Early days (1978–1986)
Criss Oliva and his brother Jon formed their first band together, Avatar, in 1978, from the ashes of their former bands Tower and Alien respectively. In 1980, the duo met up with Steve Wacholz and jammed in a shack behind the Oliva home that was dubbed “The Pit” by the band. Wacholz originally tried out to be part of Jon’s band, Alien, but when the first Savatage line-up was taking shape, Jon, who was originally on drum duties, was relieved of them by Wacholz. They also gave Steve a nickname that would follow him throughout his career: “Doctor Hardware Killdrums”, often shortened to just “Doc” or “Doc Killdrums”, which referred to Steve’s hard playing style.
Criss, Jon and Steve played Tampa (where they had moved with their family in the late-70s) and Clearwater area clubs for many years. In 1981, Keith Collins joined them to relieve Jon of bass guitar duties. In late 2006, footage was released onto the internet of an early performance by Avatar at a gig in a Clearwater, Florida parking lot and was prominent in featuring an early version of the song “Holocaust”, which would later be released on Savatage’s first album and a cover of Van Halen‘s “Eruption” and VH’s version of “You Really Got Me”. In 1982, Avatar took part in some heavy metal compilations, most notably “The YNF Pirate Tape”, a promotion by Tampa rock radio station 95ynf for local Florida bands. In 1983, “Avatar” was forced to change its name due to copyright issues. Combining the words “Savage” and “Avatar”, the band decided on Savatage.
Their first two albums, Sirens and The Dungeons Are Calling, were released on Par Records, an independent label. In 1985, they signed a contract with Atlantic Recording Corporation and released their third album Power of the Night. Power of the Night, which was produced by Max Norman, who would go on to produce Megadeth‘s 1992 album Countdown to Extinction, showcased the band’s unorthodox approach to metal, which included Jon’s liberal use of keyboards on songs like “Fountain of Youth” and Broadway-style song structures like the kind employed on “Warriors”. It was well-received by critics but fell short of sales expectations. Atlantic budgeted to provide funds to make a video for “Hard for Love”, on the condition that it be retitled “Hot for Love” for broadcast purposes. The band refused to change the song and consequently a video was not released.
In 1986, after the release of their fourth album, Fight for the Rock, a failed attempt at a commercial approach imposed by the record company which the band themselves called Fight for the Nightmare, Savatage toured with Metallica, KISS and Motörhead. Many Savatage fans resent the making of the album and view it largely as a disappointment. The band themselves were not happy with the record, with pressure from the label to include two cover versions. Jon Oliva had been retained to write material for other artists on the Atlantic label, such as John Waite and other pop-rockers. Later, the label turned around and demanded Savatage record the material themselves. In a show of youthful naivete, the band agreed. Not only did it destroy them in the press, it nearly destroyed the band and sent Jon into his early alcohol and drug problems. Oliva recently admitted however the album did have strong points, including the band’s cover of Badfinger‘s Day After Day. During this time, original bassist Keith Collins left the band, and Johnny Lee Middleton joined the band. Since 1987, Johnny has been the only consistent member of Savatage, performing on every album.
“The Golden Era” (1987–1993)
In 1987, Savatage released their first commercially successful album, Hall of the Mountain King, which became the base for the band being catapulted into a more mainstream arena. The band recorded their first music video for the album’s title song, which received extensive air play on MTV‘s Headbangers Ball and was followed up by a video for the song “24 Hours Ago”. The album introduced a new musical style, featuring symphonic elements, strongly influenced by their new producer, Paul O’Neill, that would shape the band’s future recordings. O’Neill contributed most of the lyrics for the rest of their career and gave them a more conceptual edge starting with their next album, Gutter Ballet.
Gutter Ballet, which was released in 1989, could be considered the band’s true turning point. Since that album, the band has adopted a more progressive style, writing longer songs with more complex melodies and differing vocal styles, rather than the more straightforward power metal style that was apparent in earlier works. The change to a more progressive, operatic style was also precipitated by Jon, after seeing a performance of Phantom of the Opera in Toronto. The songs “Gutter Ballet” and “When the Crowds Are Gone” are examples of this influence from that album, and was the next album (which even included “Opera” in its title). Again, two videos were made for songs from the album, “When the Crowds Are Gone” and “Gutter Ballet”, which received airplay on MTV.
