According to one bestselling author, every story has four parts – the beginning, the middle, the almost-ending and the true ending.
Obviously, this author wasn’t familiar with Savatage, whose improbable story is littered with one almost-ending after another. To most bands, each would have proven fatal, but for Savatage, they simply marked the beginning of another chapter in the play – and against all odds, 40 years since the group emerged from the Florida swamps, and two full decades after recording their apparent final album, the band’s true ending has yet to be written.
The Savatage story began in the late 1970s, when a Michael Schenker-worshipping teenage guitarist named Criss Oliva and his older brother, a charismatic vocalist and multi-instrumentalist named Jon, started a band together. In 1983, after several name and lineup changes, the newly-christened Savatage – Jon, Criss, bassist Keith Collins and drummer Steve Wacholz – recorded their debut album, “Sirens,” at Tampa’s Morrisound Studios. Its impact was primarily felt locally at first, as Morrisound quickly became ground zero of a robust Florida metal scene, but eventually, the record caught the attention of an executive at Atlantic Records in New York City. After flying south to see the band perform live, he signed Savatage to a long-term recording contract and paired them with producer Max Norman (Ozzy Osbourne) to make their major-label debut, 1985’s “Power of the Night.”
The following year, Savatage experienced their first almost-ending after “Fight For The Rock,” their second Atlantic release (and first with bassist Johnny Lee Middleton), failed to connect. With the band on the verge of breaking up, the label asked up-and-coming producer and songwriter Paul O’Neill (Aerosmith) to help right the ship. O’Neill flew to Florida to see the group in concert, and from there, he and the Oliva brothers soon began writing 1987’s celebrated “Hall of the Mountain King.” The album’s anthemic title track would become one of the group’s most popular songs, and the record’s success led to an invitation to tour American arenas with Dio and Megadeth. Before hitting the road, Savatage recruited second guitarist Chris Caffery, who would officially join the band several months later.
While the Dio/Megadeth tour was a golden opportunity for Savatage, the band’s embrace of an overindulgent rock n’ roll lifestyle led to another almost-ending. Again, though, they somehow emerged even stronger. On 1989’s “Gutter Ballet,” the band pushed the limits of how heavy metal could sound by further incorporating keyboards, symphonic orchestration and a theatrical flair. On stage, meanwhile, they were fiercer than ever, which they demonstrated night after night on tour with the likes of Testament and King Diamond.
In 1991, Savatage released its sixth album, the rock opera “Streets.” Based on an unpublished musical O’Neill had written a dozen years prior, the record – which told of a musician’s rise, fall and redemption – showcased a band hitting its creative stride, albeit at precisely the wrong time. As Music Radar wrote in a 2018 retrospective, “Grunge, which embraced much of punk’s stripped-down mentality and modest musicianship, was the hot new sound; a grandiose, conceptual metal record that sounded like the love child of Queen and Black Sabbath didn’t stand a chance.” (Score this as an almost-almost-ending.)
“Streets” would prove to be the final album recorded by the “classic” Savatage lineup, as in 1992, Jon stepped down as lead vocalist. He continued to write and record with the group, however, and also helped Criss and O’Neill select Zachary Stevens as the band’s new front man. While O’Neill believed that the riskiest thing a band can do is change singers, Savatage managed to once again shrug off an almost-ending and achieved newfound success with 1993’s “Edge of Thorns,” the title track of which became the band’s first U.S. rock radio hit.
Six months after the album’s release, however, tragedy struck when Criss was killed by a drunk driver. For all intents and purposes, his death should have marked the true ending of Savatage, but after his brother and O’Neill finished writing a tribute song together, they decided that the best way to honor his memory was to keep Savatage alive. Accordingly, just 11 months after Criss’ passing, the band released their seventh album, “Handful of Rain,” which featured Alex Skolnick (Testament) on lead guitar. Skolnick subsequently joined the group on brief U.S. and Japanese tours, which also saw the addition of drummer Jeff Plate and the official return of Jon Oliva on keyboards and vocals.
After Skolnick’s amicable departure in 1995, Savatage recruited Al Pitrelli (Alice Cooper) for their second rock opera, “Dead Winter Dead.” The album marked the beginning of a fruitful fellowship among its six musicians that continues to this day.
While previous Savatage recordings saw the band experiment with progressive rock, conceptual storylines, symphonic instrumentals, thickly-layered vocal harmonies and lyrics inspired by both history and current events, “Dead Winter Dead” was their first to feature all of the above. For a normal group, this degree of musical schizophrenia would have been career suicide (or at least an almost-ending), but in the case of Savatage, it led to the biggest hit of their career – a song so successful that it would soon outgrow the very band that recorded it.
Simply put, “Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)” changed everything. It wasn’t obvious at first, as Savatage and their newly-launched side project Trans-Siberian Orchestra managed to successfully coexist for a few years. TSO’s first rock opera (which featured “12/24” as its centerpiece) was released in 1996; Savatage released a rock opera of its own, “The Wake of Magellan,” the following year; TSO’s second and third records surfaced in 1998 in 2000, respectively; and 2001 saw the release of “Poets and Madmen,” Savatage’s eleventh album (and their eighth produced by O’Neill). This pace, however, proved unsustainable, and after the extensive world tour in support of “Poets and Madmen,” Savatage began an indefinite hiatus so that the band members and O’Neill could devote more energy to TSO, which was fast becoming one of the most successful touring acts in rock history.
For the next dozen years, it seemed as if TSO’s runaway success marked the true ending of Savatage, but in 2014, the band announced that it would reunite at the following year’s edition of Wacken Open Air, the largest annual metal festival in the world. In proper Savatage fashion, this would prove to be anything but a typical reunion concert, as the majority of the 2 ½-hour performance saw the group play concurrently with TSO on adjacent stages before an estimated crowd of 80,000.
In 2017, however, the tragic death of O’Neill – Savatage’s longtime unofficial fifth, then sixth, then seventh member – led further reunion plans to be shelved indefinitely. While it’s still uncertain when the group’s true ending will be written once and for all, one thing remains clear – the crowds won’t ever be gone. We’ll be right there; we’ll never leave.