Savatage - Poets And Madmen

Year of Release: 2001
Label: SPV/Steamhammer
Catalog Number: 08872150
Format: CD
Total Time: 66:21:00

There are some truly sublime moments on this album, the latest from prog metal masters Savatage. Poets & Madmen is a mixture of crunchy progressive metal, hard rock, and some very folk like moments. There were times where I thought of Metallica, AC/DC, and Jim Croce. Yes, Jim Croce. With shades of Billy Joel. Also at times, I think of Ancient Vision, who is more a grizzled prog rock band than metal. But there those very epic, classical moments as on "Morphine Child" - choirs and a highly orchestrated arrangements, voices in counterpoint and harmony ? and also very Teutonic. The legions are marching through the muck ? but that has nothing to do with the concept, of course. At more than 10 minutes, "Morphine" is the longest track Savatage has ever written. "Commissar" has this same feel, this venturing more towards the Jag Panzer end of things.

"The Rumor (Jesus)" has the rock intensity that parts of Jesus Christ Superstar has?which is either coincidence or an unintended similarity. Oh, okay, the rock quotient is much, much higher here, but some how I just couldn't help thinking of that other work while hearing this. It starts very acoustically - something along the lines of many a roots rocker - Gin Blossoms, Deep Blue Something, Goo Goo Dolls, etc. - but moves quickly to harsh, muscular metal. It contrasts back and forth between these two extremes (the lyricism of poetry and the chaos of madness, I guess you could say?poets and madmen, though the title track is one that didn't make the album.

And where do Croce and Joel come into it? With "Man In The Mirror." There is a song by Croce that I never remember the name of (maybe if I hum a few bars?) that is a sad tale of personal failure (which perhaps describes many of his songs?), something akin to Billy Joel's "Piano Man". If you take those two tracks and mix 'em together, throw in a metalified Garth Brooks (seriously!) for the rockier parts, than this is groove the band have for "Man In The Mirror." The intro reminds me of Brooks' "Thunder Rolls," but since I'm not going to assume any of you are familiar with Brooks, that may not help you very much, so ? it opens with a slowly rumbling bassline and speak-singing from Oliva, sounding very, very much like Jim Croce. One of Croce's hits that might be of use here, other than the one I can't name, is "Operator" ? but if you don't know or remember Croce, perhaps that's not helpful either. The rock part of it chugs with a militaristic rhythm, done in double time. A folk-rock-metal tune, I guess is what I'm driving at. "Surrender" harks back to a Metallica like sound with tinkling piano, though it's intro is balladic. Pinning it down to any one thing though is slippery - for a few measures I thought of "Enter Sandman" - the lead in the verse mainly. It's AC/DC with "I Seek Power," and a really cool, funky bassline opens "Awaken," that also makes me think of AC/DC?helped by Oliva's Brian Johnson like voice. The bass is bluesy, concealing something a little dangerous.

My knowledge of Savatage extends only to what I've reported on and by reputation, so a comparison with their past output is impossible. Though, in various places I've read it's a departure from their sound on past albums, and on the other hand, a return to their sound on previous albums. With a twenty-year history and twelve or so albums, I guess it's all a matter of perspective. Jon Oliva is back on vocals after the departure of Zak Stevens ? while he is on key mostly, his tone is sometimes flat. But dang these guys can play! In addition to Oliva on vocals, keyboards and piano, the band consists of Chris Caffery on guitars, Johnny Lee Middleton on bass, and Jeff Plate on drums, though they recently added Damond Jiniya on vocals and Jack Frost on guitars, at least for touring for this album. Guitarist Al Pitrelli, who left the band for Megadeth during the album's recording, also appears on the album.

Poets And Madmen is a concept album - here is the story in a nutshell: "Pulitzer Prize-winning photographer Kevin Carter, it is said, spent years documenting the famine in Africa. Upon returning to his native country, Carter was institutionalized. Years later, three teenagers come upon an abandoned mental hospital and break in. Exploring the building, the kids find and open Carter's file, and from there they are taken on a ride they will surely never forget. Full of twists and turns, master storyteller [Paul] O'Neill weaves an intricate tale with an unbelievable ending." I'm afraid the press release does contain a small amount of hyperbole. While there is a narrative thread through the songs, it isn't linear. The set up described above bookends the meat of the story - what the photographer witnesses and his reaction to it. It is said that O'Neill was inspired, if that's the right word, by articles appearing in Time Magazine. One can find the text version of the story behind the concept at the band's website. There is a particular photograph, for which the photographer won a Pulitzer, that is mentioned in the story's text that seems vaguely familiar to me, in that Time did publish just such a photo and received a little criticism over it: a vulture hovering over a dying girl. Of course, even if I'm remembering wrong, or the story leading to that photograph is fiction and the picture isn't, Time has published photos of a similar nature that it lends a certain authenticity. I once worked with a woman who wouldn't read Time or Newsweek because of such pictures. Not because she didn't want to know, but they affected her far too much. It is this same feeling of helplessness that plagues Carter. I think it must be very hard to be a reporter or photographer in places like Rwanda, East Timor, Palestine, Israel, or any other locale of violence, where you are torn between wanting to be human and help and needing being the detached observer. I recall reading the words of a photographer saying that, had he intervened he would have been killed as well, and the story wouldn't have gotten out, the truth would not have been told. So, O'Neill has tapped into something very real, such that even if Kevin Carter doesn't exist, surely a Kevin Carter exists.

