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Criss Oliva – Even When The Crowds Are Gone, The Orchestra Will Never Stop Playing

With all the memories and tributes to fallen rockers that have passed away during the internet age, it seems that the ones that passed away tragically previously are more or less forgotten by the masses unless they were part of a superstar act or where the superstar act themselves.

And this brings me to the guitarist known as Criss Oliva who tragically passed away on October 17, 1993 when a drunk driver crossed the road and hit Criss Oliva and his wife head on.

The “Gutter Ballet” LP was my first introduction to Savatage. I actually purchased the album based on the excellent album cover by Gary Smith. The picture of the guitar through the top part of the piano was the initial connection and then the picture of the guitar in the trashcan with a rat climbing on it on the back was the final deal breaker that made me decide that I had to part with my money to purchase the album.

I purchased it from a market stall for $10 which was cheap for Australian standards as the retail shops were selling LP’s for $20. Hence, every Saturday, I would catch a train or a bus to the Saturday markets and stock up on LP’s. A lot of the cases it would be LP’s that I had a copy of on cassette and in some cases it would be a “leap of faith” purchases.

Yes, fans of music pirated back then as well. That is why blank cassette tapes proved to be lucrative business for the manufacturers.

I remember staring at the cover on the trip home, then walking briskly up the hill, getting into the house all sweaty from the hill walk, breaking the shrink-wrap and dropping the needle.

I was immediately blown away.

I found out years later that it was the bands fifth full length album. How many bands in 2014 would stick around for five albums? I was reading the album credits, looking for names I might know from previous albums.

Jason Flom seemed familiar, however it was the name Paul O’Neill that made a connection with me as he was also part of the debut Badlands album.

This album was a true turning point for the band.

It didn’t sell in the millions, but a classic album it is none the less. When I talk about Savatage to people, this is the album I put on. The reason why it is so magical is that it captures the transition that the band was going through perfectly. It still pays its respect to their past sound and it also paved the way for their future-direction. And that is what music is all about, a snap shot of a certain point in time.

“Gutter Ballet” also became a leader for a new genre that incorporated power metal with orchestral/symphonic flourishes.

“Of Rage And War” kicks off proceedings with helicopters and other sounds from the various war machines. The whole intro reminds me of Megadeth. The song is about transforming powerlessness into anger.

Better listen to me you son of a bitch
Better disarm those missiles sleeping in the ditch
You have no goddamn right to do the things you do
The world would be a better place if we were rid of you

It’s progressive and aggressive. It’s thrashy and snarly. It’s melodic and chromatic. It is a metal song of the angriest order and it made the impression on me that I purchased a full-blown thrash metal album.

Wasn’t I wrong.

“Gutter Ballet” is the epic six-minute anthem. It starts off with that melancholic piano intro in the key of D minor and then when the guitars come in along with the head stomping drums, the song transitions into a unique groove of “hard rock” clashing with “classical” and “classical” clashing with “symphonic” elements. It leaves an everlasting memory.

After the brutal power of ‘Of Rage and War’, the quiet piano intro surprised me as well as the subject matter that deals with the reality of the streets.

In the end it is the guitar the drives the song along. Check out the whole section before the lead break, then the lead break itself and then the syncopated parts coming out of the lead break. It’s perfect and the legato phrasing is liquid like melodic.

The title “Gutter Ballet” actually came from a play that producer Paul O’Neill had written in the early seventies, which of course went on to become the basis for the “Streets” concept album that followed “Gutter Ballet”.

Another sleepless night
A concrete paradise
Sirens screaming in the heat
Neon cuts the eye
As the jester sighs
At the world beneath his feet

“Temptation Revelation” follows and it is an instrumental. At one stage it was the original title for the LP. The guitar work from Criss Oliva again makes it. It has this Euro-Vibe style of guitar playing. A favourite of mine at that time was John Norum who in 1989 was the ex-Europe guitarist, who was also moving onto a solo career and in between he worked with Don Dokken, Glenn Hughes and other high-powered vocalists.

