Review Summary: Savatage tries to return to its metal roots, with mixed results.
Savatage's final album sees the band return to its metal roots, albeit with the theatricality and bombast found in the post-Criss Oliva period. "Poets and Madmen" is touted as a concept album, when in reality, the concept was slapped onto the record at the last minute by Broadway guitarist-turned-rock producer Paul O'Neil.
Initially, the album was going to be split between Jon Oliva - the co-founder of the band and original lead vocalist - and Zak Stevens, who had been the lead vocalist since 1993. But the day Stevens was scheduled to fly down and record his vocals, he called Oliva to inform him he was leaving the band, citing "family reasons."
The album is built around the story of Kevin Carter, a photographer known for his brutal picture of a starving Sudanese girl and a waiting vulture. The story found in the linear notes elaborates on the concept, and also reveals how half-assed the effort to make a story out of it was. Would it have killed Paul O'Neil to release a non-concept album? The good thing is that one can ignore the concept altogether this time around...
Though the band still makes use of Oliva's piano, the guitars are featured more prominently here than on the Savatage's two previous albums, giving "Poets" a more metal sound. Some of the songs, such as "Drive" or "Man in the Mirror" could have easily been on the "Streets" album; songs like "Morphine Child" and "Back to a Reason" are post-Criss Oliva songs, that were obviously meant for the smoother-voiced Stevens. Savatage puts itself into a tough place: the songs are not metal enough to appeal to the metal audience that they lost after putting out so many TSO-style concept albums; at the same time, some of the songs are too heavy to draw in fans from the TSO machine.
Al Pitrelli offers some amazing guitar work; Chris Caffery still sounds a bit too much like Criss Oliva, without developing his own style. The rest of the band sounds good, but there's definitely something missing from this release - perhaps they all knew it would be their last record.
Oliva recorded his own material, and all of the Stevens material, which is in a different key than Oliva is used to. In my opinion, Oliva pulls the vocals off with great aplomb. Though his vocal range has greatly decreased since he stepped out of the lime light, he still snarls and, occasionally, screams his way through the songs. He also shows a sweeter side to his voice on the acoustic sections of "The Reason." During the 10 minute epic "Morphine Child", the band decides to use counter-point vocals once again, revealing the heavy Broadway influence that Paul O'Neil brought to the band.
If you're a fan of Savatage, this album will not disappoint. However, pure metal fans might find the theatrical influence a little off-putting.
Jon Oliva - Lead vocals
Chris Caffery - Lead & Rhythm guitars
Johnny Lee Middleton - Bass guitar
Jeff Plate - Drums
Zachary Stevens - lead vocals (Track 12 on US Bonus Edition only)
Criss Oliva - guitars (Track 12 on US Bonus Edition only)
Bob Kinkel - additional keyboards & backing vocals
Al Pitrelli - additional lead guitars (featured on tracks "Stay With Me Awhile", "Commissar", "Morphine Child" & "The Rumor")
John West - backing vocalist