“And in the dark, I hear your screams…”
On October 17th, 1993, Savatage guitarist Criss Oliva and his wife Dawn were struck by a drunk driver; Dawn survived the collision but Criss was killed instantly. His death remains one of the most tragic losses in heavy metal as his Randy Rhoads-inspired blend of choppy gallops, fluid leads, and a signature tone made him one of the most distinctive shredders in the scene. The accident left Savatage in shambles just as they were gaining momentum with the release of the classic Edge of Thorns earlier that year, leaving his brother Jon to debate if it was even worth picking up the pieces.
Despite his attempts to move away from Savatage just a couple years before, Handful of Rain is basically a Jon Oliva solo album in all but name. Vocalist Zak Stevens thankfully stuck around, and Alex Skolnick was recruited for lead guitar duties fresh out of Testament, but longtime bassist Johnny Lee Middleton and drummer Steve Wacholz did not perform as credited. Jon played these parts on a ‘sessional’ basis while also sharing rhythm guitar, keyboards, and songwriting with producer Paul O’Neill.
As a result of these behind the scenes jumbles, the album’s musicianship isn’t quite at the intricate standards that one associates with classic Savatage. Jon is an incredibly competent player in his own right, but his rhythm parts tend to be rather basic at times. Skolnick’s tone is just as recognizable as his predecessor’s though his solos provide more support than outright flash. The riffs on songs like the Pantera-lite “Taunting Cobras” and “Nothing’s Going On” are blunter than Criss likely would’ve played them and “Castles Burning” is a backbone shy of the Dio Sabbath-esque splendor that it is attempting to invoke.
Thankfully Handful of Rain also introduces some newer elements that keep it from getting stagnant. “Chance” in particular proved to be a massive game-changer for Savatage, channeling “Bohemian Rhapsody” in its symphonic flourishes and what would be the first of the band’s many multi-layered vocal counterpoint climaxes. It is one of the greatest Savatage songs ever recorded, if not the absolute best, and there is no way in hell that Trans-Siberian Orchestra would’ve ever existed without it. Seeing how TSO has since added it to their repertoire of Savatage covers on recent tours, they are likely just as aware of this fact.
But at the end of the day, Handful of Rain is all about catharsis. The music is darker than anything Savatage had done before regardless of style and the lyrics have a distraught, introspective quality even when their focus is at its most external. The title track is a moody cruncher reflecting on alcoholic isolation while “Stare at the Sun” and “Watching You Fall” look at world events through an especially somber lens. “Alone You Breathe” proves to be the album’s biggest tearjerker; while the lyrics have nothing to do with Criss’s death, the sense of loss is thoroughly profound and the heartbreaking callback to “Believe” is enough to make one feel his presence. It hits me hard every time.
Handful of Rain isn’t on the same level as Savatage’s greatest outings, but it is easily their most emotional. It’s a miracle that it was completed at all when you consider the circumstances of its creation, yet these tragedies are what ultimately make the album so cohesive. The shifts between grounded and grandiose themes are united in their shared melancholy and the overwhelming emotions give weight to the rather scaled back musicianship. This album is often overshadowed by the eras that surround it but the role it played in the band’s subsequent development cannot be denied. I wouldn’t recommend Handful of Rain to a first time Savatage listener but anybody that wants to understand the full context of the band’s legacy can consider it mandatory listening.
“Handful of Rain”
“Watching You Fall”
“Alone You Breathe”
R.I.P. Christopher Michael Oliva (April 3rd, 1963 – October 17th, 1993)