Like everyone who is lucky enough to survive into adulthood, I was once a teenager. And though I will admit freely that, in retrospect, my teenage years were easier than those of many, nevertheless, for most people, when one is a teenager, one does not feel that anything is easy. In those awkward times, escape is damned near paramount: escape from your house, from your school, from your peer group, from your town, from your job, from… yourself, really, but that’s a whole other psychological discussion for another day.
Like so many teens, then and now, I turned to music as my way out, and the moment I discovered this wonderful world of heavy metal, I made my forever escape. I found Iron Maiden, and through them, Judas Priest, Black Sabbath, Megadeth, Metallica, and then all these other wonderful bands that told epic stories, sang epic melodies, riffed epic riffs. A host of new friends that took me away to brave new worlds, so far from suburban streets.
I’m an old man now, and with age goes the memory, so I’d be lying if I told you exactly where or when I fell for Savatage. But I know with absolute surety that it was somewhere in my late-80s cannonball into the deep end of metal. Suddenly, alongside all of my other new favorites, here was a band that out-epic-ed the most epic of them all, a progressive trad-metal juggernaut that was somewhere between my long-beloved Queen and the raw aggression of thrash upstarts like Testament and Overkill. Gutter Ballet was the first new Savatage I came to, and I loved it immensely (and I still do), which led to a quick backwards step to the subject of this rumination, the utterly infallible Hall Of The Mountain King.
Like I said, I can’t tell you specifically where or when I initially fell for Savatage, but I can tell you where I was the first time I heard That Riff.
And when we’re talking about Hall Of The Mountain King, well… you know the one: It’s THE RIFF, the first one, that chugging opening glory of “24 Hours Ago,” a highlight in a tragically truncated Criss Oliva career that is almost exclusively defined by highlights. When I first heard That Riff, I was in the back seat in my high school buddy’s mom’s van, going Who Knows Where. I tossed a new cassette into my trusty yellow Sony Walkman, and… there it was.
And there was also that Madman Shriek – “Behind the wheel, just went along!” The Jon Oliva that any true Savatage fan loves forever, on instant display, almost inhumanly raspy and yet so gifted with melody, power and grit and range and bite, all rolled into one…
I knew this band, like I said, but I didn’t yet know this song, and then, in that moment, I did and it was glorious, and then as before as now as always, I was all the way in on Savatage. At a moment in life when I desperately craved escape, here was a song literally about that: “I left her” – or to extrapolate, I left here, or there, or it, or you, or whatever. I’m moving on, getting away, and That Riff, well… it’s the power behind it all. And That Scream, well… it’s the goddamn pressure valve blaring out the sound of release.
And see, here’s the thing: “24 Hours Ago” is a flat-out heavy metal classic, no question. Only a fool would disagree. (Feel free to disagree, fools.) But it’s not even the best song on the record, really.
It’s not necessarily the best song, not when you’ve got “Beyond The Doors Of The Dark”: From that wonderfully pompous intro — the first of Mountain King’s precursors to the Andrew Lloyd Webber metal that would soon define Savatage — this song just straight-up kills, especially once Criss kicks in with another rad-as-hell riff that’s absolutely irresistible. There’s that brief but destructive mid-song breakdown with low chanty background vocals, whilst Jon throws in those falsetto wails that only he can make sound truly menacing, but mostly, this song is just a purebred trad-metal headbanger dressed up in pomp-metal clothes, and that’s the beauty of it. It bridges the gap from the killer raunch of Sirens to the even-more-killer bombast of Gutter Ballet, just like this whole record does, and though they’d always hinted at this particular type of greatness, after several records of varying quality and direction issues, here is where Savatage sticks the landing. And when I needed an escape, well, in this song, we end up beyond the doors to a world of weirdness, of shadows and mist, of fires in the night and unending twilight, far removed from high school boredom.
…And then, even that’s not the best song when you’ve got “Strange Wings”: If there’s an MVP award for a song on an MVP record, it goes here, to this one. “Strange Wings” is just utter brilliance: catchy riff, catchy chorus, radio-ready and yet heavy enough for the “dude, radio sucks” burnout, with Jon’s gravelly snarl and Criss’ godlike guitars. Add to that the soaring backgrounds of late Badlands vocalist Ray Gillan (ex-Black Sabbath, also, for like a minute), and there’s absolutely no denying the majesty of this track. Sure, it’s one of the album’s more straightforward, less progressive-impressive numbers, but come argue with me when your favorite band can write a song this good. It’s just pure goddamned perfection, and in that, here’s an escape to arena-sized glory, to the heights of teen-dream rock stardom with a stately beauty that the pop-metal poofters could never achieve, even as their dreams came true and those of our intrepid heroes fell somehow short of forever.
