By Carl Begai
One of the big metal events of 2015 was the highly anticipated Savatage reunion show at the world renowned Wacken Open Air. Many fans were sceptical of the band’s return to the stage when the buzz first started, however, as Savatage’s sister-act the Trans-SiberianOrchestra had absorbed the band members on its rise to arena rock mega-fame following Savatage’s Poets And Madmen tour in 2002. It was TSO’s continuing success as one of the highest grossing annual tours in North America that had presumably stalled any further output from the Savatage camp and effectively put them on hiatus. The press discovered over the course of 2015 that a Savatage reunion at Wacken was very much a reality in the making, with band members sworn to secrecy by management during press engagements for their own projects; it affected guitarist Chris Caffery and Circle II Circle vocalist Zak Stevens in particular, as they both had new albums come out in 2015.
“That was right up to the day of the show,” says Stevens. “You know how management is; everything has to be top secret (laughs). We really felt is was that way right up until we hit the stage. It was crazy, yeah, but everyone did a pretty good job. The consensus among some people is that we could have done better, we could have taken it more seriously. I think we had a little bit of a chip on our shoulder because we’re older, we did the rehearsals and figured out that we’re a lot better now than we were back in ’97 when we played the main stage at Wacken. And everybody in the band fell in love again. That was fantastic because it was clear that everybody missed it.”
“We had this really aggressive plan to hit the two stages at once, using fiber optic technology so we wouldn’t have any signal loss, and we brought all the pyro that we use in a season with two companies in TSO and blow it all off on one night… without trying to blow anybody up (laughs). We had one pyro meeting before the show and you would have loved that. You would have laughed your ass off because it was like ‘Okay everybody, gather round. We’ve got all this pyro from the TSO tours, we’re going to blow it all up tonight, these are the places you don’t want to stand…’ They asked how many people on stage were new to pyro and about 40% raised their hands. I raised my hand because I’ve never been involved with that kind of pyro (laughs). Because I’m a frontman and one of the elder statesman they pulled me aside and said ‘Look, definitely don’t stand here, here, here and here…’ (laughs).”
In the end nobody was maimed or killed, and whether fans liked it or loathed it, the fact Savatage put an end to 13 years of nothing quite naturally fuelled the burning question as to whether the band will record or play live again.
“Jon (Oliva/vocalist, founder) worked really hard on getting in shape – he’s still working at it – and his voice sounded the best it’s been in probably 15 years. I started concentrating more on staying in shape about three months before the show, and for a lot of us that hasn’t stopped because it seems like there’s this shared mentality that there might be more here. We’re going to be prepared for that. I don’t know exactly what that might be or when, but we’re definitely prepared for it and that’s the important thing. You might see more coming from the Savatage camp.”
“It’s cool because we got together and everybody liked the experience so much. We could have had that comeback where everybody got along fine, no problem, but instead it exceeded all expectations on all fronts. Even Jon was very excited after the show to talk to the press and when they asked the question of whether there would ever be anything from Savatage ever again, this time it wasn’t the same old thing. Jon said ‘Well, sure, I believe there will be something new at some point…’ and I was sitting there going ‘D’OH!’ (laughs).”
“We don’t have any kind of plan, but the good thing is that the vibe is really great so if something were to come up we could tackle it. Wacken was a great springboard and it fired us up.”
A certain amount of dust has settled since Wacken, giving Stevens some perspective on officially reuniting with his bandmates under the Savatage banner.
“That was just… it was really important to me because I had to exit the band (in 2000) due to all the things that were going on in my life. You figure you know what you’re doing in life and then you have a kid, and suddenly you don’t have a clue what you’re doing (laughs). I wanted to have that closure, to be able to come back and play with that group of guys again, and it was exactly the same group which was very important to me. After 13 or 14 years we came back, and this is the music business so nobody was going to take it easy on us. Nobody was going to give us a reason to relax. It was like ‘Oh, you’ve been away for 13 or 14 years? Well, you’re about to do the biggest show of your life….’ and that’s what I treated it as.”
While plans for Wacken were being sorted Stevens was sitting on the new Circle II Circle album, Reign Of Darkness. The band’s record label used the Savatage reunion to their advantage and held back the release until October 2015, a move Stevens understands.
“We started making the album a few months before the whole Wacken thing happened, and we turned it in to the label in January 2015. It didn’t come out until October, so it was just sitting there because they wanted to bring it out at a good time to coincide with Wacken and all that, which was smart. That’s the longest I’ve ever had to wait after turning and album in. Usually they’re in a hurry, so it’s weird when the label president says ‘Guess what? We’re not in any hurry.’ We realized the timing needed to be right, and with Wacken happening it was smarter to wait. The hardest part was not leaking it or handing it out by accident. We could play it for Mom and Dad because they don’t have the technology to leak the stuff. Having all that time and not screwing up, that was probably the hardest part.”
Reign Of Darkness marks Circle II Circle’s seventh record, arguably one of their strongest to date. It’s a step up from their 2013 album Seasons Will Fall, which was considered at the time to be the band’s best album in years. Fact is the band hit a rut within the past 10 years that didn’t bode well for the future. Seasons Will Fall and Reign Of Darkness in particular have changed the band’s playing field for the better.
“There were times when we felt like we were definitely falling on our asses,” Stevens admits. “There are a few albums that we put out where I’d like to get a fishing pole and drag them back in. Okay, overall I wouldn’t pull them, but there are some albums where I had second thoughts but I couldn’t change anything. We had to find a way to open ourselves up to a different path for the future. We started the turn on Seasons Will Fall but we had to take it really hard this time to remain relevant. We’ve been around for so long that it’s easy to become dated and get in a rut, like you said. We knew we were in that rut. But, we’ve come out of it and I can see where we’ll be going next time. We want to keep the team thing happening because that’s how we ended up with the fresh material.”
“The way I look at Reign Of Darkness is if there is something with Savatage around the corner I want this to be a nice transition piece. This album will help you mentally to get from here to there. It’s like therapy for our fans (laughs).”
Circle II Circle, like Jon Oliva’s Pain and Chris Caffery, perform any number of Savatage classics during their live shows, which certainly contributed to the constant demand for a reunion. Savatage’s spirit clearly wasn’t dead, just splintered, and the continued return trips to the band’s catalogue ensured it wouldn’t fade away.
“You can’t not play a Savatage song at a Circle II Circle show because that’s the history of the band right there. I’ve never thought about the true separation of church and state, so to speak. Fact is I really like singing the Savatage stuff (laughs). I can understand the mentality of saying ‘I only want to focus on the Circle II Circle stuff’ but I’ve never gotten there. And now there’s always that thought of ‘What’s next with Savatage?’ There are limitless possibilities on the horizon, so for that reason I don’t think I need to dig so deep into the Savatage material as much because we have to leave that open.”
“It’s all family if you look at Circle II Circle, Jon Oliva’s Pain, and Chris Caffery’s solo stuff; I look at those records like opening up a Savatage family photo album. Circle II Circle’s been lucky because we’ve gotten a lot of attention because of Savatage, obviously, and we’re still doing it.”
Watch for Circle II Circle on tour in Europe in April / May 2016
Zak Stevens live photo taken from Zak Stevens’ official Facebook page here. Credit where it’s due; if you took it your name goes here __________ .
Zak Stevens / Chris Caffery live photo by F. Schwichtenberg