“When The Crowds Are Gone” is one of the best ballads, ever. Jon’s melancholic voice carries the song as it is filled with genuine emotion. To explain what the song is about, this is what Jon Oliva told Metal Hammer in February 1990;

“It’s the life story of a musician who has been trying to become successful all his life. In vain, of course and so finally he breaks down. How, that’s not the main issue, because this can happen in many different ways. Suicide, an overdose of drugs…

I’ve seen it happen around me, so I know what I’m talking about. And that goes for our producer, Paul O’Neill, who helped me write the lyrics, as well. He also knew musicians who went down because of the lack of success.

The musician that this song is about spent his whole life composing one song, that was meant to be his absolute masterpiece. Finally, he completes the song, but then he’s too old himself to accomplish anything with it. He’s past the height of his glory.

Then finally when the song gets airplay, it is too late, because it is at his own funeral. The way its written, it is of course purely imaginative, but the reasons to write the lyrics the way they were, unfortunately are very true. It has cost me a lot to sing this song. Because it was so personal, and because I wanted it to carry the right emotion, vocally. Listen to the end of the song, then you’ll understand what I’m talking about.”

I don’t know where the years have gone
Memories can only last so long
Like faded photographs, forgotten songs

“Silk And Steel” is another instrumental and it reminds me of “Air” from Jason Becker. Another guitarist that in this case was tragically struck down with a terminal illness. “Silk And Steel” is a highlight as it features Criss Oliva’s at his “Segovia” best. A virtuosic, lively and carefree performance.

Side one ended and I needed to replay it before I moved onto side two. That is how music should be. Replayable over and over again.

“Shes In Love” kicks off side 2. The only song with weak lyrics, however it is important to note its place in the Savatage canon and an ode to the Accept style of Hard Rock/Metal that Savatage also dabbled in.

She likes what she sees
Starts to drop to her knees
Gazing with an appetite
Licks her lips in sheer delight

“Hounds” was an inspiration to me as a guitarist. I used the songs structure as a template for songs that I would write back then. I loved it’s epic feel and under it all there is this doomy technical atmosphere.

The lyrics are pure fantasy, however if you want to attach it to a rock n roll story, look no further than Robert Johnson and the hell hounds chasing him.

Do you hear the hounds they call
Scan the dark eyes aglow
Through the bitter rain and cold
They hunt you down
Hunt you down

“The Unholy” could be from any classic metal album. The whole intro at first reminds me of “Lucretia” from Megadeth.

Another song that deals with fantasy, and about the way evil came to earth.

In distant ages long ago
Before the birth of Christ
Lived a race trapped in soul
Terror on the rise
United beyond the storm
They ruled the astral plane
No one could stop them
They wouldn’t fall
In a while they would soon reign

“Mentally Yours” sounds like an Alice Cooper song. Even the lyrical themes are very shock-rock Cooperish and it kicks off a concept suite, however since I was the owner of the LP version, I never heard the final song until years later.

His tension life
He beats the wife
Doused the cat with gasoline
He’s rather try
The other side
He just has to get away
That’s when it all began
Timmy lost his mind
Was just a matter of time
Before he went crazy

“Summer’s Rain” is another great ballad. In the theme of the concept story, this is how Jon Oliva explained in that Metal Hammer February 1990 interview.

“‘Summer’s Rain’ gets deeper into the relationship between Timmy and his girlfriend from ‘Mentally Yours’ (the previous track on Gutter Ballet). Timmy already is twisted, but when he finds out that she’s cheating on him he totally loses control. In the end, she leaves him and Timmy ends up in a mental institution. Like I said, totally made up, but these things happen all the time here in the States.”

Scars are the wounds that we show
Time only heals
If you’re letting go

Criss Oliva is one of the most emotive and eclectic metal guitarists. The album is littered with so many different guitar techniques.

– Emotive guitar leads on “Temptation Revelation”
– Acoustic Fingerpicking on “Silk And Steel”
– Thrash, angry snarly riffs on “Of Rage And War”
– Classicalisms and hard rockisms on “Gutter Ballet”
– Melodic harmonies on songs like “Summers Rain” and “When The Crowds Are Gone”
– Epic progressive metal on “Hounds” along with a bit of Black Sabbath doom.
– Classic power metal on “The Unholy”.
– AC/DC meets ACCEPT style of hard rock on “Shes In Love”

All in all, if metal is your taste then you need to hear this album. If you are a genre hopping musical fan, then this album is a must for the metal genre.

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