When Paul O’Neill came on with Savatage, he had no idea he was going to find such a long and productive partnership.
The band had caved to label pressures to make a pop-flavored record on their fourth album, 1986’s Fight for the Rock. After it performed poorly, Atlantic dropped them. The label told Paul O’Neill that it would re-sign Savatage if he agreed to produce their next project.
That call led him to Savatage’s hometown of Tampa, Fla., for what they thought might be a farewell show. “I arrived late, but the minute I heard Jon Oliva’s voice, I thought, ‘Oh my God, this guy has a four-octave range,’” O’Neill told us, in an exclusive Something Else! Sitdown. “I met with the band afterwards. I wasn’t familiar with their music, but I was blown away by Jon Oliva’s voice. I asked them ‘why were you guys dropped?’ and they said their managers had told them that heavy metal was dead and pushed them to make a pop album.”
O’Neill signed on to create what would become Savatage’s Hall of the Mountain King. Released on September 28, 1987, it’s arguably their best record. The centerpiece of the album is the combo of “Prelude to Madness,” a metal re-working of Grieg’s “In the Hall of the Mountain King,” which serves as the intro to the title track — a thunderous, screaming metal classic.
“When we did that album, the main thing was to get the band’s rock credibility back. When I heard Jon’s voice and Criss (Oliva’s) guitar playing, I told them, ‘I think you guys could be the first prog-metal band,'” O’Neill said of Savatage. “‘Prelude to Madness’ and ‘Hall of the Mountain King’ were the set up for that. They were completely unfamiliar with classical music, but ‘In the Hall of the Mountain King’ is just made to be done by a heavy metal band. We had a field day with that.”
Something sparked. Paul O’Neill has since been part of Savatage favorites like Gutter Ballet, Streets: A Rock Opera and Dead Winter Dead. He later began collaborating with Jon Oliva — as well as Bob Kinkel, Al Pitrelli and Dave Wittman — on Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
“It was definitely the beginning of a long working relationship between Jon Oliva and myself,” O’Neill tells us. “Jon is not just a great singer, but one of the greatest musicians I’ve ever met. He plays drums, guitar, piano — all with no training. He’s just a natural. He might be the best singer I’ve ever worked with. Not only does he have an amazing range, but he has the Mel Blanc gift. You can tell him, ‘Jon, sing like Freddie Mercury’ or ‘Jon, sing like John Lennon’ — and you’ll swear those guys are in the room. The great thing about Jon is that anything you can write, he can sing.”
For Paul O’Neill, a dream had come true — one that began long before he met Savatage. “I was originally in a band called Slow Burn in the 1970s, and I just couldn’t find a singer that could capture the melodies,” he adds. “In hindsight, I realized the problem was me. I was writing three-octave melodies, and no one could sing it. Jon is the only person I’ve ever met that’s got a real four-octave range. When he hits those super-high notes, he’s not even in falsetto. He’s just a monster.”
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