Tales from a Metalhead: Chapter 22: Through the Eyes of the Mountain King

Tales from a Metalhead logo

This chapter is part of a book called Tales from a Metalhead written by Metal Express Radio’s President Stig G. Nordahl. The chapters will be posted one at the time and you can find them all here.

Jon Oliva and Stig

Savatage! What is there not to like? Why didn’t they get any bigger? I really don’t know, but we all know the music industry isn’t always fair. I got into the band through the Hall Of The Mountain King album from 1987. I am not sure why their three previous albums didn’t come across my desk, but this was their strongest release thus far and it got me hooked. Criss Oliva’s riffing and tasty guitar solos combined with his brother Jon’s raspy vocals is just a smashing combo. Great lyrics too! I have met the latter a few times throughout the years and he is a really funny and nice guy.

I bought the Hall Of The Mountain King album myself because it was rumored that Savatage could be the next big thing. The first promo LP I got was Gutter Ballet (1989). It showed a more mature band and had way better production. Then of course you have Streets: A Rock Opera that was released two years later. It’s considered the band’s magnum opus by many and a must-have in a metalhead’s record collection.

The band didn’t tour much in Europe so it would still take a few years before I finally got to see them live. When The Wake of Magellan was released in 1997 Savatage finally did a European tour. Norway wasn’t on the list so I had to go to Hamburg in Germany to catch a show. They played a venue called Markthalle and had Vanderhoof as the opening act. Vanderhoof was guitarist Kurt Vanderhoof’s short lived band from the period Metal Church was put on ice. I had scheduled interviews with both bands. This was the first time I would see and interview Savatage so I was very excited. The interview went quite well. Jon is always a pleasure to interview. I remember making one very stupid statement though. I asked Jon about manager Paul O’Neill’s involvement in the music and said it isn’t very common that the producer writes songs with the band. Jon’s reply was: “Isn’t it?” Before he continued the answer. I didn’t know back then about the major impact producers might have on records. I left that part out of the interview, but Jon still talks about Paul O’Neill’s important role in the band.

Savatage and Frode (in red on the left side)

An ex-colleague here at Metal Express Radio, Frode Johnsrud, is probably the world’s biggest Savatage fan as far as I know. Taller than most people, but also more dedicated when it comes to Savatage. He has traveled the world to follow the band on tour several times. If you see some live footage of the band I will bet either Frode has been filming it or you can see him on stage filming the band. Jon Oliva once told me: “Frode has been to more Savatage gigs than I have.” That’s not true of course, but as Jon was out of the band for a while it wasn’t so far fetched.

In 2001, Frode all of a sudden gave me a call from Florida while he was on tour with the band. He asked if I wanted to do a road report for Metal Express Radio now that the band finally had released a new album (Poets and Madmen) and was out on the road again. I said: “Yes of course. When?” He said: “Right now!” A few seconds later I found myself talking to Jon Oliva on the phone. The band had just recruited Damond Jiniya as their new lead vocalist, replacing Zak Stevens (who took over lead vocal duties in 1992), and they were obviously happy to be touring again. The phone line was bad so the sound is a bit crappy, but Jon’s enthusiasm shines through.

Picture of Damond Jiniya (Savatage)
Damond Jiniya and Stig (sober)

For a few years I traveled to Germany a lot. Germany is kind of the European capital of Metal, and it was the place to go to see many bands that never visited Norway. In 2001 Savatage was on the bill at the Bang Your Head!!! festival along with other great acts like Judas Priest, Dee Snider, Stratovarius and Megadeth. I thought it would be interesting to interview the new vocalist Jiniya to hear what it was like to join the band. Maybe this was a childhood dream come true type of story. Unfortunately Poets and Madmen turned out to be the last Savatage album so Jiniya never got to sing on any of their releases. He was a great vocalist and frontman though. It was interesting to hear his thoughts on fronting Savatage. I guess it’s more interesting what happened post-Savatage. More about that later.

In 2002, Savatage headlined the Wacken Open Air festival. It was time for another long crazy bus ride organized by Norwegian Scream Magazine. There was ALWAYS something happening on these bus rides. One time the driver had put fuel in the water tank by mistake so we weren’t allowed to use the toilet at all. Can you imagine a bus full of beer drinking Metalheads cruising down the Autobahn without being able to take a leak for hours? Another time the bus company had screwed up the reservation so we were short of one bus. The last minute solution was to give us one of the local route buses without a toilet, tables and adjustable seats. Argh…

Picture of Geoff (Vicious Rumors) & Jon (Savatage)
Geoff (Vicious Rumors) & Jon (Savatage)

I thought I had done enough Savatage interviews for a while so I didn’t schedule any for the festival, but I did meet with the guys at a backstage party. I sat down to have a few drinks with Geoff Thorpe from Vicious Rumors and Jon Oliva from Savatage. All of a sudden an empty beer can was passed around the table. Well, it was obviously not completely empty. There was smoke coming from the top and it had a hole near the bottom. It turned out to be a bong. I have never smoked anything in my life, but I didn’t want to be a party pooper so I had to give it a shot. I almost coughed my lungs out, which the other guys found very amusing. Mr. Oliva knew how to handle this. I’ll get back to another version of smoking later in the chapter… Anyways, we had great fun.

