There are moments when some artists reach bottom (artistic or commercial) or they just were misguided to the "wrong" direction from labels-managers-executives. In a few occasions, some artists return in full glory. Hall of the Mountain King, originally released exactly 30 years ago, on September 28th of 1987, is the perfect example. Let's remember...
by Andreas Andreou
(with a contribution - epilogue by Johnny Lee Middleton)
Atlantic Records signed Savatage in 1984 and the band had already released Sirens (1983) and The Dungeons Are Calling (1984), that were both recorded at the same session. Power of the Night (1985) was the first major-label album and one year later, Fight for the Rock was the release that nearly killed the band. A wrong album for a wrong band. It is not bad, but it is wrong. Forward after the release and the tour; Enter Paul O'Neill.
The band almost broke up and thought the end is near. Paul O'Neill is the "x-factor" that took them by the hand and lead them to a brighter future. He encouraged Criss and Jon Oliva to start writing new material and so they did. This time, the band composed without any label or management interference and once the material was ready, Savatage entered studio and completed the album with Paul O'Neill. As Johnny Lee Middleton has said, "Never give up on what you believe in and do not be afraid to struggle and suffer through the tough times because quitters never win and winners never quit".
Besides production, O'Neill gets some credits on songs, too. Later, he will take care of all lyrics also, giving to the band an extra maturity, but from this time and on, he is the only one that will guide the band and he also became a key piece of the Savatage songwriting formula.
While Jon Oliva is inspired and loves The Beatles, Black Sabbath and Ozzy in general, Criss Oliva is mainly inspired by the songwriting of the first two Ozzy albums and Randy Rhoads, and that's very clear to the first songs the brothers composed and recorded in their early years, and how those songs evolved after 1983. Jon has stated that "There's no one heavier than Sabbath; they have surprise songs and different arrangements that you don't expect". For him, Sabbath Bloody Sabbath is one of the greatest albums ever. While recording Gutter Ballet, Paul O'Neill said "I have way more classical and Broadway influences; Jon, on the other hand, has more Beatles influence. But we're both influenced by Black Sabbath". This is one of the main reasons why Savatage sound so different from most of the US metal bands. While most of those bands are influenced by Iron Maiden (and Queensryche), you can barely listen to any Iron Maiden influence on Savatage... If you will add the uniqueness of both Oliva brothers and the later addition of O'Neill, you have Savatage.
[There are many trivia and connections between Savatage and Black Sabbath-Ozzy, but this needs to be another chapter in the play. If I will find some time, I might come with something in the future.]
During 1988, with a major label supporting the band, Hall of the Mountain King had become Savatage's best-selling album and a world tour followed, including support shows with Megadeth and Dio. At that point and after O'Neill's suggestion, Savatage added a second guitar for the live shows to keep the rhythm playing during Criss' leads. Criss had a few thoughts about it in the beginning but in the end, they did it and Chris Caffery stepped in. The tour started with power and success despite being the opening act. Dave Mustaine even thought about the possibility of Criss Oliva joining Megadeth according to Sava-sources. However, Jon Oliva went a "little too far" during that tour, living the "rock n' roll life" just like one of his idols, Ozzy Osbourne and it took no long until he entered a chemical rehabilitation program. This situation stopped the band since they had to cancel a scheduled tour, including the European dates. The future was different for the band and it took them a few more years for a big commercial success, under a different line-up...
Hall of the Mountain King is one of the best metal albums ever, from one of the greatest metal bands ever. An ageless masterpiece with top notch musicianship. Raw, insane, solid and emotional at the same time. Two music video clips were shot, one for "Hall of the Mountain King" and one for "24 Hrs. Ago" with the same titled track getting a lot of airplay at Headbanger's Ball TV show, something that was very important at the pre-internet era and helped the sales and band's exposure.
