1995's Dead Winter Dead was yet another important turning point for Savatage. After the intentionally dark and brooding Handful of Rain, in memory of founding guitarist Criss Oliva, producer Paul O'Neill and Jon Oliva set out to redefine their music in every possible respect. For the first time ever, they would write an album entirely on a piano as opposed to guitar, and Paul would make wider use of Jon's keyboard playing, which gave them a new palette with new colours. Additionally, they would shift to being a two-guitarist band, employing Al Pitrelli and former Sava guitarist Chris Caffery, who had recorded the Doctor Butcher project with Jon Oliva the year before. The radical shift also included the recording services of renowned engineer Dave Wittman, which would result in Savatage being one of the best produced bands on the planet. To top it all off, they would also hire a new cover artist, Edgar Jerins, whose stunning work here perfectly portrays the concept story.
Having already scratched the surface previously on "Visions" and "Watching You Fall" on Handful of Rain, Dead Winter Dead turned out to be a concept album entirely dedicated to the war in Bosnia during the 90's, which took the lives of so many innocent civilians, most of whom were women and children. To fully capture the tragic storyline, Paul O'Neill also adopted more poetic lyrics with rhyming verses, and an added prose put at the beginning of the booklet detailing the concept to make it easier for listeners to follow the story. Basically, the album examines the tragedies of war manifested in Sarajevo, a city O'Neill had visited prior to its downfall, from the perspectives of both sides, reaching itz zenith during the amazing instrumental "Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)". Not only did this song spawn their platinum-selling TSO project, it is also a strong example of how powerful and expressive music can be without the inclusion of lyrics, if done right. The use of gentle, heart-warming symphonic passages represent the Bosnian Muslims whilst the pulverizing rock guitars highlight the Serbians, supplying a unique yet very honest dichotomy. Yet amidst all this chaos and anarchy is placed a timeless cello melody wafting across no-man's land (see concept for more details about how O'Neill was inspired by cellist Vedran Smailovic's true story).
The album also marks the return of founding member Jon Oliva on lead vocals on two songs after an absence of two albums. However, it is virtually impossible to ignore his impact on this album, as he remained the primary songwriter and contributed lots of instruments to the album. Driven by new drummer Jeff Plate's militaristic rhythms, "I Am" (originally titled "The Answer You Seek") is carried by his trademark laugh and sinister vocals, and stands out for its intensely epic symphonic arrangement. The piece is underscored by an addictive guitar lick by new lead guitarist Al Pitrelli. Similarly, "Doesn't Matter Anyway" proves to be a vital step in the flow of the concept, given its rapid-fire lyrics, hammering leads by Chris Caffery, and a stunning bass solo.
Al Pitrelli makes tremendous contribution to the album, starting with "This Is the Time (1990)", a song that kicks in after two relatively shorter pieces, the stuttering rhythmic stomp of "Overture"; and piano-based "Sarajevo", highlighting Zak Stevens' voice amidst a rising guitar force at the end. Pitrelli's fretwork in the intro of the song is drop-dead gorgeous, utilising meticulous bends and thick, full guitar chords never before heard on a Savatage album. The song immediately sinks to the depths of despair, being written in a very sad key, but it also has an explosive main chorus which brings it back into major key. After a solo piano and heart-stoppingly emotional vocals by Zak, Pitrelli wraps the piece up laying down quite possibly the finest run-out lead riff on the album, and thus, declaring this is still Savatage, but a different and more progressive one.
Although, technically speaking, there are four instrumental cuts on the CD, only two of them are full-blown pieces, the others serving as intros to the album and title track respectively. An eerily beautiful cello motif is wrung through "Mozart and Madness", which borrows Mozart's 25th Symphony during the middle (recorded in a single take by Pitrelli!) and rocks its way into the soul. This is followed by "Memory", complete with Beethoven's Ninth Symphony (see Trans-Siberian Orchestra's Beethoven's Last Night masterpiece if you want more in this vein). Barely over a minute, it bleeds into the title track, providing a main riff dangerously similar to the one on "Conversation Piece" from Edge of Thorns. This is another heavier song like "I Am", but it boasts solid drum fills and a lead solo by Caffery, who except two songs, is responsible for the rhythm tracks on this disc.
Previously experimented on "Chance", the band makes use of strong counterpoint vocal harmonies on two songs: their first single "One Child" and closing track "Not What You See", ultimately moving because of its intense harmonizing and tapping into multiple emotions. As different melodies, words, and ideas all flow together simultaneously where it comes to the point you can't discern each line individually, one particular verse stands out: Zak's repeated "I don't understand" croon. It is incredibly beautiful and cements Savatage as one of the greatest bands with some of the most haunting album finales ever. I do not know of any other acts who have consistently closed their records with songs as powerful as "Believe", "Sleep", "Alone You Breathe", and "Back to a Reason". Extra praise goes to Zak Stevens: it is hard to imagine another replacement for Jon Oliva, the original voice of Savatage. Without him, this album would never be what it is.
This was Savatage's second concept album after their undisputed masterpiece Streets. However, the tone and message of Dead Winter Dead is more universally structured, and the flow of the story is more focused and defined. There really aren't many concept albums this good around, so it is highly recommended you give this CD a chance.
- This Is the Time (1990)
- I Am
- Doesn't Matter Anyway
- This Isn't What We Meant
- Mozart and Madness
- Dead Winter Dead
- One Child
- Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24)
- Not What You See