Oliva // Raise the Curtain
Rating: 4.0/5.0 — Of jazz hands and Genesis
Label: AFM Records
Release Dates: Out now!
I’ve been following Jon Oliva’s career since I was a wee metal lad. I loved the classic Savatage albums like The Dungeons are Calling and Hall of the Mountain King and while I didn’t enjoy their eventual metamorphosis into a Broadway-like, show tuney act on later albums like Gutter Ballet and Handful of Rain, I always had a soft spot for Oliva’s singing. I also enjoyed a lot of the Jon Oliva’s Pain material even though it could be inconsistent. It was somewhat of a surprise to see him appear with this new eponymous act, but apparently Mr. Oliva felt the new moniker was more appropriate since this features music written by his deceased brother and former Savatage bandmate Criss Oliva. While the material here isn’t vastly different from later period Savatage or the Jon Oliva’s Pain discography, it’s a more masterful fusion of metal, progressive rock like Yes, and old Genesis and Broadway-style, jazz handy wackiness, though thankfully, the Broadway elements are mostly kept in check. Jon Oliva is a metal institution, he has one of the most distinctive voices out there, he’s performing music with a deep personal connection and since he helped create Trans-Siberian Orchestra, he’s pretty much Father Fucking Christmas. Needless to say, I was really intrigued to hear Raise the Curtain. It turns out to be quite the insidious grower and achieves a lot of what Savatage strived for on later albums, but couldn’t quite get right. It’s also one of the nicer surprises of the year and a whole lot of fun too.
The first thing one notices is just how much this is like 70’s prog-rock. There are layers upon layers of Hammond organ swirling and churning on the title track and it calls to mind the work of Yes and Queen mixed with Paradise Theater era Styx. It’s a festive sound and has a big “opening night” vibe. Even the endless refrains of “Raise the Curtain” can’t stop the fun as this rocks along in a proggy fury. This leads into more traditional, crunchy, Savatage-like metal with “Soul Chaser” and on to groovy, funky rocker “Ten Years” which adds Bebop jazz horns to the musical stew. All work and all are catchy as hell.
The standout comes with The Doobie Brothers meets Kansas meets metal sound during “Father Time” which pops and sizzles with crisp playing and vocal hooks. I love the chorus and can’t get this one out of my head. Equally solid is the melancholy yet oddly ominous pseudo-ballad “I Know” which could have been on Savatage‘s Edge of Thorns album. Also notable is the surprisingly touching ballad “Soldier,” the interesting Middle Eastern vibe in “Stalker” and the laid back, quasi-country rock of “Can’t Get Away.” Of the bunch, only “Armageddon” feels a bit undercooked, but even that isn’t bad.
Raise the Curtain is such a wild ride because of the constantly shifting moods and vibes. This is truly an “all over the place” kind of platter and as diverse as the styles get, the album feels cohesive and makes sense somehow. It feels like a lot of thinking went into the compositions and arrangements and it manages to be experimental, complex and accessible all at the same time.
Mr. Oliva handled most of the instruments himself and only looked outside for help with guitar solos by Howard Helm and some drumming assistance from Christopher Kinder (Jon Oliva’s Pain). Many of the ear turning moments come from the wild keyboards and Oliva really outdoes himself capturing that special 70s prog-rock sound. He also gives an impressively diverse vocal performance ranging from metallic rasping, Joe Cocker-esque, herky-jerky groaning and smooth, clean singing. He conveys tender emotion when needed and he can still sound damn nasty when necessary.
The sound is rich, full and not unlike a 70s Yes album, but with way heavier guitar tones. The keyboards are very central and upfront in the mix and at times they overpower the guitars, but it’s a minor issue as the overall sound is quite pleasing to the ear.
I don’t know how much of what ultimately comprised Raise the Curtain was written by Criss Oliva, but whatever the percentage, Jon surely did right by his brother and this is an impressive homage to him and the music they both loved. I can’t think of a finer way to celebrate him and I’m glad his music is finally seeing the light of day. Good on you, Jon and R.I.P. Criss. Check this out.