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Savatage - Handful of Rain CD (album) cover




Progressive Metal

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5 stars Band: Savatage Album: Handful of Rain (1994) Genre: Power-Progressive Metal

Line-up: Jon Oliva (Keyboards/Bass/Drums/Guitars); Alex Skolnick (Guitars); Zak Stevens (Vocals)

Grading Scale: 0 - F; 1-5 - D(+/-); 6-10 - C(+/-); 11-15 - B(+/-); 16-20 - A(+/-)

Most notable song: "Alone You Breathe" - 20(A+) Other outstanding tracks: "Chance" - 19(A); "Handful of Rain" - 18(A); "Watching You Fall" - 18(A)

Songs Rating - 17.2(A-) Skill/Creativity Rating - 18.88(A) Overall Rating - 18.04(A)

Synopsis: After tragedy struck, putting a shadow on the success of "Edge of Thorns", the question loomed - would Savatage be able to continue without lead guitarist and songwriter Criss Oliva? It was a good question; he was a big part of Savatage. But his brother's death was hard for Jon Oliva to cope with, so he kept himself busy by writing and recording music. He asked the others to join him, but Steve no longer had interest in being in Savatage, and used Criss's death as an excuse to quit, and Johnny Lee was too devastated by the death, and needed some time off. Well, Jon couldn't wait, so he went on and recorded the drums, bass, keys, and guitar (as they were in the process of selecting a new guitarist), himself; then Zak Stevens came in to record the vocals, and after they selected Alex Skolnick to replace Criss, he came in and added his touch to the leads on guitar (Jon Oliva's rhythm guitar remains intact on the album).

The album itself combine's the emotional elements of "Streets" with the polished and heavy sound of "Edge of Thorns". The album has less piano (still a lot of it though) and a slightly more raw sound than the previous album (thanks to Skolnick's thrashy guitar style) but it also features an even smoother and melodic delivery from Stevens, with more emotion then before. The climax of the album comes at the end with "Alone You Breathe" which is a tribute to Criss Oliva, and is full of incredible emotion.

Yes, Savatage would continue to drive forward even without Criss Oliva, a Testament that these are true musicians, not many groups can survive a loss like that. "Handful of Rain" is not a concept album, however there are reoccurring themes on the album. Songs like "Chance" and "Castle Burning" cover similar real life stories, while "Stare into the Sun" and "Watching You Fall" also cover similar themes based off of actual events; the two give an opposite perspective of the previously mentioned tracks (I'll explain later). Overall though the main theme is "Visions". Now that is actually the title of the albums instrumental, but when you look at each song, Savatage is trying to help us see from others point of view, or see with their 'Vision'.

This is a strong album that begins a new chapter for Savatage and I recommend this one to those who like variety. This album goes from some thrashy Power Metal (Taunting Cobras, Nothings Going on) to bluesy/jazzy type Progressive Metal (Handful of Rain, Watching in Silence, Stare into the Sun) to a Symphonic/Broadway like style of Progressive Metal (Chance, Visions, Alone You Breathe) to your typical Heavy Metal sound (Castles Burning, Symmetry). So if you are a fan of any of those styles, or all of them, or just like to change it up a bit as you listen, this album is for you.

Song by Song Break Down:

1. Taunting Cobras - 16(A-) - Alex Skolnick (ex-Testament) makes his heavy/thrashy guitar style felt immediately in this great rocker. The song still sounds very Savatage-ish, but Alex makes it clear right on the opening track that he is not Criss Oliva, as he comes in hard and aggressive. The solo is great and an overall awesome guitar assault to get things started. Lyrically the song is about a guy who is experimenting with drugs, despite the warning from someone who seems to have been there before that he is "living on the edge" or "playing with fire" but rather then use those two extremely over used clichés, they came up with "Taunting Cobras". I think it is a pretty good way of saying it that makes things pretty clear. The lyrics go on to say "it's a long train of regret" and "puppets get go second chance, pull the strings they gotta dance" both very good points when it comes to drug addiction, the second one in particular picking up on a point made by Metallica with the song "Master of Puppets". That point being that once you get involved, there's no turning back, and when the addiction calls, you must answer. I'll admit the song is weaker then other Savatage rockers, but it serves as a great intro to this new chapter of Savatage.

