Handful of Rain in many ways marked the beginning of a new chapter in Jon Oliva's career, considering it was the first ever album written, recorded and produced without his brother Criss Oliva who was tragically killed in a car accident in late 1993. Given that Criss was the primary songwriter and guitarist of the band, it was believed that Savatage would be no more, and every member took a break before deciding what they'd do with their lives. And even though the booklet credits the full band, every instrument was played by Jon Oliva, including rhythm guitars, some acoustic bits, bass, and drums. It was only at the final moment when they brought in vocalist Zak Stevens and former Testament guitar player Alex Skolnick to lay down some leads. So in a way, Handful of Rain could be considered Jon Oliva's first solo effort with some lyrical input and creative arrangement ideas from producer Paul O'Neill.
This is by far the darkest Savatage album ever, considering Jon started writing it about five or six months after Criss' death when he needed something to occupy himself with. There is an ever-present despondent mood permeating the album, kicking it off on a heavy note with "Taunting Cobras", complete with pulverizing riffs and screaming vocals. It is with the creepy intro of the title track (which is also the best video the band have done) that the tone of the album is fully set, mixing dramatic vocals with tinges of acoustic guitar and blues-inflected chords. The song maintains a steady mid-paced flow with occasional slamming rhythms and drums that highlight the chorus. Oliva expands this style with "Castles Burning" and "Symmetry", another depressing piece with its doomy atmosphere, stark acoustic guitars, and heavy parts. At one point during the chorus, Zak Stevens gives away the title of their future album Poets and Madmen, which, ironically, would become another harrowing (yet terribly overlooked) record, not too unlike Handful of Rain.
"Chance" is a turning point in the both the band's discography and history of rock, being the first ever song to use a five-part counterpoint in the end. Savatage would go on to writing many other songs after this one, layering various vocal harmonies to represent the characters' state of mind in their amazing concept albums. Lyrically, "Chance" was inspired by a Japanese diplomat in Lithuania during WW2 who defied the government's orders by signing exit visas for thousands of Jewish refugees and therefore saved them from the Holocaust. Even though he was permanently removed from his position, he never regretted doing what he did. The song examines the various thoughts crossing his mind, and the counterpoint vocal harmony perfectly captures his restlessness thanks to the nice call-and-response type of vocals. Musically too, "Chance" would help forge Savatage a broader form of expression on later albums, mixing lots of piano, sweeped guitar licks, and shattering symphonic orchestrations.
Most fans agree that Handful of Rain presented two major hits, "Chance" and "Alone You Breathe". The former for its innovative structuring and the latter for being the very reason this CD got released in the first place. Jon wrote and dedicated it in memory of his brother, and since he couldn't put out a single track, he then composed other pieces, still retaining the overall intensity and desperation. The lyrics of "Alone You Breathe" are heart-wrenching. At one point towards the end, they borrow the famous "I am the way, I am the light" chorus which was previously used on "When the Crowds Are Gone" and "Believe", and in a way complete the trilogy, except that they are sung by Zak Stevens this time. Zak is at his best on this album: his voice oozes sheer emotion and his singing is indelible. I can even say that Handful of Rain is his most amazing vocal performance ever! The song closes with a wailing lead solo by Alex, but rather than trying to emulate Criss' unique sound, he opts to capture a different vibe and achieves this feat easily. Likewise, his playing on the album is his most moving, and this is coming from someone who worships both The New Order and Practice What You Preach.
Unlike other albums, Handful of Rain is chock full of some of Savatage's most overlooked pieces. The slightly Sabbath-like "Stare into the Sun" and "Watching You Fall" are both masterpieces. The use of semi-distorted guitar doubling and bluesy licks on "Stare into the Sun" takes it to another level, and Skolnick's lead is impeccable. "Watching You Fall" kicks in after the one-minute instrumental "Visions", laced with classical piano and symphonic elements. Lyrically, it addresses the war in Bosnia and the guilt one feels for not doing anything about it except watching the news on TV ("On a TV mounted on the wall | From the distance I can see it all | And I've been out here | Watching you... watching you fall"). Yet, there's no escaping it either ("So close my eyes and pretend I am sleeping | Avoiding the chance that you'll visit my dreams"). This track must have spawned their follow-up album Dead Winter Dead, which is a concept album dedicated to the war. "Watching You Fall" is a powerful tune with a repeated chorus and piano fade-out -- Zak's vocals are so well done that I am inclined to think that not even Jon Oliva himself could have captured the intended mood. It is one of Sava's best songs that brings tears to the eyes.
The album is thought-provoking from a lyrical standpoint as well. Much of it was inspired by real events: for example, "Symmetry" addresses suicide among musicians (the scintillating guitar lead here is mindblowing); while "Castles Burning" is about the murder of an Italian crime attorney; and "Stare into the Sun" represents the confusion of an old black man in Los Angeles who was shot during a riot watching the people burning down his neighbourhood. The song being from the perspective of the victim adds to its intensity.
There is a reason why this album is so stark, being it functioned as a type of therapy for Jon Oliva who was on the verge of losing his sanity or succumbing to alcohol. It is harsh and unfair to criticise it for sounding the way it does. This album was meant to be this way from the beginning. One must take into account the factors that shaped these songs -- may Criss Oliva rest in peace. His brother still carries on.
- Taunting Cobras
- Handful of Rain
- Stare into the Sun
- Castles Burning
- Watching You Fall
- Nothing Going On
- Alone You Breathe