Sunday, November 30, 2014

Black Sabbath - The Wizard

When I was a kid discovering music I was drawn primarily to classic rock from the sixties and seventies, and one of my first loves was Black Sabbath. Like most young men of my time I feel in love with Black Sabbath through the songs I heard on the radio, their big hits like “Paranoid,” “Iron Man” and “War Pigs.” For the longest time my affinity for Black Sabbath resided entirely on the “Paranoid” album, the only CD of theirs I owned for a long time. Back in my youth I was very dependent on the radio and friends to introduce music to me, and without the sufficient funds it was often a gamble to buy a whole album without first knowing what was on it, I needed a hook, I needed an incentive, and for me in my dire need to expand my Black Sabbath catalogue the next step was introduced by Sabbath’s fourth big radio hit, at least where I live, “The Wizard.”

“The Wizard” is basically a perfect song for young me’s sensibilities. It had a highly unique intro that my brother and I could recognize after only the first note during a trivia contest (true story). It had blues influence which tied in with my love of the music of that time, most notably Led Zeppelin. The harmonica is a fantastic and underused music instrument. The distortion on Toni Iommi’s guitar is the exact amount necessary to create a unique sound that is catchy and fun and does not cross the line into distracting from the rhythm section. The song is about a wizard and fuck yeah wizards!

So without much hesitation the second Sabbath album young me purchased was their debut self titled album “Black Sabbath.” This was a good purchase, obviously, because the entire first half of the album is amazing with songs like “Black Sabbath,” “The Wizard” and “Behind the Wall of Sleep/N.I.B.” while the second half of the album is also really good. It was also a chronologically logical place to start discovering Black Sabbath, you know, at the beginning.

"Paranoid" and "The Wizard" that
would have been a really good single.
“The Wizard” is infinitely memorable. The way it opens with the long notes from the harmonica and allows Iommi, Ward and Butler to be introduced one at a time and then coming together in the first movement is... “magical.” It is probably the most blues inspired song by Sabbath and it gives a very unique sound even when compared to other Black Sabbath tracks. It is not a very heavy song, at least not by today’s standards but being “metal” does not by itself make a song good, style and pose; levels and variety of sound are “The Wizard’s” strong suites.

In many ways “The Wizard” is a silly song. Black Sabbath had a lot of intense songs about death, darkness, the devil and other dangerous themes beginning with a “d,” including dreams. So a song about a magic man making every one joyful with his presence is rather calm in comparison, but I like it. Not only is “The Wizard” a charming upbeat song it is very humorous when we pause to consider the lyrics.

The two immediate possible interpretations for “The Wizard” are literal and metaphorical; obviously, what other options do we have really? “The Wizard” is quite possibly, literally about a wizard spreading his magic and making everyone happy, or “The Wizard” could be, metaphorical be about a drug dealer spreading his unique form of “magic” and naturally making everyone happy. Judging from Ozzy’s attitude on both subjects I think it is fair to suggest that it is both, a wizard who is a drug dealer.

A psychedelic adventure?

It is often sited that, “The Wizard” is inspired by famous “The Lord of The Rings” sorcerer Gandalf the Grey. It is not too far of a stretch to imagine Gandalf as a drug dealer, after all he was found of the halfing’s leaf, and the whole walking by element fits well with Gandalf’s wandering ways. I think it is fun to imagine Gandalf as a haphazard drug dealer, spreading the joy of his “magic,” but truth be told I am not convinced Black Sabbath’s “The Wizard” is necessarily inspired by, or at all about, Gandalf the Grey. I think our cultural perceptions of the fantasy theme wizards are fundamentally inspired by Gandalf and Arthurian lore’s Merlin, so much so, that everything wizard related harkens back to them. So in a weird way every wizard, ever, is inspired by, or based on, Gandalf and/or Merlin, either directly or indirectly, but in this case I think the connection may be the later, indirect, and I do not know how much that really counts as being inspired by, or at all about, Gandalf, really.

Oh well, who cares? Gandalf selling pot is a great idea for a song and I am sure Ozzy would be happy if all just assumed “The Wizard” is about exactly that. That is what I like to believe anyway.

Image taken from some youtube video.  I could have just as easily made my own, but I didn't.
The important thing is “The Wizard” is one of Sabbath’s most unique songs both in style and theme and in my humble one of their best. I hesitate to say “The Wizard” is my favorite Black Sabbath song, but only because Black Sabbath have so many great songs. In the end, I think “The Wizard” is my favourite, but perhaps that just my affinity for Gandalf and pot talking.

