Ah, the Mountain King himself, JON OLIVA, metal's own Brian Wilson. We never know what his status is, we empathize with his losses (brother and bandmate Criss was killed by a drunk driver a decade ago), we worry about his health, and when his voice cracks, or he takes years to release a proper metal album, we take solace in the genius of the man's classic back catalog and hope for the best.
While side-project-turned-cash-cow TRANS-SIBERIAN ORCHESTRA pays the bills, and the wait for a new SAVATAGE album stretches past the four-year mark, Oliva scratches a solo itch for the first time. Why couldn't these songs have been SAVATAGE cuts? Maybe I'm not enough of a rock opera fan to discern the subtle nuances here, but to these ears, most of this would sound just fine under the banner of Oliva's main band. That's a good thing — it means if you like SAVATAGE, you can (and should) pick this CD up without fear.
Oliva is a little rough and ragged here — for the most part, his pipes are still powerful, but he can't hit the notes like he did back in the days of "Hall of the Mountain King". For better or worse, many of the songs here emulate the latter-day, more theatrical "Broadway" version of SAVATAGE that Oliva and producer Paul O'Neill concocted in the wake of Criss Oliva's death. And that little bit of grit and pain actually adds to his vocal performance, making for an emotional ride. Some of the earlier tracks on the album ("The Dark", "Guardian Of Forever") rank among the man's finest work, as a songwriter and performer.
There's a half-finished, "grab bag" feel to some of the tracks on "'Tage Mahal". Songs fade out and flow together, dropping out where Oliva apparently stopped writing them — you get a verse here, a bridge there, that smacks of the bombastic show-tune brilliance of SAVATAGE's "Streets" and "Edge of Thorns" albums. It lacks cohesion in spots, but let's face it — the scraps from Jon Oliva's notebooks are more thrilling than most metal bands' full-on concept albums! And Oliva sounds excited to be in the studio again — there's more energy and excitement here than on "Poets and Madmen" or "The Wake of Magellan".
Though the album kinda peters out by the end, Oliva relying on overly-familiar hooks and over-the-top mugging to get through, the sumptuous "Guardian of Forever" alone would make "'Tage Mahal" worth the purchase. It marries that swelling SAVA-bombast with the kind of songwriting and impassioned, lion-in-winter singing that only a lifetime of experience, loss and living can forge. This is definitely one of those "for the fans" releases, but anyone who's followed SAVATAGE all these years will be thrilled by it. Whether you file it under S in your collection or not is up to you – just don't ignore it, because at this rate, it might be the closest thing to a SAVA-fix you get till 2010 or so.