Chris Caffery, who had been playing with Savatage on their 1987 tour as a second rhythm player offstage and out of audience sight, was introduced as a new band member in 1988. A message to him appears in the liner notes for the album Streets, wishing him “luck in whatever roads in life he goes down.” He left after the Gutter Ballet tour (prior to the recording of Streets), but would later return to the band.
In 1991, the band created their first rock opera, Streets. The record did not do as well as the band would have liked however, as it was released around the time that grunge exploded into the mainstream music arena. But a video for “Jesus Saves” was recorded and again got airplay, drawing a new audience to appreciate the band. However, after a tour in support of the album, Jon Oliva left the band to concentrate on his side projects Doctor Butcher and his Broadway-bound musical Romanov, as well as continuing co-writing Savatage material with his brother Criss and producer Paul O’Neill. However, as of 2007, Romanov remains uncompleted and unreleased.
Jon hand-picked his replacement, former Wicked Witch lead vocalist Zachary Stevens who was discovered and introduced to the band by Criss’s best friend and guitar technician Dan Campbell. The band recorded their follow-up to Streets, Edge of Thorns, in 1993. Steve Wacholz hand-picked his replacement as well in ex-Roxx Gang powerhouse drummer Andy James, after he departed the band following the recording of EOT and his decision not to tour. The 1993 EOT touring lineup is hailed by most as the best live lineup the band ever had. For the first time, Savatage began to enjoy mainstream recognition, including increased radio play and a world tour which gained international press as “the best Savatage has ever sounded live”. However, tragedy struck when Criss Oliva was killed by a drunk driver on October 17, 1993. Jon chose to continue the band, although he has since admitted that the band was pretty much over after Criss’s death, but only kept going because of his memory and to “keep his music alive”.
Life after Criss (1994-2000)
A short while after Criss’ death, the band held a tribute show for the late guitarist, with the same line-up as the Streets tour but without Criss. Alex Skolnick temporarily joined Savatage in 1994 for the release of their ninth album Handful of Rain, written by Jon Oliva and Paul O’Neill. Although the album is technically a Jon Oliva solo album, with Jon handling all instrumental duties except for vocals and lead guitars, the album was released under the Savatage moniker with bass and drum credits given to Middleton and Wacholz respectively, as Andy James had left the band following the death of Criss Oliva to pursue other projects. The song “Chance” was the first Savatage song to contain the usage of counterpoint vocals, a style which they continued to use on following albums. The album’s final track, “Alone You Breathe”, was a tribute to Criss Oliva. A live CD/VHS entitled Japan Live ’94 (in later releases it has been retitled Live in Japan) was released at the conclusion of a very short tour in support of the album with Skolnick’s three-piece band Exhibit-A and power metal band Tempo Tantrum. After the tour, Alex Skolnick left the band to pursue other interests. In a 2011 interview, Skolnick had this to say about his time with Savatage:
Savatage was a very bittersweet situation. On the one hand I got to do an album with a band that I liked in high school. The flipside is that the gig came about because of a tragedy: Savatage guitarist Criss Oliva had passed away in 1993. That was around the time that I had left my band, Testament, because things hadn’t been working out, and I found playing with Savatage appealing. It was like, “Hey, why not?” Then again, I knew I was heading in a different direction from the band, but I just didn’t know where. For some reason, joining Savatage just didn’t feel right. I’m not sure why that is … It wasn’t one particular thing. Maybe I felt I needed to … be one of the main creative voices in the band. If I had stayed with Savatage I wouldn’t have been.
His replacement would once more be former Savatage member, Christopher Caffery, who himself pays tribute to his late bandmate and friend by playing Criss’ solos as he would have played them. Atlantic Records, however, wanted another, more well-known guitarist to join the band, and Al Pitrelli was chosen. Pitrelli was known for his previous work with Alice Cooper and Asia, among others.
