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Caffery, Chris - House of insanity 4/5

Reviewed: 7-10-09


1. Seasons change
2. House of insanity
3. I won't know
4. The fleas
5. Madonna
6. Big brother
7. Back's to the wall
8. Solitaire
9. I'm sorry
10. Shame
11. Winter in Hamburg
12. No matter what
13. Get up, stand up

It's easy to pull for Chris Caffery. The diminutive blond-maned guitarist became a metal household name in the late 80s and early 90s as the "other" guitar player in Savatage. In more recent years, Caffery gained much wider acclaim as the emcee/guitarist/life of the party for the eastern troupe of Paul O'Neill's wildly successful Trans-Siberian Orchestra project. No doubt Caffery earns enough scratch from his TSO (holi)day job to cover his expenses of living in the woods of upstate New York, but that hasn't stopped him from doggedly pursuing a solo career. 'House of insanity' marks his 4th solo cd in the last 5 years. Along the way, Caffery has encountered adversity and hardship. The record label to which he was signed went belly up. The band's line-up was unstable. Critics unfairly panned his vocals, and fans expressed profound dissatisfaction with his experimental 2007 release, 'Pins and needles'. Yet through it all, Caffery has kept his cool and maintained his sense of humor. He has also embraced a fan-friendly DIY ethic, selling his CDs through his website for a fair price and personalizing autographs on the shipments free of charge. As they say out west, Chris Caffery's a good egg.

All of that said, I was among those who were disappointed by 'Pins and needles'. Although there were some strong musical ideas, the production and arrangements on that CD were too modern, too wacky, too weird, and too far removed from bread'n'butter old-school traditional metal to appeal to crusty old 'bangers like me. Fortunately, I am pleased to report that Caffery took these criticisms to heart on 'House of insanity', amping up the 'Tageisms and putting the kibosh on the saxophones, spacey synthesizers, nu-metallish rhythm section, and chaotic vocal tangents of its predecessor, and all the while retaining his own personal stamp and sound. What we're left with is 68 minutes of well-constructed, catchy melodic heavy metal driven by Caffery's fiery guitar work and emotional vocals. On the subject of vocals, Caffery will always have detractors because of his admittedly limited range; however, he sings with power, confidence and conviction, and often delivers an effective Oliva-esque snarl that suits the music well. Most importantly, he is obviously singing from the heart and giving his all, so I'm happy to give him the benefit of the doubt in this department, especially where he's respecting his own limitations in a way that he did not on the 'Pins and needles' CD. Also, kudos to Jon Oliva's Pain drummer Chris Kinder, who mastered the CD in a manner that fights the loudness wars by resisting the temptation to master too hot or too loud. The result is that you may have to click up the volume a notch or 2 to get the level right, but (unlike many CDs released these days) the full dynamic range of the music shines through clearly. Nice job.

The songwriting on 'House of insanity' is of a consistently high quality, from heavy stompers like the title track and "Big brother" to straightforward rockers like "Seasons change" to multifaceted later-era Savatage style tracks like "Backs to the wall" and "Winter in Hamburg". To my ears, though, the crown jewel of the CD is "Solitaire", a breathtaking duet between Caffery and Zak Stevens (Savatage/Circle II Circle) that is reminiscent of "Gutter ballet" in the verses before giving way to a simply amazing chorus with the punchline: "Good luck with your millions / I'll play solitaire." I can't imagine any Savatage fan not being enraptured by this song. Sheer genius. And "No matter what" is a grim, sobering finale to the CD proper ("When time is up / You can't pretend / No matter what / Your life will end"), conveying a compelling message, before giving way to a dodgy metalized Bob Marley cover that should have been a b-side.

Given the strength of the material on 'House of insanity,' it is quite surprising that the reviews for it have been so mixed. I'm confident that the best songs Chris Caffery has ever written can be found here. It's got the heart of Savatage, and the soul of an underdog who keeps fighting the good fight, undeterred and unbowed by the potholes, detours and speedbumps along the way. It's better than the recent output of other distinguished Savatage alums, Jon Oliva and Zak Stevens. So let the naysayers say what they will. Me, I'll just keep playing "Solitaire".




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