- King of Braves

P.S. Also fun, Pride and Glory cover:

Friday, November 28, 2014

Savatage - The Hall of The Mountain King

Savatage is a band with a lot of history. Forming in 1978 it would be five years before they released their first album “Sirens,” and after that they remained very active by releasing an album every year for five years. It was the fifth year of this workmen’s approach that changed and defined Savatage with the release of their best known album “The Hall of The Mountain King.”

Savatage’s early works were fantasy related rock and roll, but they drifted away slightly from that theme in years three and four with their albums “Power of the Night” and “Fight for the Rock” and enthusiasm for the band was starting to wane, not just commercially, Savatage was largely ignored by the mainstream, but even the members of Savatage were starting to get distraught and disinterested in their own work. At one point the band broke up and the primary reason was because they were not making enough money to stay alive. Times were hard for Savatage.

The Oliva brothers, Jon on vocals and Criss on guitar, were the leaders of Savatage, they wrote basically every song and performed arguably the two most important functions. I have always been under the impression that they grew up with Paul O’Neill, all three are from New York, but regardless their friendship was established forever when O’Neill was brought in to produce Savatage’s fifth studio album “The Hall of The Mountain King.” With O’Neill’s help Savatage returned to fantasy and embraced the power metal stylization they had intended to be all along. The future of progressive metal was born, and most critics consider “The Hall of The Mountain King” as the first ever progressive metal album, yet one more unique subgenre of metal had come to forefront of human musical imagination, much to the betterment of all humankind.

O’Neill is a hell of a producer, rarely is the producer credited for primary song writing but in the case of “The Hall of The Mountain King” O’Neill is credited for co-writing four of the tracks, including the two of my primary admiration, “Prelude to Madness” and the title track. Evidently O’Neill’s creative efforts were very welcomed by the Oliva brothers and he is considered by some to be a member of the band insofar. I believe it was O’Neill’s influence more than anything else that helped shape “The Hall of The Mountain King,” as well as what Savatage would become thereafter, and obviously he was fundamentally important in the creation of The Trans Siberian Orchestra.

Before there was the Trans Siberian Orchestra there was Savatage, and I think this is an important point in retrospect, because a lot of people, including me, discovered Savatage retroactively after discovering the Trans Siberian Orchestra. The combination of hard rock and classical music is a great glorious idea, and it is the 1987 Savatage album “The Hall of The Mountain King” where we see perhaps some of the earliest endeavors by O’Neill and Oliva (Jon) in creating this specific style of music.

The song “The Hall of The Mountain King” would become Savatage’s flagship song, and it is arguably the best guitar work by Criss Oliva, and it is this song along with its intro “A Prelude to Madness” where we see the direct crossover of classical music with rock and roll for the first time (I think) in Savatage’s history. I think it is pretty obvious that Savatage’s “The Hall of The Mountain King” is connected to Edvard Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” why am I so confident in saying this, because the interlude “Prelude to Madness” is a instrumental that is an rearrangement of Grieg’s classic piece with the exception of the intro which is based on Gustov Holst’s “The Planets.” The primary song “The Hall of The Mountain King” has less in common with Grieg’s classical music but in many ways fits together perfectly. “The Hall of The Mountain King” feels like the appropriate rock and roll extended version of Grieg’s classical piece. There are not very many examples of rock bands and guitarists reimagining, reworking, and expanding classical music like this before 1987, so this album and song are not just important because it rocks the world but also because it was an important link in the development of the high art that would later became The Trans Siberian Orchestra as well as hundreds of other inspired talents.

Edvard Grieg - In The Hall of The Mountain King

Savatage - Prelude to Madness

I have often imagine “The Hall of The Mountain King” might just maybe be about Thorin Oakenshield from “The Hobbit,” he was after all the king under the mountain after Smaug was dispatched, but I think it is safe to say that this song is not about anything so specific. Most interpretations of Grieg’s “In The Hall of The Mountain King” suggest that the song is about a troll, or a king of trolls. This makes sense, Grieg was Norwegian and the troll is a mythological creature from that area of the world. In Savatage’s song though I believe it is a being of their own creation. Judging from the cover art and the music video, the Mountain King is a big old dude with a big white beard, and I think it is safe to assume he is meant to be some sort of earthen god. It does not really matter though, what makes “The Hall of The Mountain King” special, at least for me, is the connection to classic music and Criss Oliva’s electric and lively guitar licks.

One of many animated interpretations of Grieg's "In The Hall of The Mountain King"

Savatage is soon to begin another reunion tour, and I hope they come to Calgary. The bucket list of my life is long and Savatage is on it, and the way they keep breaking up and reuniting makes me wonder how many more reunion tours they plan on having.

- King of Braves