If your only exposure to Savatage has been the Florida-based band's output during the past decade, you owe it to yourself to spend some time with Sirens and Dungeons Are Calling. In fact, Savatage's first two albums - now remastered and released individually by Metal Blade Records with five bonus tracks and two hidden songs, plus repackaged with special silver covers and a band chronology - are worthy companions to last year's Poets & Madmen record, as all three feature the guttural and scowly vocals of Jon Oliva. And it's intriguing to once again hear the raw beginnings of a band that continually evolves, yet remains one of metal's most consistent bets.
Savatage was originally known as Avatar, and the name was (very) briefly changed to Savatar and eventually Savatage shortly before the release of Sirens in 1983. Sirens and Dungeons Are Calling (released a year later) were recorded during the same three-day period. Both albums feature Jon Oliva, his guitar-playing brother Criss Oliva (who died in a 1993 car accident), bass player Keith Collins and drummer Steve Wacholz. Even in these remastered versions, Sirens and Dungeons Are Calling sound primitive, a messy mix of thrash and death metal with very few hints of the progressive elements that would eventually characterize albums like 1995's Dead Winter Dead and 1997's The Wake of Magellan (which, incidentally, both featured the slightly more palatable voice of Zak Stevens).
Throughout both of these early records, the rhythm section churns violently, as Jon Oliva's distinct vocals prowl all over songs like "Holocaust" and "Rage" from Sirens and "The Grave of the Witch" and "Metalhead" from Dungeons Are Calling. Both albums also have their quieter moments, thanks to Criss Oliva's subtle yet electrified guitar skills, but most of the songs that begin with a mellow guitar intro (sometimes complete with bells and wind chimes) eventually segue into all-out scorchers that unfortunately, make these two albums sound way too similar to each other. One major difference, however, can be found in the lyrical matter. Dungeons Are Calling is laced with fantasy tales. Even the title track, about the horrors of drug use, is riddled with medieval references.
Sirens and Dungeons Are Calling, despite sounding dated today - don't old Metallica and Megadeth sound the same way in 2002? - remain vital releases simply because of the groundwork they laid. After succumbing to major-label pressure with a more commercial sound on 1985's Power of the Night and 1986's Fight For the Rock, Savatage returned to their heavier roots on 1987's Hall of the Mountain King. That album began the band's long-term relationship with producer Paul O'Neill (Trans-Siberian Orchestra) and signaled a major turning point for Savatage, with sales of each successive album reportedly topping the previous one. With the departure of Stevens, and the return of both a harder sound and Jon Oliva to the microphone on Poets & Madmen, Savatage have seemingly come full circle. Let's start at the very beginning …