After 1986's lackluster attempt at commercialism with Fight for the Rock, Savatage came to the point of break-up, and had it not been for the arrival of producer Paul O'Neill, we might have never heard from them again -- at least in this capacity. Paul O'Neill reinstated the band, bringing in new elements that would heighten them to a new level, and also contribute to the songwriting. Interestingly, the three tracks he co-wrote with the Oliva brothers also proved to be among the band's all-time finest heavy metal staples. The first song, "24 Hours Ago", backed by Middleton's unbreakable bass drive, boasts a majestic riff and awesome tapping from Criss Oliva -- and the presence of O'Neill shows.
However, it was with the amazing instrumental "Prelude to Madness", inspired by Romantic era musician Edvard Grieg's Peer Gynt Suite (1874-1875), that Savatage started displaying signs of evolving into the unique heavy metal band on which their successive albums would further expand. Bringing in classical music arrangements, interpreted by Criss Oliva's sharp guitar playing, the song is originally called "Hall of the Mountain King" from which the title of this album was inspired. In the long run, this would culminate in vocalist Jon Oliva being called the Mountain King and become an indispensable song played in pretty much every concert (along with pieces like "Believe" from Streets). Introducing Oliva's trademark evil laughter, irresistible riffery, and fantastic guitar theme along with Wacholz' furious drumming, "Hall of the Mountain King" ranks among heavy metal's most representative anthems of all times.
"Legions" is comprised of a strong bass intro, stratosphere vocals, and some of Criss' finest playing. It was with this album he started opting to create threads of mini "guitar choruses", which he would perfect on the following three albums. And when supported by Steve Wacholz' drum parts, it felt like Savatage songs had one vocal and one guitar chorus, which resulted in them being all the more powerful. I love the solo on this song. Had "Strange Wings" been featured on their previous album, it could have garnered them more critical acclaim than all songs on there combined. It is easily the most melodically engaging track on this CD, decorated yet with another awesome guitar theme, some beautiful Van Halen-style tapping harmony, and a killer vocal support by Ray Gillen (spelt Gillian in the booklet) of Badlands and Black Sabbath fame. As strange as it may seem, O'Neill was actually planning to use the classical-themed guitar music, which later spawned the Trans-Siberian Orchestra project, with Gillen-era Sabbath, but the project never took off the ground because of Gillen's untimely death.
Unlike many other Savatage albums, Hall of the Mountain King also features two tracks penned by the Oliva brothers on their own. "Beyond the Doors of the Dark", the lost song from this record, is sort of a foreshadowing of Jon Oliva's interest in theatrical vocals a la 70's Alice Cooper and one of the first Tage tunes to utilise a keyboard in its intro. Complete with his scorching screams and Criss' remarkable soloing, this is one of the darkest and most mesmerizing Savatage tunes of their 80's era. Similarly, Criss Oliva appears on the short instrumental, "Last Dawn", a piece he wrote for his wife (may both rest in peace!).
Hall of the Mountain King was basically the band's greatest achievement upon its release, and is still regarded their best record by their old-school fan base. While it is important to note its historical significance for Savatage, the Oliva brothers, along with Paul O'Neill, would go on putting out other amazing discs, each considerably better than this one.
- 24 Hours Ago
- Beyond the Doors of the Dark
- Strange Wings
- Prelude to Madness
- Hall of the Mountain King
- The Price You Pay
- White Witch
- Last Dawn