Former Savatage throat Zak Stevens took a few years off and now returns with a familiar-sounding band called Circle II Circle. Michael Popke finds out how he got from there to here.
Highlights abounded at ProgPower USA IV, the premier metal festival in the country, held in Atlanta during the first week of September. Among them, Circle II Circle, a band placed smack-dab in the middle of the second day's schedule. The Florida-based group fronted by former Savatage singer Zak Stevens was making one of its few U.S. appearances and took the stage early and left late – performing for 75 minutes and blowing away the 1,400 or so fans gathered from all over the world. Circle II Circle's electrifying set proved Stevens knows how to assemble his own team of proficient players and position them as one of America's most promising metal acts.
"I think this show is a good example of where we can go," Stevens, who left Savatage in mid-2000 to help his wife start a women's boutique business, said hours before taking the ProgPower stage, his friendly Florida accent dominating his voice. "I need the fans who like Savatage to like my Circle II Circle stuff. I want to make sure that I make them happy. But I welcome the opportunity to make people who've never heard Savatage raise an eyebrow, too."
Watching in Silence, Circle II Circle's debut album released on Germany's AFM Records in Europe back in April and issued in North America in August, certainly deserves to raise some eyebrows – both for its resemblance to Stevens' old band and for its ability to stand as its own entity. The record could almost be a Savatage record, considering that Savatage's keyboardist/vocalist Jon Oliva and guitarist Chris Caffery had a hand in writing the album with Stevens. Backed by a tight group of players that included former Savatage prospects, Stevens on Watching in Silence embraces many of the dramatic singing techniques he perfected in his old band: opening with soft vocals that crescendo and boom (the title track), engaging in complex counterpoint vocals ("Fields of Sorrow") and using rapid-fire staccato delivery for added effect ("Forgiven"). His voice, strong as ever, still runs circles (no pun intended) around that of Oliva, who helmed the microphone for Poets & Madmen, Savatage's first album without Stevens since 1991's Streets: A Rock Opera. Instead, Stevens invokes the grandiosity and class of Savatage's underrated 1998 album, The Wake of Magellan.
"Of course, it's going to sound like Savatage," the biology major from the University of South Carolina said about Watching in Silence. "I've been with the band for almost a decade. There's no way around it. I wanted to write the kind of songs that I enjoy doing, so a lot of it is in a similar style to Savatage. I said from the start, 'Don't worry about comparisons; we're going to get them, anyway. Don't let that stop us from making the best music we can and writing the songs that we love to play.' Moving forward, our evolution will definitely move away from that."
Circle II Circle's ProgPower set was punctuated by an appearance from Oliva, Savatage's rotund founder. Together, Stevens and Oliva performed classics like "Gutter Ballet" and "Edge of Thorns." Stevens' voice sounded even more dynamic and lethal when stacked against Oliva's strained Bonnie Tyler-meets-Yoda rasp, and he showcased most of the material from Watching in Silence, along with other Savatage gems like "Turns to Me" and "Taunting Cobras." Meanwhile, new songs such as the title track, "Sea of White," "Walls" and "Face to Face" sounded like old friends.
In fact, "friends" is the best way to describe Stevens' relations with his former bandmates. He said he left the band after eight years and four albums (arguably Savatage's strongest four albums: Edge of Thorns, Handful of Rain, Dead Winter Dead, The Wake of Magellan) to spend more time with his family and help his wife open the boutique. But beyond that, he wasn't sure what he would do. "The band supported me. I couldn't really ask for much more than that," Stevens said. "But I didn't have a plan, so I couldn't put out a press release about my future. I didn't think it would take as long as it did to get things in order. After awhile, though, I started thinking, 'Maybe I can take another step musically.' "
The writing of Watching in Silence began in mid-2001, when Stevens and Oliva entered a Tampa studio to make good on the discussions they'd had together for several years regarding collaborating on a possible post-Savatage project for Stevens. This time, and for the first time, Stevens wrote all of the lyrics and vocal melodies himself – something to which he previously deferred to Oliva and longtime Savatage producer Paul O'Neill, who Stevens still calls his "mentors."
The first demos recorded were versions of "Forgiven," "Watching in Silence," "Fields of Sorrow," "Lies" and "The Circle" – all of which made their way onto Circle II Circle's debut. Once the demos were done, Stevens got in touch with guitarist Matt LaPorte, who auditioned for Savatage during the Dead Winter Dead era (Al Pitrelli eventually got the gig) and the pair rounded up drummer Christopher Kinder, bassist Kevin Rothney and keyboardist John Zahner.
