This is my first attempt at a track by track review since my first ever review way back in 2004. I've modified it a bit to suit the subject, so whilst it's a long read, I do hope you enjoy it. This was Savatage's first album under their new producer, Paul O' Neill, who is generally regarded as the first producer to really 'get' the band, and as such, Hall of the Mountain King is regarded as their greatest effort, and the proverbial albatross around their neck. Although I prefer some of their later works, the genius of the brother's Olivia make this one of the finest heavy metal albums of the '80s. Based around the concept of eternal darkness, it builds upon a single piece of Edward Grieg's Peer Gynt suite, and is quite an engaging listen. Well then, onto the review we go...
Chapter 1: 24 Hours Ago
Lord Steerpike stretched idly on his saddle, attempting to relieve the uneasy feeling that seemed to be spreading across his body. He looked back to the reassuring comfort of his entrenched forces, an army of thousands awaiting his command. Slowly, reluctantly, he turned his gaze back to the gigantic mountain which blotted out half the sky. He sighed, and ignored the melancholy music that drifted on the wind. Having the Bard's Touch was downright annoying at times, he thought. The Bard's Touch was the name of the particular talent that allowed men to 'hear' magic as a form of music, and by concentrating on the moods, tones and rhythm, it was possible to discern the nature of the magic.
Steerpike nickered at his horse, and the powerful stallion slowly walked towards the monolith that stood at the gate of the mountain path. Once again, he read the runes etched there:
This album, The Hall Of The Mountain King was our first effort under the guidance of producer Paul O' Neill. As such, we have reached a turning point in our music, and we believe this is our finest album to date. The four of us have melded into one musical juggernaut, and as such we shall be unstoppable! Bow before us, O puny mortals, and be dragged into darkness.
-The Wizards Of Savatage
Steerpike shook his head. Such nonsensical writings could have only come from madmen. He grimly spat on the stone, and cocked his head to listen to the growing swell of music that seemed to be emanating from the mountain. A terrifying squeal of some unholy instrument played and a gravelly voice began to scream indecipherable words. Steerpike shuddered. He must be going insane. He turned his horse, and looked mournfully at the Mountain. Only a day ago, he had been safely in the keep of MX, and now he was about to spend his first night within reach of madness incarnate. He sighed again, and rode down to camp. The music took on a thunderous rhythm and then faded in his wake.
Chapter 2: Beyond The Doors Of The Dark
The music that taunted Steerpike was currently wafting through a window high up in the mountain's face. Criss smiled grimly. The slow minor key that met his ears pleased him, for it was a sign that the necessary energies were in the air. He turned to his brother, Jon, and nodded. Jon grinned, a facial gesture devoid of any warmth, and began to sing the ancient rites in his trademark falsetto. Steve and Johhny joined in with Criss to weave the melody that would accompany Jon incantations. In the courtyard below the window, a dark cloud began to appear, which became more solid and defined with each beat of the music. Then Criss' hands began to move furiously, creating a thundering melody on his guitar which would bring their nightmares to life. As his blistering solo reached its climax, the cloud congealed into horrors of all sizes and shapes. The magic rites complete, the four rushed to the window to survey their work. As the general of the army looked up and saluted, a rolling chuckle issued from the mouths of the Wizards of Savatage.
Chapter 3: Legions
It was the sentry's scream that woke Steerpike, though in the instant it took to get his bearings, he recognised the steady bass beat which indicated danger. The thick, pounding sound could only mean one thing: a battle magic was in the air. And then there was that same gravelly voice which had soared through the air the previous day. Steerpike swore loudly, employing oaths that most noblemen were not supposed to know. He pulled open the flap of his pavilion and rushed outside, in time to see a thing made of nightmares impale another sentry with a monstrous claw. The behemoth then bellowed, and the music swelled, breaking into a furious sound which Steerpike recognized as the work of true talents. He reached behind him, and pulled out the sword of Peer Gynt, his ancestor who had been a great knight. The 5 foot claymore had seen him through countless battles, and he trusted it would bring him the luck to survive this onslaught.
He ran to the top of a small rise, stopping only to slay what seemed to be an undead werewolf, and looked out towards the mountain. His eyes widened as he saw the tens of thousands of creatures clambering over each other to assault his encampment. However, the army he had brought with him were seasoned fighters, and even now his underofficers were organising a strong defence. But it would be close. Steerpike screamed his defiance loud, hoping to raise his men's spirits. "Legions of the Night," he thought, "can you hear my battle cry?"
Chapter 4: Strange Wings
Steerpike stood in front of his steel plate armour, preparing to finally garb himself with it. He had fought the entire first assault donned in his leather sleeping armour, and was now using the brief respite in between waves to prepare himself fully for what was about to happen next. For as great as the danger presented by the legions of the dark was, another, far more horrendous thing had appeared at the height of battle. "Atop a black winged mare, casting a wicked stare," muttered Steerpike. The now constant music seemed to sense his emotions and took on a dramatic cadence that only blackened the lord's mood.
