Savatage: Streets (1991)
"You got a minute ? Lemme tell you about a friend of mine: DT Jesus. Used to stand for Downtown Jesus…He was one character that made it out of here. Lemme tell you about him "
When Paul O'Neill started producing, then co-writing material for Savatage, the band lifted itself out of the shadows of so many thrash bands and became something special. The track that launched a thousand ideas was probably When The Crowds Are Gone" from the 1989 album Gutter Ballet. It relates the story of a washed up star who keeps singing even when the crowds are gone. It also contains lines which became the nucleus for the disc currently under review. Part of the song is used verbatim in the final sequences of this rock opera. Gutter Ballet is not the disc being held underneath the microscope today, but I thought it essential to relate this particular tidbit of information in order to set up our Past Present Classic for November 2004: Streets
"Somewhere…Out there…Alone and out of place…Streets of illusion…Sooth the shattered fate."
Like any good opera, it's always important to open by setting the location where the story will transpire. Our story takes place in the streets of New York: a harsh inhospitable place that draws in unwary victims and sucks the lifeforce out of them until it spits out the carcasses. The track is a highly orchestrated number yet still contains elements patently Savatage . Jon Oliva's voice soars to high pitched screams and drops to ominous, nay evil, chantings. Criss Oliva belts out the power chords as his fingers slide nimbly up and down the frets. We're drawn into the streets where pimps, thugs , drug addicts, and prostitutes control the night…
" …Sellin nickel candies…Saving up all his quarters…Bought himself a cheap guitar…"
I opened the review with a quote from the only spoken words on this disc. A friend of our protagonist's acts as a sort of narrator to introduce us to the main character. Very upbeat track which again features some excellent riffs and superb leads by Criss Oliva. The song tells us of DT Jesus, a small time drug dealer, who rises out of the New York bar scene to become a major rock star. Unfortunately for him, he develops a huge drug problem as he starts sampling his own wares a tad too much. Just as his career is at it's peak, he starts missing shows. The track features a very catchy chorus and was even made into a video single.
" …No one seems to be around…Just this monkey that I've found…Still he is my only friend…And tonight he grins again…"
The pace slow down here as the band introduces one the many exceptional power ballads, all of which are well dispersed throughout the disc to give the opera great balance. Our hero is now alone in a hell of his own making. Drugs seem to be his only friend as he disappears within himself. Jon's vocals and piano are superb as he relates the anguish of the protagonist with incredible feeling.
" Who's this before me…Dressed in rags, soaked in gin…It's a sign or a warning…Am I now where he's been ? "
The music picks up the pace as Criss opens with a tasty riff. Our hero confronts one of his musical idols who is nothing more than a derelict roaming the streets in a semi-comatose state. Fearing this fate, DT decides it's time to clean up his act and attempt a comeback. Musically, this is a straight forward rocker that still allows the guitar to unleash on occasion. The closing segment is particularly tasty as Criss rips into the kind of solo which 'Tage heads around the world have come to love.
" Got to get back…Got to get back…Got to get back…I never meant to take it this far.."
Our first true ballad on the disc,and one of the best tracks. In any good play, there's always a soliloquy or two. Jon Oliva plays piano and belts out a very passionate song. Our hero realizes where he is and how far he has to climb to return to respectability. Jon shows us a very vulnerable side as he croons his way through the number like a piano man at a Friday night watering hole.
" So DT returned to the ground he had burned in his past…And the press they all laughed and said he'd never last.".
What rock opera would be complete without an homage to The Who. This track sounds like it could have been lifted directly off Tommy. Very upbeat featuring some great drum fills from Dr Killdrums. Our hero faces his fears and mounts an unbelievable comeback; while living clean for the first time in a long time.
" Hey DT what you been up to…It's been a real long time and your bill's passed due.."
Classic Savatage… As our hero is climbing back up to the top, he is confronted by a nightmare from his past. Seems our hero owed many people money and one dealer has shown up to collect. A fight ensues and DT's manager gets killed in the process. Musically, this one has to be the finest pieces on the disc. Hard, crunchy guitars take us back to 'Tage's earlier thrash days. Jon's voice strains to it's limits as Criss rips off one his best solos. A true headbanger's wet dream.
" Hey there Lord, it's me…I wonder if you're free…"
DT flees the scene and ends up in a church where he asks for explanations as to why he keeps getting thrown these apparently insurmountable obstacles in his life. Another power ballad showcasing Jon's crooning abilities. The beat is slow and deliberate, merely there to punctuate the lyrics. The song also features some great orchestral sequences, as O'Neill starts introducing elements to the Savatage sound which will become prominent in later releases.