There is one special guest at that album, singer Ray Gillen, brought in by Paul O'Neill who was his manager at the time because he needed another kind of voice and harmony to serve as an instrument in the chorus of "Strange Wings". That was one of the first recordings of Gillen who previously had performed even punk rock before entering the hard rock and metal scene. During that period, Ray Gillen had replaced Glenn Hughes in Black Sabbath and recorded vocals for The Eternal Idol album, before they were also replaced by Tony Martin's voice in the final release. Paul O'Neill produced (and helped write) the debut album of Badlands, fronted by Ray Gillen with ex-Ozzy Osbourne guitarist Jake E. Lee but also Eric Singer who among others also performed with Black Sabbath. Bob Kinkel, a keyboardist and music engineer, a regular partner of Paul O'Neill, also helped in the debut album of Badlands that was released in 1989 but most important, he was introduced to Savatage during the recordings of Hall of the Mountain King with additional keyboards. Kinkel will be a key person in the following years of Savatage and the formation of Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
Criss Oliva is probably one of the best guitarists in metal music, with a unique and recognizable sound, unmatchable tone and feeling, and personally, I always had him in my Top-5 list. But I have to add, that Jon Oliva is also one of the most unique and emotional singers out there. I love his voice and his performance, and I don't understand why he is not mentioned among the greatest ones.
When I posted this synopsis on my personal facebook account, Johnny Lee Middleton came up to my post with this amazing text about the writing and recordings of Hall of the Mountain King:
"We wrote the songs for this album in a warehouse area of a strip mall on US 19 in Palm Harbor, FL. It was a storage area for a company called Cage Maid that sold plastic bird mess catchers that were placed under a bird cage. The guy who rented the place named Reggie was a friend of the band and he let us use his storage area for free. We could only work at night when the businesses in the strip mall were closed but we had a small monitor/PA system and all night to work on songs. We never invited anyone to rehearsals as we had work to do and did not want to perform for friends. After we had a bunch of songs in the can Paul came down and we got into the final arrangement mode and tightening things up. After a few weeks of working with Paul we were ready for the studio to record this. We flew to NYC and went to work at the legendary Record Plant Studio. All of us stayed in a 2 bed seedy and smelly hotel room I think was called the Times Square Motor Lodge. We took turns sleeping on a bed or floor, lived on Peanut butter and jelly as well as Rays pizza and soup. I think I made $25.00 a day and that was barely enough to survive in NYC but we made it work and did not complain as this is what we believed in and we wanted it to be a record that was ours and something to be proud of. I was born and raised in Florida and living in the Hells Kitchen area of NYC in the mid eighties was nothing like the beach where I grew up and to say I was scared would be an understatement. 16 hour days and sleeping on a floor were the norm in our world and many times I slept in the vocal booth of the studio because I was afraid to go to the hotel at 4 AM. As the recording process progressed our relationship with Paul grew stronger and we finally felt we had a leader and a friend that believed in us. It was a tough time in our lives and we sacrificed everything to make this record and with the grace of God and a bit of luck we got something we could believe in. Never give up on what you believe in and do not be afraid to struggle and suffer through the tough times because quitters never win and winners never quit".
Tracklist: 1. 24 Hours Ago, 2. Beyond the Doors of the Dark, 3. Legions, 4. Strane Wings, 5. Prelude to Madness, 6. Hall of the Mountain King, 7. The Price You Pay. 8. White Witch, 9. Last Dawn.
Savatage: Jon Oliva (lead vocals, piano), Criss Oliva (guitars), Johnny Lee Middleton (bass guitar), Steve Wacholz (drums).
Additional musicians: Robert Kinkel (keyboards), Ray Gillen (backing vocals).
Produced by Paul O'Neill.
Album cover by Gary Smith.
During the Hall of the Mountain King sessions, one more song was recorded, titled "This Is Where You Should Be" that didn't make it to the album but it was available in the From the Gutter to the Stage best-of collection. That song, was a power ballad, like many of those Savatage recorded in the later years.