Edge of Thorns is unfortunately the final recording of the band’s co-founder and original guitarist Criss Oliva due to his untimely death (Oct 17, 1993). At the same time, it is the very first album with second vocalist Zak Stevens at the helm. Changing lead singers is not a very smart thing to do in general, but original vocalist Jon Oliva’s voice, after screaming virtually nonstop for a very long period from the Hall of the Mountain King tour to the Streets tour, had come to the point that it no longer contained the sheer power and delivery it once did. Jon was exhausted and he had to step down. It was by no means an easy decision to make, but besides his physical problems, Jon also blamed himself for the band’s inability to break through on American radio. He knew he would do whatever it would take to do for the good of Savatage, and so decided to part ways with the band and start working with Paul O’Neill on the Romanov musical.
Finding a good replacement for Jon Oliva wasn’t an easy task. Among the hundreds of demo tapes the band received, Criss and Jon decided to select Zachary Stevens, lead singer of Boston act called Wicked Witch. Zak’s voice is completely different to Jon’s; it is smooth, melodic and more accessible. The band wanted someone, as opposed to emulating Jon’s vocal style, who would bring something totally different to the fold. There is a great deal of conviction in Zak’s delivery and he has a very large vocal range. Zak also has the ability to layer himself easily and with this aspect he gave the main songwriters the opportunity to try using harmonies they had never used before. Zak has a great voice; his tone is smooth but he can also get up there in the register. It is again this aspect of his singing style that prevented Sava fans from constantly comparing him to Jon Oliva, because Zak’s voice had its own characteristics.
The addition of Zak also gave Jon the opportunity to work with a voice other than his own. Although Jon stepped down on Edge of Thorns, he only left as the singer of the band. He continued to compose songs, coach along Zak Stevens in the studio, and play keyboards, piano and even drums on songs like “He Carves His Stone” and “Degrees of Sanity”. Needless to say, his role in the creation of EOT was very integral and his writing was a key step in Sava’s new musical direction that would eventually lead the band to its DWD/TWOM days. Without Jon involved in the writing process, EOT wouldn’t be the masterpiece it now is, that’s for sure.
On this album, Savatage opted for a completely different record than its predecessor Streets. Streets is quite orchestra- and keyboard-based, while EOT sees the band going for a more guitar-driven sound. It puts Criss Oliva in the spotlight which is exactly what Jon wanted. Upon his departure from the band, he wanted EOT to give Criss the chance to step up a little and be more focal and central in the writing. He wanted EOT to be Criss’ album for sure, as Criss was planning to release a solo record when Jon first left. His intention was to do an instrumental record showcasing his talents, but with recruitment of Zak Stevens, Jon and Criss decided to utilise the sound of EOT as a medium to display how Criss’ guitar playing would shine. And it certainly did. EOT perhaps contains Criss’ finest moments as a musician. He was one of the guitar players who grew and matured from day to day and his playing was improving so rapidly. Although the Streets record remains an all-time favourite for me, I have to give it to Criss that he never played as prolifically before Edge of Thorns.
EOT was also the first album since Sava’s Sirens and The Dungeons Are Calling that they recorded in their hometown Florida. The band obviously wanted to be outside of the media centre, especially because of Jon’s absence, and have more space to grow without being under the microscope. As a result of this, they worked more comfortably and recorded EOT relatively quicker compared to the previous three discs produced by Paul O’Neill. The title track, also the band’s first radio hit, mainly written by Jon Oliva himself before being given to the rest of the band, proved to have everything a “radio friendly” song needed. It had the soft piano melody with Criss’ perfect, crunching, underlaying metal guitar part right underneath it. The image of the title track also has a great reference. O’Neill describes it, from a lyricist’s point of view, as a delightful thing to work around. He says, “It’s symbolic because the edge of thorns is the sharpest point, the point that cuts you, the point that keeps you away. But thorns tend to only surround things of incredible beauty. Politically it has so many meanings as well. Balancing something on the edge of a thorn is such a hard thing to do because it’s such a small point, but it’s the edge of a thorn that draws the drop of blood”.
I would love to describe each song on the record but this is impossible because of the limit of this review. At any rate, EOT is an incredible record. It’s a shame that Criss was taken from us so early, only a few months after the release of this album, but all of this is still done in his memory. His brother Jon has continued Savatage to keep his soul alive and we all know that he’s out there somewhere watching over us. Rest in peace, Criss. We love you.