…And then maybe that’s not the best song when you’ve got the title track itself, coupled with its lead-in, “Prelude To Madness”: First off, here’s an intro piece lifted from Edvard Grieg, so we can tell the “heavy metal is noise” naysayers to piss off because this is technically classical music, and we’re clearly cultured listeners. Run that headlong into a balls-out stomper of a heavy metal track, and … well, that’s just goddamned science, right? Push and pull, build and release, light and dark… It’s a matter of balance. Tell me that the main “Mountain King” riff doesn’t hit like a hammer, absolute Criss Oliva genius. Tell me that Jon’s unhinged vocal doesn’t hook you instantly, dragging you deeper in as it ranges from a low guttural laugh to that soaring head voice. There’s a reason that he’s been known as the Mountain King ever since this, and it’s here, in his wonderfully insane performance. Escape with Jon and I both, if you will, far away to some rough-hewn castle, all dark corners and stone and flickering torches… That’s where we live now, and we love it. We’re kings.
…And hell, at this point, who’s to say what the best song is when you’ve got the perfect pop-metal gem of “The Price You Pay,” which is very likely overlooked by all but the ardent Savatage fan, but is a goddamned killer coulda-beena-hit, as good as any Ratt or Dokken song that lit up the Dial MTV phones and the KROQ request lines to greater financial reward. As Savatage stagnated while other bands flourished, eventually Jon would come to blame himself – and particularly, his voice – for being uncommercial, but here is hands-down proof that’s wrong. Here, he’s as good or better than plenty of other raspy-throated frontmen of the day, with a song that was custom built for hit potential, and yet… no luck. Our escape leads us back to the arenas for this one – why wasn’t this band selling them out? Jon and I both want to know.
…And hell, these days, after thirty-five years of listening to this record, I’d say you can’t talk about best songs without a nod to the unsung likes of “Devastation”: From that pounding kick drum through another kick-ass Criss riff… well, holy hell, here’s one more trad-metal ripper, this one the dark horse of the Mountain King, hidden at the back but not lesser by any means. Now Jon’s even throatier than before, even more feral, while Criss and Johnny Lee and Doc are pounding away beneath him. Sure, there’s a brief mention of the semi-Christian themes that would float up here and there later – most notably in fan favorite “Believe,” a few albums down the road – but listen to that piercing scream, to Criss’ impeccable guitar tone, to the whole deal… If this doesn’t rock you, then you’re unrockable, so leave the hall, and find your own escape somewhere else.
It’s far from profound to say that music is escapism – music always has been, always will be, or at least, it always should be. Savatage were once kids from suburban Florida, and not long after that, I was a kid from suburban Tennessee, and both of those are places custom-made for escaping. They made their own way out, and then they helped me make mine, on many a day or night with that same cassette in that same trusty Walkman, and for that, I am forever and eternally grateful.
And it turns out that I’m not the only one: Hall Of The Mountain King is often and rightfully recognized as one of the finest heavy metal albums ever made, and Savatage as a band with few peers, among the most important American power metal outfits. Sirens had laid the groundwork, a raging dark trad-metal classic in its own right. Then Power Of The Night expanded upon that formula. Fight For The Rock … did not, but it at least inspired Savatage to better heights, and the subsequent addition of producer Paul O’Neill was the additional catalyst the Oliva brothers needed to truly transcend. Under O’Neill’s guidance, the Olivas’ already strong songs would get more intricate, the concepts more interesting, the results more engaging. Jon’s theatrical flair would truly flourish, and Criss’ formidable guitar skills would sharpen into melodic shred mastery. (Criss Oliva’s untimely passing in an auto accident in 1993 is a tragedy in itself, but the fact that he remains one of the most underrated and unsung guitarists in metal history borders upon criminal.)
From the heights of these mountains, Gutter Ballet would expand upon the grandiosity – and I might argue that it even topped Mountain King, qualitatively, at least in spots – but no matter how good it was and is and forever will be, that follow-up couldn’t ever be as fundamentally important, as much of a grand and defining statement as Hall Of The Mountain King is still, even thirty-five years later. Put simply: Heavy metal very very very rarely gets any better than this. If you haven’t heard Hall Of The Mountain King, then you’re late, but there’s time: Dive in and find your own new worlds in these fire-lit caverns and misty moors. If you already know this record, then you already know why we’re here, and yet, it’s time to revisit, to escape again from reality, to find your way back beyond the doors of the dark, where the Mountain King rules eternal. It’s a wonderful place to be. Long may madness reign.