By Jay Roberts
The Cassette Chronicles is a continuing series of mini reviews and reflections on albums from the 1980’s and 1990’s. The aim of this series is to highlight both known and underappreciated albums from rock, pop and metal genres from this time period through the cassette editions of their releases. Some of the albums I have known about and loved for years, while others are new to me and were music I’ve always wanted to hear. There will be some review analysis and my own personal stories about my connection with various albums. These opinions are strictly my own and do not reflect the views of anyone else at Limelight Magazine.
(WRITER’S NOTE: This is the last article in The Cassette Chronicles series for 2020. The annual “Best Of” article will come next week. The series will return in 2021 but there will be a slight change. For the first six months, the articles will appear on a twice monthly schedule. A return to the weekly article format may return in July 2021.)
SAVATAGE – HANDFUL OF RAIN (1994)
“Which of us is now in exile
which in need of amnesty
Are you now but an illusion
in my mind alone you breathe”
That line from the closing song “Alone You Breathe” on the 1994 Savatage album Handful Of Rain is likely the best way to summarize what was going on as the album was written and recorded in the shadow of the death of founding guitarist Criss Oliva in 1993.
The odd thing about writing this article this week is that I had intended to write about a completely different album instead. But there I was at my friend Roger’s record shop [Purchase Street Records] the other day. I had popped in to pick up a special order he’d gotten in for me and as I looked around the shop, I saw that he had a cassette edition of Handful of Rain. I’ve owned the album on CD since it was originally released so it wasn’t like I haven’t heard the album a multitude of times over the years. After all, Savatage is my personal favorite band. But when I saw the cassette just sitting there in one of the racks, I just HAD to have it. And I knew that I’d be listening to it so that I could write about it.
Following the recording of their previous album Edge Of Thorns, Savatage had lost Criss Oliva in a car accident that also seriously injured his wife Dawn (she later died in 2005). I remember reading an article in one of the music magazines of the day about the Edge of Thorns album. But I hadn’t heard about Criss’s death at that point so I was more than a bit shocked when the article had a disclaimer that it had been written before his death.
This was kind of a huge blow to me because Criss Oliva was the first guitar player that ever really made me sit up and take notice of his playing. Normally I’m a vocalist and lyrics guy. The music is great of course, but since I’m not a musician myself, I found it hard to really sink my teeth into what goes into writing music or the playing of a specific instrument. Criss changed that for me. To this day, one of my prized possessions is a photo of myself with Criss before a concert in Rhode Island back in 1990.
So when I got my hands on Handful of Rain, I wasn’t sure what to expect. Over the years, the album has been referred to as more of a Jon Oliva solo album and given how he was playing most of the instruments, singing and co-writing the songs with producer Paul O’Neill, you can understand why.
But what about the music itself? Despite being made under such trying circumstances, the album is flat out fantastic in my book!
The album opens in a hard-hitting in your face fashion with the song “Taunting Cobras”. Singer Zachary Stevens helps give the feeling of metallic assault with his vocal delivery. You can feel the way the song is just cutting loose. This track is one of the two that Criss Oliva has a co-writing credit on the album. The other song is “Nothing Going On” which mirrors “Taunting Cobras” for how heavy and fast the guitar driven track turns out.
The album’s title track starts off with the music and vocals delivered in a much softer tone but that doesn’t last as the song pretty much goes for the heavy pounding rhythms after the first verse of the song.
While each of the songs (save perhaps the instrumental “Visions” that opens up side two of the album) serves to make the album into a cohesive whole, there are a couple of tracks that serve as the emotional showcase for Handful of Rain.
The first of those songs is “Chance”. It’s a beautifully constructed theatrically heavy epic that serves up a fantastic point/counterpoint vocal later in the song. It was the first time that particular vocal style had been employed on a Savatage song/album and believe me it worked in stunning fashion. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve envisioned seeing this song played out in some kind of way on a Broadway stage.
Of course then you have songs like “Stare Into The Sun” and “Watching You Fall”. Each of them are much slower in tempo overall, though the chorus does find each getting a bit heavier in tempo. “Stare Into The Sun” is actually kind of bluesy in spots which I found to be a big draw for me.
The first side of the album closed out on the song “Castles Burning”, a song with multiple tempo changes that give an extra sense of depth to the track. I can’t remember if I knew this before now, but after researching the album online a bit, “Castles Burning” turns out to be a song about an Italian judge who was killed by the mafia in 1992. I also discovered (or re-discovered thanks to my faulty memory) that “Chance” is about a Japanese diplomat in World War II. Funny how you can learn things you never knew or had forgotten even decades after an album has been released.
On the song “Symmetry”, the song’s tempo starts off slow and grows into more of a heavy rock sound. It’s actually a damn good song but there’s part of the lyric that would go on to serve as the title of a future Savatage album. I’m not going to tell you more about that here, I’ll let you do some investigating on your own. If for no other reason than I really would love anyone who reads this piece to listen to the album in full.
And that brings us to “Alone You Breathe”. I mentioned at the top of this article that the song closes out the album. It is a tribute song for Criss Oliva though it is said the song is not specifically about Criss. The point remains that it is a fitting tribute to Criss from his brother Jon and packs the kind of emotional punch you’d probably be surprised to feel. Every time I hear “Alone You Breathe”, it brings me back to when I first discovered the band. How I became enamored of their music and how much I just loved Criss’s guitar playing.
In the end, Handful Of Rain might not have been the album people would’ve expected from Savatage but it did serve as being the right album at the right time for the band to pay tribute to the passing of Criss Oliva and give them the foundation to move forward from the loss. On top of which, like I said, it is a damn fantastic record in and of itself.
NOTES OF INTEREST: There have been three CD reissues of the album (1992, 2002 and 2011). Each time the reissue was put out it contained at least one bonus track, with said track(s) being different than the previous release. The tour Savatage did in support of this album got a live release entitled Japan Live ’94.
The album features Zachary Stevens on vocals and Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick on lead guitar. Otherwise, Jon Oliva and Paul O’Neill played the rest of the instruments. While bassist Johnny Lee Middleton and drummer Steve “Dr. Killdrums” Wacholz didn’t play on the album (despite being credited as doing so) they did appear in the video for the “Handful of Rain” song. The tour for the album saw Middleton return to the lineup but Wacholz had left the band and was replaced by drummer Jeff Plate.
The death of Criss Oliva not only left a big mark on the Savatage family and fanbase, but other bands as well. Testament dedicated their album Low to him, while Vicious Rumors did the same on their album Word Of Mouth. Overkill wrote the song “R.I.P. (Undone)” on their album W.F.O. for Criss as well.