In 1995, Savatage released their second rock opera Dead Winter Dead, an even more ambitious undertaking than its predecessor, Streets. They also achieved cross-over success with “Christmas Eve Sarajevo 12/24“, which received heavy rotation on multiple radio formats during the Christmas season. While they toured Europe and Japan, the group forwent an American tour to work on their new project, Christmas Eve and Other Stories, recorded by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra (TSO), comprising Savatage and a large orchestra. Jon Oliva has since admitted that he was annoyed to see the success of TSO with what was originally a Savatage song, leading him to believe that the biggest barrier to success as Savatage was the name.
Their eleventh album, The Wake of Magellan, was released in 1998 after a break to deal with the huge success of TSO, and dealt with such concepts as the worth of a life, suicide and drug abuse, drawing on real-life events such as the Maersk Dubai and the murder of Veronica Guerin. Savatage parted ways with long-time label Atlantic after this release and eventually signed on with a much smaller organization, Nuclear Blast (although Trans-Siberian Orchestra albums would in the future remain on the Atlantic/Lava imprint). Jon Oliva said that this was a good move, asNuclear Blast “loved the band and they know our songs and everything!”.
By this time, Savatage was taking as much fire for their “Broadway-Metal” aspirations as they were praise; while there was no doubt that Trans-Siberian Orchestra albums had found an audience, many older, more long-term Savatage fans complained of a lack of any real difference between the sounds of Trans-Siberian Orchestra and Savatage. Many members of the fanbase felt alienated due to a lack of extensive Savatage touring in America (often Savatage played only a handful of shows on the east coast, with European fans also feeling alienated due to their lack of shows in that area) and the turn from a decidedly metal approach to a more symphonic base. Reviews of their material either praised their genius or berated their pretentiousness; there seemed to be no middle ground, and to this day the fan base and critics are still split.
Hiatus and side projects (2001–present)
Savatage continued to focus on their Trans-Siberian Orchestra project for a while, releasing The Christmas Attic, but the release of Poets and Madmen in 2001 was highlighted by Jon Oliva’s return as lead vocalist, replacing Zak Stevens, who left the band citing family reasons, and the departure of Al Pitrelli, who accepted an offer to join Megadeth in 2000. Pitrelli did record solos for some songs prior to his departure. Another very limited US tour followed, supported by Fates Warning in the early shows, and then Nevermore for the remainder. Around this time, Jon chose Zak’s replacement in the form of Damond Jiniya (Diet of Worms), who was once again brought to the band from long time friend and CircleIICircle manager/co founder Dan Campbell. Damond sang “Edge of Thorns” as his audition song. Damond performed Zak’s parts on tour, with Jon having an increased vocal role in proceedings. Jack Frost auditioned for the role of rhythm guitar player, and got the gig. He played with the band for a majority of the tour, but was mysteriously asked to leave the band after the tour, although it could be said that Frost’s commitments elsewhere drove him from the band. For Summer festival appearances in 2002, the band was joined by Annihilator‘s Jeff Waters.
Savatage have remained inactive since the tour, with band members concentrating on other projects. This has not pleased everyone, with Chris Caffery in particular citing his anger at Savatagenot recording a new album in almost 5 years as of 2006.
TSO continue with their releases, with two companies now touring the US. Their latest release is Night Castle, released on October 27, 2009.
Jon Oliva formed his own band, Jon Oliva’s Pain and released their first album in 2004 entitled ‘Tage Mahal. In 2006, the band signed with AFM Records and a second record called Maniacal Renderings was released on September 4, 2006. The band’s third album Global Warning was released on April 30, 2008, in the United States and features a guest appearance from Ralph Santolla.
Former front man Zak Stevens was approached by long time friend and Savatage stage manager Dan Campbell to co found a new band, Circle II Circle in 2003 and their first record entitledWatching in Silence was released in 2003, and produced by Jon Oliva and featuring a guest appearance from Caffery. After a dispute with the management during the tour, his entire band left and joined Jon Oliva’s band. Zak regrouped with new members and release a second album, The Middle of Nowhere in 2005. A third album entitled Burden of Truth based on The DaVinci Code was released on “Black Friday”, October 13, 2006. A fourth record, Delusions of Grandeur, hit stores in 2008.