Later in the evening I met Jiniya at the bar. We were both pretty wasted. Years later Frode commented and mentioned my name on a Facebook post from Jiniya. Of course I had to check it out. Jiniya had a rough time during and after his Savatage tenure and was bitter about how he was treated. He illustrated this by showing one success and one downfall picture. I was pictured with Jiniya in the “downfall” picture, showing us having drinks at the backstage party. Frode’s comment was: “Ha ha, Stig you are Jiniya’s downfall”. Well, Jiniya replied that it was not my fault and that I was a cool guy. As if he remembers! Yeah right…

The design
The downfall
Autobiography coming?

Later the same year Savatage finally made it to Norway. They brought Vicious Rumors and Blaze (the namesake band of Blaze Bayley of Iron Maiden fame) with them. It was a great lineup and the bands put on some excellent shows. This was the last Savatage show I ever saw. After the concert I recorded a Guest DJ Show with Jon Oliva where he introduced ten of his all time favorite Hard Rock and Metal tracks. He was amusing as always. It was the first and only time I have recorded a Guest DJ show with someone wearing a viking helmet, ha ha. We must do a rerun of that show on the radio soon.


Chris and Stig backstage somewhere
Picture of Chris Caffery
Chris Caffery after a soundcheck
Chris Caffery played guitar in the band for many years. I stumbled upon him backstage after a soundcheck some time somewhere and I took this picture. I think it is a really good one! The one to the right…

In 2004 he released a double solo album (Faces / God Damn War) and visited Norway to do press. Frode was there too of course. There were not too many interview appointments set up, maybe four I think. Caffery came straight from Germany where he had done tons of interviews. We did some math and figured that the number of interviews in Germany vs Norway was equal if considering the size of the population. Just for a little comfort. Still, we had a great time. Frode and myself took Caffery to the legendary Elm Street Rock Cafe in Oslo that night. We shared some great stories over some beers and burgers.

After the Poets and Madmen tour there was no more Savatage. Trans-Siberian Orchestra would become the main focus for most Savatage members. It’s an understandable choice since the paychecks with that band were much higher. I never cared much for the music as I am not very fond of Christmas carols, whether in a Heavy Metal coating or not. Luckily enough Jon Oliva started his own band called Jon Oliva’s Pain, which would be the closest one can get to Savatage.

Another party with Oliva?

In 2005 Oliva brought his new band to town (Oslo that is). It was great to see him live again. There is no doubt he enjoys playing for his fans and his great sense of humor always puts a smile on people’s faces. I met Jon before the show to talk about how he experienced the terrorist attack on 9/11 and why Savatage was put on ice after that. He also talks about his new band Jon Oliva’s Pain, the debut album ‘Tage Mahal and future plans. Don’t miss the hilarious story about chasing the guys in Cradle of Filth while driving drunk on a motorbike.

Jon Oliva’s Pain returned to Oslo in 2007. This time I asked if Jon was interested in recording a rockumentary about Savatage. He was up for it and the day after the show I met him in his hotel room. The rockumentary turned out great. It took some time to edit it because Jon was smoking his stuff from a hollowed pear(!) this time. I had to get rid of the sounds. If you want to learn what’s worth knowing about the band and listen to some really great music you should check out the rockumentary. After recording we went out for a nice dinner at an Asian restaurant with the whole band. Good times!

The last time I saw Jon Oliva playing live was at Sweden Rock Festival in 2009. It was a pleasure as always. After his solo album Raise the Curtain from 2013 he went silent. Well, there was a Savatage reunion at Wacken Open Air in 2015 of course. The fans are still waiting for new music from Jon Oliva. The rumors say some time next year. Let’s kill time by cranking up some good ol’ Savatage!

Here is at treat for you. Oliva’s Pain performing “Hall of the Mountain King in Oslo 2007. Recorded from the audio mixer.

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  • Stig G. Nordahl

    Stig is the founder and the president of Metal Express Radio, based out of Oslo, Norway. He has been around doing Metal radio since the mid-eighties. In fact, running Metal Express Radio takes almost all of his time. Is it worth it...? "Most times, yes," Stig says. "My philosophy is to try to give all Metal releases a fair chance to get promoted in one way or another. As you can imagine, it can be an arduous task to listen through about 20 albums every week! Still, I know we have the best METAL dedicated radio on this planet, and that is a reward in and of itself. I hope one day the whole Metal community can and will make listening to Metal Express Radio part of their daily rituals! Yeah, right..."

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1 Comment

  1. Actually I do remember everything.
    I have 100,000 words in a journal and 4 hours of incriminating career ending footage.
    Working in savatage had no issues. It was an easy gig technically. Working with drug addicts and immature adults was the challenge. Bitter? No.
    I have bern tragically enlightened by man children.

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