Waitin’ For The Man” and “Isn’t It Easy”) all just failed to rise above much more than a description of “OK” for me. They aren’t bad songs, just kind of run of the mill with nothing you haven’t heard a million times before to set them apart.

After that somewhat disappointing first side, I wondered if there would be a change on the album’s second side. I wasn’t crazy about the side two opener “Let’s Get Lost”, but after that, the band rose to the occasion when it came to putting together some really great rocking numbers.

As a whole, the songs “Heaven & Hell” (not a Black Sabbath cover) and “Love Junkie” are just flat out fantastic tracks. But what really drove them home for me was the guitar work. Ronnie Mancuso was the guitarist for the band (with Merlino and Soussan credited with providing “additional guitar”) and he shined on these tracks in particular.

The oddly titled ballad “Kill Me” was just awful but the album closed out strongly with a the outstanding “Love’s A Bitch” and the title track. The band did a video for that title cut and the song was definitely worthy of being spotlighted for said video treatment

For a band that barely made an impression on me when they first launched, I was surprised to learn that they’d released four albums and an EP. The last album was released in 2011 and titled We Are The Brokenhearted. It reportedly got great reviews worldwide.

While I wasn’t overly sold on the debut album’s first side, the markedly improved songs on Side Two helped make this album an album that I’m happy to have finally discovered. More to the point, it actually created a desire to hear more of the band’s material to see just what I might’ve missed out on. I can’t think of a better endorsement than that.

NOTES OF INTEREST: Bassist Phil Soussan and drummer Bobby Borg left the band after this first album. Soussan left to join Vince Neil’s solo band. Borg would later play drums for Warrant on their Belly To Belly and Warrant Live 86 – 97 albums.

Though the band continued after the lineup changes (which included the addition of Billy Squier drummer Bobby Chouinard on drums) their second album, Look What You Create, didn’t come out until 1997. The album was recorded in 1992 but Epic Records dropped the band without releasing the album as the grunge music scene exploded.

Though he wasn’t a member of the band, Alan St. John played keys on the album. Like Bobby Chouinard, he played on a number of albums from Billy Squier, among his other credits.

 

The Cassette Chronicles #100 – Savatage’s ‘Gutter Ballet’

By JAY ROBERTS

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.

 

The Aristocrats to play the Middle East in Cambridge, MA

The Aristocrats, featuring guitarist Guthrie Govan, bassist Bryan Beller and drummer Marco Minnemann, have announced what will be their most extensive North American tour since their inception in 2011. The tour will make a stop at The Middle East in Cambridge, MA, on August 2, bringing the band’s unique and unrivalled brand of instrumental rock/fusion to the Greater Boston area. The Travis Larson Band will open the show. Purchase tickets HERE.

This tour date is in support of the band’s highly anticipated fourth studio release, their most ambitious and exploratory album yet, which is titled You Know What…?.

Over the past eight years The Aristocrats have released critically acclaimed albums, toured the world, and established themselves as one of the most musically original, refreshingly irreverent, and astoundingly entertaining instrumental rock-fusion acts on the planet. Anyone who’s witnessed their live musical high-wire act – employing random amounts of rock, jazz, pop, metal, and even traditional country – can attest that it is informed by the spirit of a true band, one whose improvisational soul allows for anything to happen onstage at any moment…including the occasional wink and nod at the audience.

Fans can expect to hear many new tracks from You Know What…? and some old favorites from their back catalogue, along with tales of the inspiration behind the tracks, for which The Aristocrats have become known.

For more information on The Aristocrats, please visit: 

For more information on Travis Larson Band, please visit: 

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