2. Handful of Rain - 18(A) - This song let's you relax a little after that head on assault of thrash metal. The bass heavy intro has a real bluesy feel to it. This continues through the 1st verse/chorus, but then some guitars slam in and we start rocking again (though the bluesy feel is maintained throughout the song, especially in the solo interjections). With this song we revisit some of the themes found in the rock opera "Streets" as it is about a person in the most despair of situations. They try to hide from the world in an 'old city bar' ("The barmaid walks on over and pours another round, For a lost soul at the counter who prays he's never found" - lyrics appearing in the booklet but not actually in the song) as he tries to numb himself from the pain of his past, and insulates himself from the years wasted. He is now tying to grasp some intangible hope (a "Handful of Rain") as he uses his whiskey "like a moat" to numb and insulate the rest of the world. Overall the lyrics are very good as it expresses his desire to be left alone in his thoughts as he tries to get "Back to a Reason". This song is part of the inspiration of Trans-Siberian Orchestra as it is set in the same "old city bar/Blues bar" visited in the TSO albums.

3. Chance - 19(A) - What a spectacular song. Both musically and lyrically, and up to this point it is Savatage's longest and most progressive piece of work, as it uses a full orchestra and proves to be changing (progressing!) as it moves through the song. This song is about a Japanese diplomat (Sempo Sugihara) in Lithuania during WWII who defied government orders by signing the exit visas for more than eight thousand Jewish refugees, who other wise would have died. Lyrically it explores his thoughts as people lined up in front of the embassy. Savatage does a splendid job as the lyrics prove to be very insightful to the way one might be thinking under this circumstance, and the features the first use of five-part countermelody in the history of rock (something that will become a Savatage trademark in years to come). The song has a very intense layering of harmonies and is very unique in it's musical structure. The song starts out with piano as Stevens paints a picture of a man alone contemplating what he is about to do, and weighs the decision. Zak does this with his smooth vocals that just mesmerize the listener, and the lyrics here are brilliant. Then there is a melody played on chimes or bells of some sort and then the orchestra comes in with a build up that creates tension, and then the guitar weaves it's way through, then smashes in hard and we start to rock. As this happens Stevens gives us some insight as to what Sempo's thoughts may be as he sees the people line up outside the embassy. In this part, the "Devil" is used metaphorically to represent the Nazi police. After this moment of chaos outside, we go back to just the piano and Zak Stevens repeats "Burn the night away" and if this were a film I could see this as the part in slow motion as we watch the people lined up outside - rain coming down and Nazi police scouring the area. This is a turning point in Sempo's mind as he begins to sign the exit visas. The orchestra build up then and we drop as he continues to sign the visas believing that his very salvation come right down to this moment. Then Sempo questions what the Nazi's believe, and comes up with the answer on his own - they believe in nothing, and have no regard to human life. This is followed by the five part harmonies intended to represent the arguments and confusion in his mind as he goes on with his decision. Overall, a great tribute to a man who contemplated the meaning of a moment in life - and took the chance to do the right thing in that moment in life, and never regretted his decision despite the consequences that he faced later in his life.

4. Stare into the Sun - 17(A-) - This is a great song with a bluesy feel to it. The is about an old man who just stands by and watches as his own neighborhood tares itself apart. Inspired by the L.A. Riots of 1991. Paul O'Neill was watching CNN footage when he saw an elderly fellow observing the carnage. The lyrics explore the ideas that might have been going through his head. They do a very nice job with this one, as again the lyrics seem to be very thoughtful as to what one might think as they witness such a scene.