The cleric's arrival interrupted his musings, and Steerpike noted with amusement the blistering solo (the word had simply appeared in his mind) that accompanied this holy man's entry.
"Hmm, you will never fly with that weight," the cleric said firmly.
"You have guessed my intent then?" Steerpike replied with a wry smile.
"Yes, my lord, for how else will you meet the general of the night in battle?"
Steerpike blinked, wondering at the perception of the man. He said as much to the cleric, who replied, "It is necessary to gain a certain perception when one joins the priesthood. This is especially useful for the confessional, for though most men will shout their neighbours sins from the rooftops, they tend to become very quiet and vague about their own."
Steerpike laughed, for what seemed like the first time in an eternity. "Will you, then, work your magic?"
The cleric simply nodded, and began to intone ancient words which the ambient music matched a full third higher. Steerpike was entranced, and didn't notice the weight on his back until the spell was over. He craned his neck to regard his newest members, and flapped the tips experimentally. The change in balance sent him sprawling to the floor, and as the cleric helped him up, he remarked, "It will take some getting used to such a strange thing, my lord. However, I must leave now though, for I have to tend to the wounded."
Steerpike thanked him, and as the man left the tent, he said softly, "Strange things indeed."
Chapter 5: Prelude To Madness
The wind swept across the mountain face like a gale, whilst thunderous detonations shook the ancient rocks. Steerpike landed lightly on the ledge, and peered down at the battle ravaged plain which was spread out before him. Great war machines were strewn about like a child's toys. Men who looked like ants battled with monsters which lost their horror from such a great height. It was almost an abstract view, and it distracted the knight for a moment. He shook his head, and remembered his true purpose. He had followed the legion's general to this very place, and before him loomed the dark portal through which she (the pronoun came to Steerpike unbidden) had disappeared into. The now gloomy music was but a whisper of minor keys, a brooding blend of crunching guitars and unholy choirs. He took a deep breath and entered the darkness.
Some time later, he came to a large hall, devoid of anything but a large bust of a man in the middle. The music became a frenzy of shrieking guitars, melodic pianos and booming drums, increasing in urgency and tempo. The cacophony drove Steerpike to his knees, and it was in this position that he noticed the name at the base of the statue. Edward Grieg. Why did that name sound so familiar? He valiantly rose to his feet, grasping the sword of Peer Gynt in both hands, and marched down the only open door, a massive arched portal set in the far side of the hall. Shadows lurched and whispers filled his ears as he walked, but he dared not look to the sides, lest the horrors there would take his mind. The music drifted slowly behind, his eternal companion.
Chapter 6: Hall Of The Mountain King
The emphatic beat of the music warned Steerpike just before the mounted figure burst from the shadows. The dark blade intended for his throat was blocked by a hasty parry, and the knight quickly set himself into a fighting stance, aware of the added encumbrance of the wings on his back. The next thrust nearly took him in the stomach, but he quickly sidestepped and launched an assault of his own. The cloaked figure moved herself quickly out of his reach, but Steerpike simply altered his aim and took the foul hellspawned steed in the throat. As the beast fell shuddering to the ground, the figure rolled from its back and shrieked, a cry that sapped Steerpike's strength. The general sensed his weakness, and rushed forward, her blade executing a series of quick attacks that the knight was hard pressed to avoid. The music, following the battle, kept time with her attacks, and that same demonic voice rang out with each meeting of steel on steel.
Both fighter's stood back, weapons held warily whilst they regained their strength. Suddenly, Steerpike took the initiative, jumping into battle and scoring a hit along the general's arm. Pressing his advantage, he struck out with powerful, deliberate strokes, slamming her back with each swing. The song took on his slower beat, and a drumroll seemed to precipitate his killing blows. The fading scream of the general as his massive sword took her in the chest was drowned out by the mournful, yet triumphant tune of the music. Steerpike dropped to his knees, fully exhausted by the fight. A strange lethargy took him, and the music faded away.
Chapter 7: The Price You Pay
"I know you're all alone tonight," the voice whispers in his ear. He wakes up in the cold room where he is sprawled. "And I hear your cries. You killed the General," the voice finishes.
He shakes his head, struggling to stand. "Where am I?"
"Let me refresh your memory", the voice says in a mocking tone. A million images and words flood through his mind. "The Hall of the Mountain King," he thinks. "Steerpike, my name is Steerpike."
"Are you the Mountain King?" he asks the darkness in general.
The voice replies, "The Mountain King has not yet... arrived."
The music swells, before settling into a threatening rhythm. The din distracts Steerpike momentarily, and he fights off a feeling of nausea.
"That's the price you pay for killing the Banshee Queen. Quite powerful magic linked to her death. The discomfort will soon become bearable."
"If you are not the Mountain King, then tell me your name," Steerpike says tersely, trying to regain his bearings.
The ambient light in the room begins to increase, and a robed figure steps out of the shadow. "I am Jon Olivia," he says, moving his hand in a gesture. A sudden bout of pain grips Steerpike.
"What is happening?" the knight gasped.
"Oh, I am simply fulfilling the prophecy of Edward Grieg."
"That name! It is familiar to me."
