Jon Oliva's Pain - Maniacal renderings 3.5/5

Reviewed: 1-12-07


1. Through the eyes of the king
2. Maniacal renderings
3. The evil beside you
4. Time to die
5. The answer
6. Push it to the limit
7. Playing God
8. Timeless flight
9. Holes
10. End times
11. Pray for you now

Jon Oliva, the Mountain King himself, is one of those larger-than-life iconic figures in heavy metal. He and his brother, the late Christopher Michael Oliva, took the world by storm in the 80s with Savatage. What set them apart from the pack of U.S. metal hopefuls, even in those hazy carefree days, was not only Criss's 6-string genius, but also Jon's gritty vocal delivery, his banshee wails, and his deft touch with fragile melodies and delicate emotions. Of course, we all know that Jon's demons, coupled with Savatage's always-bewildering business machinations, forced him to the sidelines in 1993, months before Criss was silenced forever by a drunk driver. Following Criss's death, Savatage soldiered on, but outside producer Paul O'Neill gradually took creative control over the band and things were never the same. Then the O'Neill/Oliva Christmas side project, Trans-Siberian Orchestra, exploded in 1996, relegating Savatage to the dustbin of underground metal shortly thereafter. Hearts of the faithful skipped a few beats when Jon Oliva announced the formation of a solo project, first called 'Tage Mahal (later renamed Jon Oliva's Pain), a couple of years ago. Unfortunately, JOP's debut CD, ''Tage Mahal' was a lukewarm, self-indulgent exercise in Beatles-esque piano-driven tunes whose lineage could discernably be traced back to the mastermind of Savatage, but without the grit and punch that characterized Savatage's early works.

The metal hype machine has been quick to extol JOP's sophomore release, 'Maniacal renderings', as the reincarnation of old Savatage. To be sure, 'Maniacal renderings' is decidedly more metal in vibe and attitude than was its predecessor. "Push it to the limit" is the kind of incendiary speed workout we've not heard from Jon since "White witch". "Through the eyes of the king" is highly reminiscent of the classic "Hall of the mountain king", to the point of being a sequel, more or less. "The evil beside you" could have been on 'Gutter ballet'. And the counterpoint at the end of "Timeless flight" is way heavier and way cooler than anything on the last few Savatage records. In short, there are plenty of highlights on this CD, and many sections will bring a smile to the faces of old-school Savatage bangers. Part of the reason for this stylistic change is perhaps Jon's realization that the Savatage days are, creatively speaking (barring some miraculous reunion which band members have been alluding to in interviews for years, without ever acting), dead and gone as long as TSO remains the cash-cow annuity it has become in recent years. With the dimming likelihood of a new Savatage CD, Jon has no other outlet for his aggressive tunes, so JOP has shifted focus to embrace that aspect of his music. Another reason for the change is the recent fortuitous discovery of a box full of priceless tapes containing unused riffs from Criss, several of which Jon wove into the tapestry of 'Maniacal renderings'.

Most reviews I've read for this CD stop here, which is unfortunate because the truncation may mislead people. 'Maniacal renderings' does not completely forego the Beatles-style pianoisms that dragged down JOP's debut. There are numerous theatrical piano moments, particularly on the latter half of the CD, that will immediately call to mind the ''Tage Mahal' release. So if you were one of those fans who disliked the first JOP CD, do not expect to love this one without reservations. In all likelihood, you won't. A better characterization of 'Maniacal renderings' is that it is a largely successful, enjoyable blend of Jon Oliva's Savatage roots with the more experimental, less metallic meanderings of the ''Tage Mahal' CD.

My praise of 'Maniacal renderings' is not unequivocal, and is not without caveats. That said, I think it is a fine effort by an extraordinary songwriter and musician. Honestly, at this stage of his career, Jon Oliva has earned the right to do whatever the hell he wants. He certainly does not need the approval of anyone in the metal world. I will probably always follow his musical renderings with interest, whether I agree with the stylistic choices or not, because the man has always written, performed and sung from the heart. As large a man as he is, the impact that his (and his brother's) music have had on me is far greater, and for that he has earned my neverending gratitude and respect.




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