In addition to his work with Trans-Siberian Orchestra, drummer Jeff Plate performed with electric violinist Mark_Wood_(violinist) and joined Metal Church. He also reformed Wickedwitch with Zak Stevens, renaming the band Machines of Grace, and releasing a self-titled album in 2010.
Steve Wacholz formed a new band in 2010, Reverence, with guitarist Pete Rossi, vocalist Todd Michael Hall (formerly of Jack Starr’s Burning Starr) and former Tokyo Blade members guitarist Bryan Holland and bassist Frank Saparti. An album from this lineup is expected in Spring 2012.
In an interview to Aardschok, a Dutch Magazine, in June 2006, Jon Oliva announced that he wants to record one more Savatage album, with a live CD and DVD to follow it, before ending the band. He did not specify a release date for a new album, however. Chris Caffery then said in an interview in October 2006 that if a new Savatage album was to be recorded, then it’s likely that Alex Skolnick would be involved, as well as original drummer Steve “Doc” Wacholz. In a November 2006 interview to Greek website, MetalTemple.com, Jon Oliva himself shot down all rumours of the return of Savatage, claiming that it never made him any money, but instead it cost him one million US dollars to keep the band going over the years.
Jon also said that his new band, Jon Oliva’s Pain, is basically Savatage reincarnated, so it could co-exist with the more successful Trans-Siberian Orchestra. He did however state that a one-off anniversary tour featuring Skolnick, Wacholz and other past Savatage members is being planned with Paul O’Neill as a final send off to the band. Zachary Stevens has made it clear that he will participate in a 25th anniversary festivities with the band. Jon Oliva then said about the band “Well, it’s over but it’s not over, you know what I mean? It’s over right now because no one’s doing anything. We haven’t disbanded or anything. We have plans to do something in the future.” Jon also announced that he is doing “some video compilation stuff, and editing old things for a bonus DVD to go with it, that has a ton of live Criss stuff in concert, a lot of backstage frolicking about, and going to castles in Europe”.
In 2007, Oliva denied any rumours of a Savatage reunion and tour, as the Trans-Siberian Orchestra has become a year-round commitment, adding that Jon Oliva’s Pain is “as close to Savatage as you can get”. Despite Oliva’s earlier denials, in October 2008 the band launched an official MySpace page, hinting that 2009 would see some activity under the Savatage banner. The line-up listed on official MySpace is: Jon Oliva, Zak Stevens, Chris Caffery, Al Pitrelli, Johnny Lee Middleton and Jeff Plate; signalling that Stevens would return as lead vocalist in a reunion. In December of the same year, a brand new Savatage web site was unveiled. However, Jon Oliva has since denied these reunion rumors saying
There has been some news floating around about a Savatage website update and other things Sava related. I just wanted to clarify that this news is strictly limited to the re-release of the entire Savatage catalog as well as merchandise from prior tours that will be made available soon. But just to be 100% clear there are no plans in the future for any Savatage recordings or shows! JOP is currently hard at work in pre-production for the 4th release, as well as preparing for the Euro-Festivals and South American tours in 2009.
I just wanted to get something out there to kind of cap things off because I’ve moved on. Those reunion rumors … some people have been saying things they probably shouldn’t have. There was talk about doing a show to kind of give Savatage a send-off but the logistics of doing so just made it impossible. The guys have the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, I have my JOP stuff, there’s a lot of other things keeping us busy. It’s pretty aggravating, though, with people always asking about when it’s going to happen and pushing to have one. I mean, Savatage hasn’t done anything in almost 10 years! It’s just a small group of people, but they just won’t let it go and I can’t figure out why. You have the Savatage guys in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, which was spawned from the Dead Winter Dead and Wake of Magellan era of the band, you have Jon Oliva’s Pain doing a lot of the old Savatage material, what more do you want? Don’t get me wrong. I love Savatage and it’ll always be dear to my heart because that was my start, man. I still play the songs, I love playing those songs, but I’ve got a whole new career now. I’m on my fourth record with JOP for crying out loud! It’s like, to the people that keep pushing for a Savatage reunion, just let it go. I’ve got the rights back for the Sirens and Dungeons albums, so I might do something with those in a few years, but JOP is my focus now and I’m hoping people will finally catch on that I have a new band (laughs).
