I suppose that after releasing two all-time classic albums like Dead Winter Dead and The Wake of Magellan, and then losing vocalist Zak Stevens, Savatage’s 2001 release Poets & Madmen was bound to disappoint.
Even though the dynamic duo of Jon Oliva and producer Paul O’Neill were still in place, the loss of such a dynamic vocalist (who left to form the very Savatage-sounding band Circle II Circle) had a big impact on the band’s sound. Oliva found himself in the spotlight as lead vocalist once again, which meant the album had to be more aggressive to suit his singing style. Songs like “I Seek Power”, “Drive” and “Awaken” are prime examples.
Despite being more aggressive and for the first time in quite a while not featuring any instrumental tracks, Poets & Madmen is still a very progressive album. Songs like “There in the Silence”, “Commissar”, and especially the 10+ minute “Morphine Child” are complex, well-orchestrated tracks that compare favorably with anything on Wake of Magellan or Dead Winter Dead. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that “Morphine Child” is one of the better Savatage songs ever released. It’s also worth pointing out that “Back to Reason” was later used on a Trans-Siberian Orchestra album.
Poets & Madmen is a bit uneven, and doesn’t work as well as a concept album as the band’s prior releases. Overall though, this is a very solid album with more strong moments than weak ones. It may have disappointed Savatage fans initially, but it holds up surprisingly well after a few years, and should be considered one of the band’s better albums. Though to be fair, I consider everything besides Fight for the Rock among the band’s better albums!
NOTE: There are three different versions of Poets & Madmen, each with different bonus material.
The standard version, released by Nuclear Blast, features the bonus track “Shotgun Innocence” which is, to date, the last Savatage studio track to feature Zak Stevens on vocals.
The limited edition, released by SPV, comes in a neat box and features a live version of “Jesus Saves” as a bonus track, as well as a video clip for “Handful of Rain.” “Shotgun Innocence” is not included.
The Japanese import has the same track listing as the SPV version, but without the fancy packaging. It’s priced a LOT higher though.
I think the smart money is on the standard version. Live material and fancy packaging is nice, but I’ll take a new Zak Stevens Savatage track any day.