Review Summary: An album to make you appreciate life both lyrically and musically.
Dead Winter Dead - an interesting enough name for an album, though it doesn't refer to any sort of zombified (cool as that would be) or nuclear winter. Dead Winter Dead, as a matter of fact, is a concept album which largely deals with the Bosnian War in the period extending from November of 1994 to Christmas Eve of the same year.
This is the album that spawned not only a radio hit for Savatage, but Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the brainchild of producer Paul O'Neil which has come to great success and which incorporates many of the members of Savatage. Of course, this all came about over the song Christmas Eve (Sarajevo 12/24), which is also featured on TSO's first album, Christmas Eve and Other Stories. Basically, if you haven't heard it somewhere, you've been living under a rock.
The track is a combination of God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen and Carol of the Bells and is supposed to represent a cellist playing Christmas carols among the mortar fire in Sarajevo. The cellist in question, according to Paul O'Neil, is actually Vedran Smailovic, who, after returning to Sarajevo during the war, actually did do this. The only difference is that in the Savatage telling of the story, Smailovic is killed by mortar fire the Christmas Eve of 1994, whereas he's actually still alive today.
In the story, his death ends up causing a truce between the Serb boy and Muslim girl around which the story of Dead Winter Dead takes place, and so he ends up telling her that he's not just a uniform and blah blah blah in "Not What You See," and they end up walking away from the war with each other in the end.
Yeh? Bleh? Whatever. I could really care less about that little part of the album (though the song is solid and interesting). I think the band was probably just trying to throw something in about love being able to stop war or something. Whatever. I expected more love and less war after reading the Wikipedia entry on the article, but the album stays true to metal form with plenty of aggressive vocals and fast, heavy riffs that establish the other eleven of thirteen tracks of war as the predominant atmosphere.
Even that final song is amazing. Possibly even the best on the album (though the concept surrounding it is "meh" at best). It features some really great solos and a rich, layered vocal performance by Zachary Stevens, who even puts out one of the best lyrics I think I've ever heard about war ("Tell me if you were to win would it show? / In a thousand years who would know? / As a million lives come and go / On this same piece of ground"). He even puts them out there in a terrifically melodic way which makes you wonder how he'd been singing so harshly earlier on the album.
Anyhow, to begin with there's an orchestral intro which gives of a mood of darkness and brooding chaos. It's ushered in by the rapid piano part and explosion which come following pounding bass drums and a screeching strings section.
From there, there are a few tracks which carve out history, or beginning of the war (Sarajevo, This is the Time (1990)). These songs are generally slower and more classical, featuring piano and an increased emphasis on crescendo. There's a great part in This is the Time (1990) where Stevens belts out "This is the one place to be!" immediately followed by a classically-based guitar solo that simply can't be missed.
In a great move by the band, not only does Stevens sing, but Jon Oliva contributes lead vocals to two songs on the album - "I Am" and "Doesn't Matter Anyway," where his harsher voice and sinister laugh contribute the necessary air of villainy in a warmonger and arms dealer, respectively. "Doesn't Matter Anyway" is another stand out track with Oliva growling along quickly to the rhythm of rapid, crunching guitars about selling instruments of war, even proclaiming that "If you never use 'em, you can save 'em till your next civil war," before pausing and grunting out "Cause that's what they're for!" in a way that almost shows off a dirty, evil smile.
"This Isn't What We Meant," "Mozart and Madness," "Memory," and "Dead Winter Dead" seem to pull together as a suite for me, and I guess that's an intended effect, since they focus around the aforementioned cellist of Sarajevo. "Mozart and Madness" is an instrumental medley of Mozart that works rather well in joining the rest of the pieces, while "This Isn't What We Meant" is a very vocally charged song in which the character seems to even be challenging God ("Is this the answer to our prayer? / Is this what God has sent? / Please understand, this isn't what we meant").
The title track slaps back into fast, catchy, and heavy mode before launching into a slow, chunky song, "One Child." The song opens with a light piano before Stevens pushes his deep voice out in declaring that "Right there in the ground I've been drawing a line." There's a really great vocal break on this track as well, where Oliva and Stevens sing in unison - notably the line "I will believe in you / If you still want me to." The track has a lot of almost quiet aggression which builds and sets the mood very well for our Christmas medley and subsequent lovers' escape.
All in all, Dead Winter Dead really feels like a sort of heavier, more vocally-driven first Trans-Siberian Orchestra album. And with good reason (I mean, aside from Savatage practically composing the entirety of the rock section of TSO). Two of the thirteen tracks are orchestral introductions and another two are medlies of traditional songs played in the metal style.
Granted, that's definitely not a bad thing, and it creates an incredibly deep and interesting variety in the instrumental section of the album, while there's an even greater variety in expanding the scope to the other 9 tracks which vary from deep, driving, and rapid to slow and almost passive. And when fantastically complex vocal and instrumental sections come together with an interesting storyline, you get Dead Winter Dead - an album to keep both your head pumping and your brain working.