Former singer Zak Stevens will reunite with Chris Caffery for a special performance at the 2012 edition of Wacken Open Air festival, where Stevens’ band Circle II Circle will perform the The Wake of Magellan album in its entirety.
Savatage and its former variations started out as a heavy metal band, incorporating Jon Oliva‘s powerful, sometimes screamed vocals accompanied by Criss Oliva‘s heavy guitar riffs and fast, melodic solos. When bassist Johnny Lee Middleton joined in 1986, the band took a step in the direction of radio-friendly hardrock due to label pressure, but to no succes.
In 1987 producer Paul O’Neill was brought in and added symphonic elements to the band’s sound, making the album Hall of the Mountain King the band’s first progressive metal album. Around this time vocalist Jon Oliva also started focusing more on keyboards and piano. The band’s 1991 effort Streets: A Rock Opera was, as its name implies, a rock opera, the first of many to follow.
After the departure of lead vocalist Jon Oliva, his replacement Zachary Stevens brought in a very different vocal sound, as he is a tenor as opposed to Oliva being a baritone.
The band continued on the progressive metal/hard rock path, and when Jon Oliva re-joined the band, albums would often feature a few songs with him on lead vocals.
One of the band’s trademarks, especially in the band’s later years, were the canon and multi-backing vocals. In Savatage’s early years guitarist Criss Oliva would sometimes provide backing vocals, but this decreased dramatically over the years so he could focus on guitar playing. The band’s 1994 album Handful of Rain saw the introduction of canon vocals with the song “Chance”, and the subsequent albums had some of these incorporated as well. In the studio, Stevens’ vocals would be layered on top of each other, but live Jon Oliva, Chris Caffery, Al Pitrelli and Johnny Lee Middleton would all do the canon vocals.
- Jon Oliva – vocals (1978–1992, 1994-2002), keyboards (1986–1992, 1993—2002), guitar (1978–1979, 1994), bass (1979–1981, 1985)
- Johnny Lee Middleton – bass guitar, backing vocals (1986-2002)
- Chris Caffery – guitar, backing vocals (1987–1988, 1989–1990, 1995-2002)
- Jeff Plate – drums (1994-2002)
- Al Pitrelli – guitar, backing vocals (1995–1999, 2002)
- Damond Jiniya – lead vocals (2001–2002)
- Criss Oliva – bass (1978–1979), guitar, backing vocals (1979–1993; died 1993)
- Steve Wacholz – drums (1980–1993)
- Keith Collins – bass guitar (1981–1985)
- Zachary Stevens – lead vocals (1993–2000)
- Alex Skolnick – guitar (1994)
- Avatar members
- Pat Dubs – rhythm guitar (1979–1980)
- Andy Gmelin – bass guitar (1979–1980)
- Guest musicians
- Ray Gillen – vocals (“Strange Wings”, Hall of the Mountain King; died 1993)
- Robert Kinkel – keyboards, backing vocals (Hall of the Mountain King, Gutter Ballet, Streets: A Rock Opera, Dead Winter Dead, The Wake of Magellan, Poets and Madmen)
- Touring musicians
- Michael Reynolds – drums (1988)
- John Zahner – keyboards (1991–1992)
- Wes Garren – rhythm guitar, keyboards (1993)
- Andy James – drums (1993)
- Jack Frost – guitar (2001–2002)
- Jeff Waters – guitars (2002)
• 1983 – Sirens
• 1984 – The Dungeons Are Calling
• 1985 – Power of the Night
• 1986 – Fight for the Rock
• 1987 – Hall of the Mountain King
• 1989 – Gutter Ballet
• 1991 – Streets: A Rock Opera
• 1993 – Edge of Thorns
• 1994 – Handful of Rain
• 1995 – Dead Winter Dead
• 1998 – The Wake of Magellan
• 2001 – Poets and Madmen