Savatage - Still The Orchestra Plays - Greatest Hits Volume 1 + 2
Shuffling out of their Trans-Siberian hibernation for the first time since 2001, Savatage present Still The Orchestra Plays, a two disc greatest hits compilation. The release serves as a neat whistle-stop tour through their 14 album back catalogue, with some well chosen omissions and a trio of exclusive acoustic tracks. Frontman Jon Oliva has made it clear however, (wink, wink) that this release is by no means leading towards any sort of reunion shows (wink, wink). Neither is the new website, the new Myspace page or the news that the entire back catalogue is soon to be remastered and re-released. Sure thing, Jon.
Still The Orchestra Plays (a nod to arguably the band’s greatest concept piece Gutter Ballet) is divided into two chronologically arranged volumes. The first begins, as any decent Savatage ‘best of’ should, by completely ignoring the first two albums and getting straight to ‘Power of the Night’. The next 11 tracks follow the Oliva brothers’ epic rise from thrash metal fan boys to innovative rock gods. Another intelligent omission is made by side stepping the fourth album, Fight For The Rock, regarded by fans and artists alike as the band’s worst. Volume one draws to a close with the heartbreaking theatrical ballad, ‘All That I Bleed’ from 1993’s, Edge of Thorns. The track is a perfectly chosen signal of the end of an era and a reminder of the impending tragedy which would lead to a tremendous shift in sound for the Florida outfit.
Shortly after the release of Edge of Thorns, Criss Oliva, guitarist and co-founder of the band, was suddenly killed in a head on collision with a drunk driver as Oliva and his wife were on their way to Livestock Festival. Criss’ brother Jon was deeply shaken by the tragedy, but persevered with the band in line with an agreement the two had made: if one of them were to die, the other was to continue the work of Savatage in his honour.
The second of the two discs documents the post-Criss years, but surprisingly it dismisses this distinction. Rather than open with a track characteristic of Jon Oliva’s darker sounding grief, like ‘Castles Burning’, or one intended as a tribute to his brother, such as ‘Alone You Breathe’, they opt for ‘Handful of Rain’ - a decision that is quite telling of the greatest hits as a whole. The emphasis is far more on collecting all the anthems in one place than it is on telling a coherent story.
Volume two takes us through to the band’s last few albums. Despite widespread criticism of this period, it is fascinating to hear them transform from heavy metal anthems to discover the sound that would mould Jon Oliva’s infinitely more successful outfit, Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
If you want a thrash metal album that gives a little bit more than the average Download line-up, this is a great place to start, but if you’re looking to study the band in any depth, you’re much better off waiting for the reissues. Live with Gutter Ballet for a while and see if you don’t find yourself begging for the whispers of a reunion to be more than rumours.