"He was a great bard, who created a suite of music that was more than simple entertainment. It was the foretelling of the destruction of the world by a fallen hero."
"Yes. The magical disease is spreading throughout your body. It will eventually drive you mad, but it is to my advantage to speed its advance, yet control its severity. Resistance is... shall we say... futile."
"Never!" Steerpike rises suddenly and launches himself towards the man in front of him. A single word passes Jon's lips, and suddenly he finds himself collapsing to the ground in agony. As the darkness encompasses himself again, he hears the mocking tone of the music all around him.
Chapter 8: White Witch
"The prophecy is complete", Steerpike said. He stood regally in his new armour, crafted by the blackest of arts. Lightweight and sturdier than the finest plate mail available to mortals, it was engraved with runes that ranged from disgusting to horrific in their message. The four men before him smiled grimly. It had been an exhausting feat of magic, turning this once noble knight into evil incarnate. He was mad, there was no doubt, but it was a controlled madness that would serve their dark purposes.
"You know what you must do," Criss stepped forward and gestured towards the portal to the outside world.
Steerpike nodded, an insane glint in his eyes. "The witch won't live out the night". The music sprung out of the previous silence, galloping into a heart pumping tempo. He turned, his ebony cape sweeping out behind him, and ran towards the opening. Spreading his dark wings, he glided over the moonlight plains that surrounded the mountain, heading towards the city he had left not a week ago.
The White Witch, Queen of MX, standing on her balcony, strained to see the black spot on the horizon. As it sped closer, she heard a sentry shout a warning to his fellows. A guard ran to her side and bowed. "'Ware, my lady, there is an evil aspect about that thing." She nodded, and prepared a scrying spell. However, there was no need for it, as the object, moving with unholy speed, soon revealed itself. It was madness come into corporeal form, and it was landing on her balcony.
"Steerpike", she said in surprise. Her heart refused to believe what her mind was registering. "What has happened to you?"
He looked at her with hate-filled eyes, and his malice was clear as he crooned in a voice that echoed with images of graveyards and evil spirits, "Why, I have come to end your reign, my Queen." He bowed mockingly to her, and the guards rushing to place themselves between this intruder and their beloved lady. The music only grew stronger, emphasising the galloping beat with a ominous melody.
Her hand went to her mouth involuntarily, but she quickly regained composure. Her other hand summoned a ball of lightning. "You'll find I'm not so easy to kill, my once noble knight."
The blade of Peer Gynt flicked, its dark length glinting in the sunlight, and a guard fell to the ground. "You'll find I'm not so easy to defeat." The dark sword took another life. "Shall we get started?" Steerpike asked, as he began slaughtering the hapless guards.
"White Witch, White Witch, poisoning you" he sang, as he impaled a man. The song gleefully followed his lead, providing a catchy chorus. "White Witch, White Witch, coming for you," he continued, and suddenly there were no guards between him and the Queen. She launched the lightning at him, but he simply brushed it aside and charged.
"And now my lovely Queen, you die."
Chapter 9: Last Dawn
Captain Riva stood upon the hillock that his army was encamped around. It had been a week since his commander, Lord Steerpike, had flown on magical wings into the face of the mountain himself. After a devastating battle with the legions of darkness, he had withdrawn to a point halfway between the mountain and the city of MX. He wondered, not for the first time, what had befallen his valiant lord inside that bastion of chaos and malevolence. Although he could not hear it, the ambient music was filled with mourning, regret and warning. He noticed the speck on the horizon, coming from the city, he surmised. The unheard musing changed slightly, carrying a warning tone. As the figure grew closer, a shout, no, a cheer went up from the soldiers closest to it. Riva began to run through the throng of soldiers, leaping over fallen equipment. He recognised the figure of his former lord, and felt his heart leap. Steerpike was alive! He stretched his legs out, running faster with each step. However, he faltered as he saw the changes in his commander. And if he could hear the song, he would have noted the subdued guitar tones that warned of things to come. But he couldn', and so his surprise was complete when Lord Steerpike, the champion of good, killed a dozen of the closest soldiers with two broad sweeps of his massive blade. The music faded, and was soon replaced by something far more sinister, far more faster and far more intricate, a fitting anthem for the end of the world.
Chapter 10: Devastation
The blasting drums signaled the start of the duel between Steerpike and Riva. The main riff matched the furious nature of the fight, and the solo only highlighted the artistry of these two swordsmen. Each thrust was blocked, each attack answered equally. But whilst Riva was tiring quickly, Steerpike only seemed to be getting stronger. Behind him lay over a hundred men, felled like wheat before a scythe, and the rest of the already under strength army were watching in awe at the display before them. The end came so quickly that men who had blinked missed it. Just as the music culminated, Riva extended a fraction too much, and Steerpike's blade entered his arm pit laterally, piercing his heart and lungs.
Riva cried out, his voice unsupported by lungs filling rapidly with blood, and fell. Wasting no time on his former second, Steerpike cackled madly, and commenced the end of the human race.
And the last notes of music pounded away in a glorious release of evil, before fading in a momentary sea of distortion.