Criss Oliva: Mountain King
Originally published in Guitar World, April 2009
As the lead guitarist of Savatage, Criss Oliva crafted a towering style that casts its shadow over modern metal and the music of the Trans-Siberian Orchestra.
This past winter holiday season, more than a million people across America attended concerts by the Trans-Siberian Orchestra, the pyro-loving symphonic rock group that mixes hard rock with classical music and holiday carols. As always, several items at the group’s merchandise stand featured the image of a white Charvel guitar draped in roses, but TSO’s concerts are not the first place this symbol has appeared. In fact, TSO appropriated it—along with several of the group’s members, and even its signature song, “Christmas Eve/Sarajevo 12/24”—from the band that spawned TSO in unlikely fashion a dozen years ago.
That band was Savatage, and the Charvel guitar—which first appeared on the back cover of that group’s 1991 album, Streets—belonged to its late founding guitarist, Criss Oliva. The tale of how a long-running cult metal act begat TSO is a story unto itself, for without Savatage there would be no TSO, and without Oliva, there would be neither band.
Fifteen years after his death at the age of 30, Oliva continues to leave his imprint, not only through TSO but also through the guitarists that he inspires. His legacy will get an added boost this spring when Rhino releases Savatage’s first domestic compilation, in commemoration of the group’s 25th anniversary.
Although Savatage continued to record until 2001 and never officially disbanded, they were at their most creative while Oliva was their lead guitarist. His distinctive, self-taught style of playing—marked by gargantuan but catchy riffs, crisp and driving rhythms and poignant, emotive solos—was flashy yet simultaneously tasteful. His fans included peers such as Dave Mustaine, who once tried to recruit Oliva for Megadeth, and Alex Skolnick.
“[Criss] had the fluidity of guys like George Lynch and Warren DeMartini, but with an aggressive, melodic conviction that fit Savatage perfectly,” Skolnick says. “His solos had a flash that would have worked with any popular Eighties hard rock band, but his rhythms had an intensity and crunch that were reminiscent of Black Sabbath and Deep Purple, and this gave his playing a dark, melodic flavor.”
“Criss’ guitar playing was phenomenal,” adds David Ellefson, Megadeth’s bassist from 1983 to 2002. “You could hear his classical roots and appreciate his knowledge and grasp of modal dexterity that was such a huge signature of his work. He was a trailblazer in metal guitar the way Randy Rhoads was before him.”
Although Savatage were officially founded in 1983, their roots go back to the mid Seventies, when Criss and his brother Jon first began making music together. Criss started out on bass, but after discovering Michael Schenker and Ritchie Blackmore, he switched to guitar.
Soon after, the Oliva family moved to Tampa, Florida, where Jon and Criss formed a three-piece band called Tower with bassist Tony Ciulla, who today manages Marilyn Manson. With Jon on drums and vocals, Criss on guitar and Ciulla on bass, Tower started out playing covers by the likes of Black Sabbath, Van Halen and Rush, acts whose guitarists heavily influenced Criss. Eventually, Jon stepped out from behind the kit to become a frontman and the group changed its name to Avatar.
Over the next two years (and following several lineup changes), the band started to write original material and began to earn a solid following in the Tampa Bay area after it released a three-track seven-inch on local indie Par Records. Reviews and sales were encouraging, so Par asked the group to cut a full album. Two days before the record went to press, the band learned that another act was already using the moniker Avatar. By combining the name with the word “savage,” the Oliva brothers came up with “Savatage.”
The band’s 1983 full-length debut, Sirens, was a landmark recording that mixed classic hard rock and metal with elements of thrash and speed metal, genres that were then in their infancy. The album is frequently cited as one of the foundations of both power metal and progressive metal and helped spawn Tampa’s prolific music scene. (Florida death-metallers Six Feet Under demonstrated Savatage’s local impact by covering the Sirens track “Holocaust” on its 2000 release Graveyard Classics.) It was also the first heavy metal album recorded at the now legendary Morrisound Studios, which soon became an in-demand destination for renowned metal bands.
Jason Flom, then an A&R rep for Atlantic Records, heard Sirens and was impressed. He flew to Tampa to see Savatage perform. “The place was crowded, and the kids were going nuts,” recalls Flom, who is currently president of Lava Records. “[Criss] was a great guitar player. He had a very unique style, and he was really, really talented.” Flom subsequently brokered a deal to free the group from its recording contract with Par, an arrangement that required the group to give the label one more release, the 1984 EP The Dungeons Are Calling. Two of its songs—the title track and “City Beneath the Surface”—would provide the opening one-two punch at Savatage concerts for years to come.