" It's all very strange…As I'm standing here…Contemplating years…"
Very powerful number filled with crunchy riffs and heavy bottom end. The number also features more orchestrated symphonic metal and one of the best solos of the entire disc. Our hero does not know where to turn and starts wondering if he should even continue; not just with the comeback, but with life itself. Things have changed irrevocably in his world.
" New York City don't mean nothing…Just a good place when you're running…"
DT returns to the anonymity of the streets where he meets a homeless man ( our narrator) who tells his tale of woe as a veteran of the streets. The song begins softly but builds in intensity as our hero is given a crash course in how to survive the streets. I have to once again tip my hat to the superb rhythm guitar work of Criss Oliva in this number; as well as his powerful solo.
" I'm doin well tonight…I've got dreams to sell tonight…"
DT then meets a pimp who starts showing him that there is a way to make a living in the streets, if you're willing to pay the ultimate price. Another killer Oliva riff dominates the song , which moves at a deliberate pace , and has an almost swing feel to it.
" In the dark I call out your name.. It echoes in vain… Over again… In an empty room"
Desperately in need of hearing a familiar voice, DT tries to call an old girlfriend on the phone but cannot reach her. Feeling more helpless then ever, he starts contemplating the mind numbing comforts of drugs. Musically, this is another soliloquy, only this time the band joins in as Jon convincingly croons the plight of DT.
" Listen to me from down deep inside…I'm the madness that just will not die.."
The drugs start speaking more loudly in DT's subconscious mind. Jon employs his most sadistic voice as he belts out the lyrics . This is one of the strongest tracks on the disc . DT reaches a catharsis in his life. The music vehicles his confusion and rage in a very convincing manner. Another vintage headbanging song , where air guitar enthusiasts can have a field day.
" Father hear me, I am tired…Shall I waken in thy home…"
DT is seriously thinking of returning to drugs when he is witness to a miracle. He sees an old man die before his eyes. Then, he sees the spirit of the man, manifested as a blond haired, blue eyes boy, emerge from the man's lifeless body and climb some stairs. He follows the spirit and sees it lift to heaven. Life itself becomes very clear to DT in this brief instant. He has gotten a glimpse of the master plan. The track is an unaccompanied piano and vocal solo for Jon. The music is based on a Welsh traditional song entitled "Suo Gan". It's a hauntingly beautiful number which always raises the hairs on my arms. Very spiritual, yet never preachy.
" So what can I tell you…Life's the length of this play…"
DT returns home a different man. He now sees the errors of his life which lead him down the many dead ends that have made up his life. The track begins as yet another power ballad, but mixes things up towards the end where we get another Who-like instrumental break, punctuated by some greats riffs and beautiful acoustic piano to close the number.
" I am the way, I am the light, I am the dark inside the night.."
The closer. One of the most beautiful songs ever written in any genre. In a perfect world, this would have been a monster hit as it has an American Idol power vocals feel to it.
DT now understands. He can come to terms with who he is by coming to terms with who he was. The song is an over-the-top power ballad which could bring the house down on Broadway. The message is simple and beautiful. The lyrical nucleus born on "When The Crowds Are Gone" returns here, however the arrangements are different. The orchestration builds to a crescendo as Jon repeats the chorus, until the track, and the disc, fade into nothing.
Thus ends the tale of Downtown Jesus, as ambiguously as it began. In retrospect this can be viewed as merely a starting point for the many fine tales that the Oliva-O'Neill collaboration would bring, both under the Savatage and Trans-Siberian Orchestra banners. This record also marks the end of the classic 'Tage foursome of Jon Oliva, Criss Oliva, Steve Walcholz, and John Lee Middleton. Vocal chord problems would later force Jon to limiting his vocal appearances thus handing the reins over to a very capable Zack Stevens. This change in vocals as well as the more orchestrated progressive metal approach of the songwriting veered the band into another direction. This record also marks the second to last featuring the underrated guitar prowess of Criss Oliva who would die tragically in a car accident after the recording of Edge Of Thorns. Criss, you are sorely missed.
1. Streets ( 6:48)
2. Jesus Saves ( 5:27)
3. Tonight He Grins Again/Strange Reality ( 8:02)
4. A Little Too Far ( 3:34)
5. You're Alive/Sammy And Tex ( 4:58)
6. St-Patrick's (4:29)
7. Can You Hear Me Now ( 5:11)
8. New York City Don't Mean Nothing ( 4:03)
9. Ghost In The Ruins ( 5:31)
10. If I Go Away (5:17)
11. Agony And Ecstasy/ Heal My Soul (6:11)
12. Somewhere In Time/Believe (9:02)