Musically, what you can expect is a very rich mix of metal of various varieties. "I Seek Power" has Oliva at his gruff and growliest, the music itself at it's darkest. "Drive" has quite a bit drive to it, somewhat like Judas Priest, somewhat like Queen -- well, I guess as if Judas Priest were playing a Queen tune. Oh yes, I think I'll have to excerpt this for those long freeway drives ? title aside, this is pedal to the floor, no holds barred metal. And it is so catchy in an aggro kinda way, that it's fun. Especially the rapid-fire refrains of "I believe, and I believe, and I believe, and I believe, and I believe, I'll run it".

"Morphine Child" picks up on the same drive (pun intended), plays it against some soft bits, then downshifts to mid-tempo with dual guitars leading the charge, bass and drums keeping time, piano adding a very warm accent. This is so good that it alone places this album in the best of 2001 running, no question. There is a section near the end, where the parts are layered: a chant of "cantations" is the first layer, a chorus of voices a trio of rhythmic lines in free verse (though most of O'Neill lyrics seem to be free verse, though he also includes rhyme) and then, after a delay, Oliva as the third layer ? repeated two or three times or so and not sounding chaotic at all -- they stop in perfect time just before the last line of the lyric. Would be interesting to see how it's pulled off live.

The production on this is excellent, the instruments all clear, the sound and balance are great. And as I've mentioned, the performances are just too good for words?I don't know that I can even do them justice. There are no routine parts here, everything is nuanced and textured, balanced? this is a tapestry woven from very fine thread. The guitar work is just phenomenal, being swift and emotional at the same time. As good a vocalist Oliva is, he's a better keyboardist, though it sounds like mostly piano. Hard to tell these days, as keys sound like pianos. That he does use piano gives this a unique character that helps to separate them from their metal brethren, not that they don't otherwise.

There is one bonus track, one that will be a special something for long-time fans - "Shotgun Innocence," the last song that original guitarist (and Jon's brother) Criss Oliva recorded before his death in 1993. Unlike the rest of the album, this is more straight-ahead metal. From the way the press notes describe it, it sounds as if the current band recorded the song including Criss' eight year old guitar parts - I guess sort of like what the Paul, George and Ringo did with some John Lennon material.

Released in North America by A HREF="" CLASS="section2">Nuclear Blast USA (6618); released in the UK by Koch Internation al (08572152) (without bonus track) and in Japan by Crown Japan (4780) with two bonus tracks, "Jesus Saves" and "Handfull Of Rain"

Stay With Me A While (5:06) / There In The Silence (4:57) / Commissar (5:36) / I Seek Power (6:03) / Drive (3:17) / Morphine Child (10:12) / The Rumour (Jesus) / Man In The Mirror (5:56) / Surrender (6:40) / Awaken (3:23) / Got To Get Back To A Reason (6:21) Bonus: Shotgun Innocence (3:34)

Jon Oliva - vocals, keyboards, piano
Christopher Caffery - guitar
Johnny Lee Middleton - bass
Jeff Plate - drums
Al Pitrelli - guitar, vocals
Bob Kinkel - keyboards, vocals
Criss Oliva - guitar (12)

Sirens (1983/94)
The Dungeons Are Calling (1984/94)
Power Of The Night (1985)
Fight For The Rock (1986)
Hall Of The Mountain King (1987)
Gutter Ballet (1989)
Streets (1991)
Edge Of Thorns (1993)
Handful Of Rain (1994)
Dead Winter Dead (1995)
Final Bell / Ghost In The Ruins (1995)
From The Gutter To The Stage (1996)
The Best And The Rest (1997)
The Wake Of Magellan (1998)
Japan Live '94 / Live In Japan (1998/2000)
Believe (JP comp.) (1998)
Poets And Madmen (2001)

Genre: Progressive-Power Metal

Origin US

Added: April 19th 2001
Reviewer: Stephanie Sollow
Artist website:
Hits: 719
Language: english


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