SummaryLet the orchestra play with caution
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When bands depart from their earlier and often heavier sound, there are always some obvious risks involved. Some bands get away with it, but I’d argue that most end up like something too different for their own good. Gutter Ballet sees Savatage departing from the earlier sound and indeed, it’s not as heavy, raw or as riff-centered as, say, Hall of the Mountain King. Most importantly, this album remains mostly exciting and how many albums full of pianos and keys could be described as such? Alas, the band would take things too far not soon after, but that’s neither here or there.
I’ll admit: I think Jon Oliva sounded better prior to Gutter Ballet. This guy had always been more of a character than a technically gifted singer and while I wouldn’t say that he ruins any of these songs, his vocals just don’t stand out as much, especially not on the ballads at least. “Summer’s Rain” is still a good song when all is said and done, but more so due to Criss’ choice of moody licks than Jon’s yelping. At the same time, I’d easily take an inconsistent Jon Oliva over his successor Zak Stevens (who, despite being technically superior, sounds more like a heroic Pokémon trainer instead of a worthy vocalist).
Gutter Ballet is all about the songs, though, even if the vocals definitely start to play a more important role here. There’s a lot of variety; as tracks range from piano-driven balladry to heavier, somewhat riff-centered heavier cuts, but most importantly: Savatage still knew how to write an addictive song or two (actually more than just two, but you know…). “Of Rage and War” totally lives up to its name; noisy guitars slide back and forth along the groovey bass lines and pissed off vocals. It’s not exactly a proper introduction to this “artsy” direction, given its gang-shouted and vulgar chorus, but it’s a lot of fun! The title track quickly follows and while it highlights how Criss Oliva’s guitar work sounds far less menacing, it’s a proper tune anyway. Well-executed, catchy and never pompous, it’s an example of how to incorporate pianos and keys well into your metal. “Hounds” sounds like a spiritual successor to Crimson Glory’s Transcendence in terms of mystique and atmosphere, if only you replaced Midnight’s majestic soars with Jon Oliva’s rough throaty howls. It’s a great tune and despite its sinister mood, the guitars remain rather relevant; bringing to mind the same crunchy riffing of ”In Dark Places”. “The Unholy” gallops onward with class, yet serves more than a simple reminder of the tune’s most notable inspiration source and I’m also fond if the flashy leads that appear all over the place. “Mentally Yours” is a real surprising track; that intro could have easily been written by a certain Mr. Piano Man, but once Criss arrives with that warping riff, you know it’s still Savatage that you’re listening to and who could forget those extravagant lyrics? I’ve always had a feeling that guys named Timmy were somewhat out there!
As artistic as Gutter Ballet is, it’s far from perfect, as there are tunes that I could have easily done without. “When the Crowds are Gone” just doesn’t have the same positive effects as the titled-track has, especially since it appears not too short after, even if it’s not too bad on its own. “Silk and Steel” sounds as if it was included for instrumental’s sake (because featuring just one clearly isn’t enough, right?) and serves no purpose whatsoever. “She’s in Love” is a dirty speed metal track that has attitude, but it also features some mediocre C-quality riffs. Honestly, Savatage were never amazing once they played fast, but if you’re going to speed up, at least do it properly – such as “Skull Session” from Power of the Night.
Gutter Ballet definitely does more good than bad and it’s also ahead of its time. So, yeah, it’s a proper way to end the 80’s with and besides, who could forget the amusing “Mentally Yours”? This album rules.
Release date: December 1st, 1989
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