Savatage – Gutter Ballet
Savatage is a multi-faceted band formed in 1979 in Florida. From the start, they played a raucous version of metal that pleased many very diverse fans. Using elements of power and progressive metal, fused with heavy metal and neo-classical compositions, they paved the way for a new breed of metal that really should have been bigger than it was. Maybe they were just ahead of their time. No matter, though, Savatage was a great band that deserves all the accolades heaped upon them.
- Jon Oliva – Lead Vocals, Piano, Keyboards
- Criss Oliva – Electric and Acoustic Guitars
- Johnny Lee Middleton – Bass, Backing Vocals
Gutter Ballet is the fifth full-length album from Savatage and the second collaboration with Paul O’Neill. It is not a concept album in the traditional sense, but there is a theme that weaves through much of this record. There is a lot of loneliness and loss, some fear and angst, and some mental health issues as well. Released on December 1, 1989, via Atlantic Records, this is the next step in the evolution of Savatage. There is more to come, but this is a crucial phase.
- Of Rage and War
- Gutter Ballet
- Temptation Revelation (instrumental)
- When The Crowds Are Gone
- Silk and Steel (instrumental)
- She’s in Love
- The Unholy
- Mentally Yours
- Summer’s Rain
- Thorazine Shuffle
Gutter Ballet is premium metal. The direction Savatage went on this record was superb. They took a bit of the edge off and just made some killer prog/melodic/heavy metal. The helicopter intro on “Of Rage And War” always makes me turn up the volume. I know the next hour is going to RULE! They bring the bass out front, something done more often in Power metal but really effective here. Johnny Lee may be one of the most underrated bassists of all time. The deep, gritty voice Jon uses, paired with the backing “choir,” adds a lot of tension and dread to the sound and feel of the track. You feel the angst and terror.
The next three songs form somewhat of a suite. “Gutter Ballet” is a dreary tune. The haunted, echoing piano intro that slowly progresses in tempo is sensational. Add in the riff, crash to the piano, and shift, twist, mix, and grow until it becomes a pounding rhythm, driving towards the first verse. Those phrases are fantastic, and I absolutely love how they build to the chorus. This song does not relate directly to the character in “When The Crowds Are Gone,” but they feel intertwined. I cannot help but feel this is part of the decline of our esteemed actor. And those lines at the end with the vocal variations on the phrase “gutter ballet” are heavenly.
“Temptation Revelation” is a quick instrumental with Criss Oliva showing how incredible his writing and playing were. Paired with a piano, growing to a full band piece, including the build to the massive crescendo, this is a magical transition to “When The Crowds Are Gone.”
Jon’s vocals go from plaintive and desperate to powerful and angry, then to haunted and mourning. His ability to create and shape the emotions you feel during a song is beyond amazing. Few can hold a candle to this vocal giant. He can use vibrato, warble, belt, wail, and whisper like no other. His grit in the middle of the song as he asks for the lights to come on one last time clearly indicates the pain this character feels. The begging to “Turn them on again” hits me right in the feels every time. This is what it feels like to have a chapter in your life come to a close. It hurts and takes time to get over.
“Silk And Steel” is there to help you shift gears and prepare you for the rest of the record. A gentle, lilting tune, this one allows you to take a breath and get ready for a bit of naughtiness. “She’s In Love” is one of those NSFW songs that were quite pervasive in the 80s. Bands like KISS and Motley Crue put them out by the dozens. Savatage did it better, at least in my opinion. Jon will always be more eloquent the Gene lyrically.
“Hounds” and “The Unholy” are both darker songs in many ways. Having more of a fantasy feel, they seem like metaphors for the dangers that lurk in the night. These are the supernatural beasts stalking through the night. “Hounds” has some of the best shifts in tempo and tone that Savatage ever wrote. Those are some wild progressive elements that don’t really feel like prog metal but act like it. That shift from the fading solo to Jon’s vocalizations to Criss’ slow guitar picking is so freaking cool!
The last three songs also act a bit like a themed section. “Mentally Yours” has that upbeat piano intro before going dark as hell. The lyrics do not fit the tone at that point, and I think that is an incredible piece of songwriting. The riff is brutal, and the leads over it are frantic, giving the song that tension it needs to really highlight how far off the deep end poor Timmy went. Somehow, they managed to build sympathy for a guy who went crazy.
Now we have one of Savatage’s best songs ever. I will repeat that in future reviews. I also said it about “Strange Wings” last time. Savatage just has too many great songs. “Summer’s Rain” is EPIC! The slow guitar intro and the vocal build to the main rhythm are classic Savatage and one of the best examples of their flexibility. Criss’ lead work with Jon’s intermittent lyrics, all over the rock-solid Middleton/Wacholz rhythm, is still one of my favorite musical passages, really withstanding the test of time. This song never gets old, but it also gets better with age. I understand it, feel it, now even more than I did when I first heard it.
Wrapping this disc is “Thorazine Shuffle,” a happy little ditty about life in the mental asylum and the feeling of losing who you are to a fog of medication. There’s no time, no anger, no joy, no pain, just a haze. The demented laughing at the beginning sets the stage for the wild, almost maniacal vocals of Jon. This is another well-thought-out, well-crafted song. Everything fits together.
Savatage became masters at using the instruments to support and augment the vocals. The vocals were used to emphasize the lyrics and get the listener to feel the song’s tone. Each song makes you not just think but feel what is going on. These guys crafted songs with care and concern for how they impacted those hearing it. Few bands, past or present, can match the intensity of the pairing of melody, lyrics, and vocals like Savatage did.
The subjects on this record are relatable on a personal level. The feelings of loneliness and isolation, losing your mind, and going slowly crazy are all things I went through about the time this record came out. I was struggling with my own demons, and this is a record that helped me learn how to deal with them. This is part of a series of amazing albums that I feel fortunate to have heard. Savatage is a band that I cannot listen to half-heartedly. I dive in and examine the lyrics, play the air drums and guitars, and lip-synch.
Gutter Ballet had a few different sections that acted like mini-stories. Their next record would shift to one big story. It would become something that Savatage did better than all but the elite writers of concept albums, tell epic tales that created their own worlds. Gutter Ballet was the perfect stepping stone. Criss’ guitar work was absolutely exquisite. Johnny Lee and Steve got better, which is hard to believe (they will keep doing that). Jon did new things with his voice. They grew from the last album. They improved. They would keep doing this consistently for the next 13 years.
The loss of Savatage is a tragedy. Fortunately, we have their body of work to help us deal with that. Are they gone for good? I do not know. I hope not. If they never play live again or put out new music, I will be eternally grateful for what they did issue. Their ability to create textures with music and their massively brilliant wordsmithing still amazes me. If I was that good a writer, I’d be writing music, not writing about music. Gutter Ballet is one of the best-written albums and will always remain one of my Top 10 Savatage albums. And Savatage will always remain in my Top Five of bands all time.
- Guitars – 10
- Rhythms – 10
- Vocals – 10
- Songwriting – 10
- Production – 10
- Overall – 10.0