Stevens shopped the demos to several labels in Europe and the United States, ultimately signing a multiple-record deal with AFM. That's when Caffery stepped in to help round out the album with new songs. The result? "Face to Face," "Sea of White" and "Out of Reach." All told, Stevens co-wrote each of the 10 songs on Watching in Silence with either Oliva or Caffery. Even the band's name is linked to the pair. "I wanted to explain what we're all about with it," Stevens said. "It's important because we're part of the old tree. The old circle was my beginning with Savatage, and now I have this new circle of friends. The fact that I'm writing with Jon and Chris for this record links the old circle with the new one."
Since the release of Watching in Silence, fans (especially ones in Europe) have been calling for a double bill of Savatage and Circle II Circle. All Stevens would say in September is that the proposed pairing "opens up a world of possibilities."
"It's still so early in the process that I sometimes forget it's just begun," he said. "Watching in Silence" was getting airplay on at least 70 college radio stations early this fall, and Circle II Circle was hoping to line up a series of stateside gigs later this year or in early 2004. Stevens is also writing new material that's a bit more aggressive and modern than the songs on Watching in Silence. Crediting Evanescence for bringing piano-based lead vocals into mainstream rock once again via the smash single "Bring Me To Life," he's confident that Circle II Circle could reach a wider audience than it has so far – especially if he incorporates, as planned, some of the menacingly melodic elements of newer bands like Disturbed. A new album is likely in 2004, and a live DVD is possible.
Stevens also remains involved in the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, an O'Neill-helmed Savatage offshoot that's taken on a life of its own, particularly during the holiday season. Even though he's contributed vocals to all three TSO album – Christmas Eve and Other Stories, The Christmas Attic, Beethoven's Last Night – he has yet to tour with the either one of the band's annual end-of-year touring companies. According to Stevens, TSO is working on two records (another holiday album and one non-seasonal disc) for possible release next year.
Recently, Stevens appeared with other past and present members of Savatage at the Criss Oliva 10th Anniversary Memorial Concert for Savatage's legendary late guitarist in Ybor City, Fla. Criss Oliva's death in a car accident affects the band to this day, Stevens maintained. "When we lost Criss, well, we never overcame that," he said. "We went through that tragedy, that loss, after coming off the great momentum from Edge of Thorns. We continued to be a band because Criss would've wanted us to. Did we overcome it? No. Will we ever? Never."
In fact, Criss Oliva's passing may have forever bonded in some way all the Savatage members who played with him. Indeed, given the songwriters involved and the caliber of material on Watching in Silence, plus Stevens' involvement in the Memorial Concert and his performance with Oliva's brother at ProgPower, it's a fair question to ask whether Stevens will come full circle and eventually return to Savatage. "I can't really assume that. That would be up to the band," Stevens said, adding that Savatage now has a new singer (Damond Jiniya) and Circle II Circle is committed to a fulfilling a four-record deal with AFM. "I'm a lucky guy right now. Everybody's real happy because they're doing what they want to do."
A couple of weeks after this article was initially posted, word came from the Circle II Circle camp that all band members (sans Stevens) had resigned.
In a statement, Rothney, Kinder, Zahner, LaPorte and guitarist Shane French said they were leaving over disagreements regarding management. "We considered ourselves a band of musicians and a band of brothers. We were family. However, C2C Inc. didn't see us in the same light. They had every opportunity to make things right with us. But they sincerely feel that their 'business plan' is the right one for them. So the end result speaks volumes about that business plan. We have been told that the December tour will continue with all new players. ... [I]t was a thrill and an honor to have performed this music for the fans around the world. That is something we will miss. But have no fear, a band like us must continue in some form. So keep your eyes and ears open."
In response, Circle II Circle posted the following message on its web site on Nov. 10: "Circle II Circle will start recording its second record at Morrisound Studios in mid-January 2004 for a early-April release. Jon Oliva and Chris Caffery will be co-writing with Zak once again ... and a very special guitarist will be debuted on this CD. Zak is currently looking at a HUGE spring touring schedule for next year, including many great summer festivals leading up to a fantastic fall schedule currently in the
works. Circle II Circle is stronger than ever and ready to bring great music and great performances to all the fans everywhere. We wish everyone great success."