One Word Review: Primal
Back in 1982 an American band called Avatar made their first three-track EP, City Beneath the Surface. Soon after they were forced to change their name and guitarist Criss Oliva's girlfriend came up with Savatage. Thus a legend was born. The next year they released their debut album Sirens, a Heavy Metal album filled with intensity and primal urges.
Savatage was a band that developed a lot through their more than 20 years on the scene. I would say that Sirens shows them from their most "brutal caveman-like"-side, and that is not necessarily a bad thing. The rawness and eagerness of the band appeals to me. Especially with the later, more polished albums, it is interesting to go back and listen to this, where the band create the foundation of their sound with simple means and lots of improvisation.
According to Jon Oliva, this album, along with the songs of the EP, "The Dungeons Are Calling", were recorded and mixed in 24 hours, because the band only had money for one day in the studio. I find this fact quite amazing and it also explains the special feeling which is all over the album, it is not perfect, but it feels honest, inspired and invigorating in its own special way. The songs recorded during this session would not fit onto one LP so the decision was made to split what was supposed to be one album, into two. The 2010 re-release by EARMusic collects the complete session on one CD but I am sticking to the Silver Edition, released in 2002 in this review and will get to the silver edition of Dungeons... later.
Guitar genius Criss Oliva (R.I.P.) is a big part of the special Savatage sound. He is constantly engaged in the music in some way, be it a riff, a fill or a small twist on the melody lines. It never gets boring listening to him play. He fuses his solos and riffs with a special emotion I have not found anywhere else. Along with his brother and lead singer Jon Oliva they make up the main songwriters and are the driving force behind this incarnation of the band. Jon Oliva's voice may take a little time to get used to, but once you discover the many layers his voice has, you will never tire of listening to him sing. That is the case for me anyway. The rhythm section is nice and tight with Keith Collins on bass playing a major part is several songs and drummer Steve Wacholz as the firm anchorman of the band.
I will comment on a few of my absolute favorite songs.
Sirens is the defining moment on the album. A very very cool riff lays the foundation, on which Jon Oliva presents his horror story. The song is short, to the point and delivers a headbanging punch. I really love Criss Oliva's fills, which change with every second line and this song is the perfect excuse to bring out your air guitar. The song slows down for a quick breath of air before inventing what would later become a classic Savatage trademark, the insane Oliva scream. The chimes add an extra layer to the sound, especially in the end where it feels as if they tease the guitar. Overall this is an inventive and insanely cool beginning to the album.
Holocaust is a futuristic vision of hell on earth. The song has a good atmosphere due to the ominous riff next to Steve Wacholz' precise drumming and of course the air-raid siren. The highlight of the song is the guitar playing, which has lots of detail and changes with each chorus and of course Jon's wild singing.
After the thundering end of Holocaust the story continues in I believe where a quiet guitar section sets a different mood alltogether. Jon sings with raw emotion about leaving earth and suddenly the song picks up speed with a crazy and really brilliant guitar solo. The following section has a great drive, provided by the union of fast guitar riffs and drumming along with a tight bass section. A volcano-like scream leads into the third guitar solo of the song and its frenzied ending, where Criss Oliva lets all systems go.
It's time to go back to Jon Oliva's twisted mind in Twisted Little Sister. With lyrics like those on display here, the sexual undertones, which pervade many early Savatage songs, come to life in all their masochistic g(l)ory. I find the lyrics very inventive and funny and often think, "How the hell did he come up with that?". This is a pretty simple song made interesting by several twists along the way and it is a nice forerunner of She's In Love from Gutter Ballet as well as Skull Session from Power of The Night. The bass also plays a main part in the song, which is nice to hear.
Scream Murder is another favorite. Jon Oliva's vocal performance is varied and he sounds like a madman through most of the song. He brings a whole other level of intensity to the song and that leads me to visualize the song clearly in my mind. The amazing part with Jon's insane scream which leads directly into a fantastic guitar solo, is the absolute highlight of the song. A headbanging nod goes out to the great bass playing in this section too. Vocal performances like in this song, is why I have always thought that Jon Oliva was the perfect singer for Savatage. His voice is unique and he always gives himself 100%.
More basic, down to earth songs include the hard and fast Rage and the heavy couple On the run and Living for the Night. Similar for the songs is that the guitarwork is amazing, but the songs lack that extra Savatage touch to make them really special and I they don't keep my attention on repeated listens.
Out On The Streets is the ballad of the album and it is also one of my least favorite Savatage ballads. It just lacks that certain something, which songs like In The Dream, Summer's Rain and When The Crowd Are Gone have. Still Criss Oliva's emotional guitar soloing is worth the price of admission.
This Silver Anniversay Edition contains a beefed up sound, as well as three bonus tracks, especially the acoustic guitar piece by Criss is cool. I lived with the original Sirens album for a long time and this new release is definitely still worth the purchase.
Sirens is not as innovative as later Savatage albums, but it has the power, the rawness and the intensity to make a big impression. It is special to me, not only for the fact that this was the beginning of one of my top 3 favorite bands, but because it is simply a collection of great songs.
Written By Steen
Online: Wednesday, February 24, 2016