For the pre-listening session AFM Records had invited about a dozen journalists from different parts of Europe who arrived the day before and spent an evening in Düsseldorf. Well, I'm not one of the invitees of the label, but as Jon and the band asked me to come around and join them - I took the chance to listen to the new songs for the first time, too. I had already confirmed a phoner interview for Monday 2 PM with new Blind Guardian drummer Frederik, but as the hotel the pre-listening session took place wasn't far, I should make it in time. But unfortunately they had started a bit earlier and I missed the first song... Damn it, but Jon later said that I heard the majority of songs and it doesn't matter that I missed the opening track.
Oh, by the way as we only got the chance to listen once, these are just a few notes about the first impression on the songs! And about the stories behind the songs. Btw, I think in the mid-part I mixed up the songs, so they will be in a different order at the album.
And so the first one I got to hear was the title track Maniacal Renderings. The title track is one of a few which are based on some ideas of Criss Oliva. A grooving track with a guitar-keyboard duel in the mid-part.
The Evil Beside You - also on the Straight-Jacket Memoirs - starts with acoustic guitar and cello. A slow, solemn track is also based on a guitar riff written by Criss Oliva. The speed changes keep this one alive and also show the influence of Criss Oliva. This one could have been off Gutter Ballet. These like other inspirations Jon found listening to some old demo tapes of Criss, as he explained.
Also Time To Die is based on an idea of Criss Oliva. A dark mid-tempo tune with an epic touch... The initial riff was demoed by Criss Oliva in 1987 as Jon explained.
With powerful double bass drumming and heavy riffing comes Push It To The Limit along which leads into Who's Playing God. Push It To The Limit is fast and heavy, almost a speed metal song... Quite traditional, but fast. Au contraire is Who's Playing God! It's very orchestral and epic, but also dark and powerful.
Holes is written by keyboarder John Zahner. But it's not the keyboard which catch your attention, its the drum beat and the guitars. Sounds a bit alternative like Alice in Chains in the beginning... Later it gets heavier.
The Answer again comes with some epic elements and sounds a bit like a musical tune - again. Opening with piano and some strings the song becomes a powerful ballad. Here Jon shows - lyrically - his desperation about todays world and that it seems that God abandoned it. So many bad things happen in the name of God - and Jesus - these days and that today the positive and encouraging stories of the Bible are no longer important to many... Somethings going wrong here, Jon thinks - and he's right.
Time Is Flying is based on a guitar riff of Criss Oliva which Jon transferred to piano and so this remind me a bit of When The Crowds Are Gone. First it sounds a bit sad... Like a good-bye, but later the atmosphere becomes more positive and also powerful. Nice one.
At End Times the atmosphere is dark and almost dangerous. Guitars sound like thunder. Full of anger it comes over you, but then like a thunder storm cleaning the air and the sun comes out, the song changes... An orchestral part. But the thunder returns... Changing atmopsheres again. This one is full of surprising twists and turns til the end.
The last one on the album is Still I Pray For You Now which was the first one Jon worked on after Criss Oliva's dead. It's very emotional, coz "it's about all Oliva's" as Jon said. The chorus was the first thing Jon wrote after the loss of this brother and he had to think about all the Oliva's which passed away. Overwhelming.
As Jon explained they always need some more tracks as bonus tracks, etc. and so we got to listen to these, too. Jon didn't know how the bonus tracks will be used or on which versions they will end up.
About Only You Jon told us that he was asked to write a Lennon-like song for a movie soundtrack by the director of Batman Begins Christopher Nolan who is a fan of Savatage. But the song didn't made it onto the soundtrack... Anyway, this one is like nothing you know from Savatage, it's more like a modern version of The Beatles.
Bonus track no. 2 is called Reality or ??? Reality - I'm not sure about the title. Jon is extremely proud of this one, coz his nephew Christopher Jon Oliva - named after him and his brother - is playing a guitar solo here. It's his first public appearance and it seems like C.J. Oliva is able to carry on the musical heritage one day. The track has bombastic, epic parts and some which are more stripped down to the basics.
Last, but not least the instrumental Pyramids On Mars. It kicks off with a yodeller! The beginning let me think of Accept's Fast As A Shark, but only because if the yodeller. The instrumental has a mystic touch through some guitar effects which are combined with strings. The middle part is very straight and forced forward.
Jon and the band - only Chris Kinder was missing - were there to answer questions, but everybody was still focussed on the songs they heard. But there would be a chance to talk about the album later... Anyway, it was obvious that the band is really proud of the new material and it seemed that Jon can't wait to play the new songs live. During the songs he was playing along on 'his' air guitar or some invisible keyboard. The rest of the band seemed a bit lost, coz they were only sitting there and listened. Jon was the talker. Only when there were problems with the hifi-system everybody was joking, but finally sound tech Jan fixed it and we could listen to the second half of the album without any more interruptions.
After the listening session everybody was hanging out in the hotel and bassist Kevin was making a joke and told Zahner to play the notes which were displayed at the piano and was surprised when John did. A little later some others left to start jotting down their impressions, but it was a sunny day and so I left with Kevin, Shane and a friend of us to the city center. Later we met the others at an Indian restaurant where we got joined by Nick Douglas and Johnny Dee of Doro as they were in town. A bit later Germany's metal queen joined us, too. After the dinner Jon left to the hotel and some journalists and JOP members let the night end at Düsseldorf's Auberge.