5. Castles Burning - 17(A-) - In this song we again explore the thoughts and mindset, or point of view of another. This one is based on the thoughts of an attorney in Italy, who was murdered by the mafia because of his stance against organized crime. Again we have some brilliant lyrics that prove insightful to what might have been going through his mind as he made his stand.

6. Visions - 16(A-) - This is the album instrumental which brings back the orchestra build up that is featured on "Chance" and has a little fun with it. It's good, and kind of sounds like it's from a circus or something like that. However it lacks the emotional depth that is a common element in Savatage instrumentals.

7. Watching is Silence - 18(A) - Wonderful song, and I agree with it 100%!!This song is about the war in Bosnia (Back in the 1990's) and how we all watched them fall on TV, but no one dared do anything about it. We all pretended we didn't see. I love the lyrics for this song, as they do so well to expose the fact that as citizens of the world, we have a responsibility that when something is wrong, we try to fix it - for the betterment of all this world, and the world our children will someday be apart of. We cannot let injustice stand. Some parts I like in the lyric's are when it says "is there a trick to the art of not feeling, safe in our world while another's child bleeds" which exposes how heartless it really is not to stand for a just cause. My very favorite part though is when it says "Christ is risen, keep him hidden, God forbid he's seen." Which demonstrates to you how many of our government leaders and citizens are more concerned with keeping religion (and anything the endorses good for that matter) out of the public's eye rather then helping those in need. It's ridiculous, it really is. Musically it's another bluesy one with the piano and guitar fades. A wonderful political statement.

8. Nothing Going on - 15(B+) - This song brings back Alex Skolnick's heavy/thrashy guitar style in an awesome Power Metal anthem. There are some great moments on the guitar, but lyrically it doesn't always make sense to me. I'm personally not a thrash metal fan either. The song seems to be lacking the lasting effect created by the depth of their music. It is a great rocker though still the same.

9. Symmetry - 16(A-) - This song is supposed to be about suicide, and the thoughts going through ones head as they contemplate death. I can sorta see it, but it's a stretch, the lyrics are ineffective at making that point. There are still some very thought provoking lines here, but it comes across more as someone pondering the meaning of life.

10. Alone You Breathe - 20(A+) - What an incrediblely powerful song! This is right up there with "Believe" as Savatage's best song(s) ever written. This is Savatage's (or should I say Jon Oliva's) tribute to Criss Oliva, the guitarist that died of an accident involving a drunk driver. It must have been difficult for Jon to handle. It seems the two were very is close. They grew up together, played in a band together for almost twenty years, and wrote music together for just as long. They were inseparable. Except by death. I imagine the lyrics are derived from the thoughts and feelings Jon had after his brothers' death. The song is full of incredible emotion, and though no one was as close to Criss as Jon was, the others prove to be very emotional in this song, which to me is impressive, most impressive being Alex Skolnick's emotional guitar work, considering he hardly even knew who he was. The song starts out with just the piano, then the guitars come on some fades, and then Zak start's to tell us how Jon feels (They should of just had Jon sing the song.) These first words really show just how close the two must have been, "You were never one for waiting, though I always thought you'd wait for me." As we go on, the guitars slam once, then the bass accompanies the piano and we continue with some of Jon's thoughts of what becomes of people after death, "Are you now but an illusion, in my mind alone you breathe" as we go on into the chorus, the guitars are strong, and the lyrics show how much he must have looked up to his brother (even the Criss was the younger of the two) "You believed in these that I will never know" after the 2nd verse/chorus, the second half of the song begins, and this is the best part. It starts with a great build of the guitar, with a sweet bend as well. The lyrics from this point on simply go from amazing to mind blowing! Some of the best written by anyone, ever! "And if this all illusion, nothing more than pure delusion, clinging to a fading fantasy. Like Icarus who heeds the calling, of a sun but now is falling, as the feathers of his life fall free. Can you see?!?" After this we here Zak as he expresses Jon's question to God "Tomorrow, and after, you tell me what am I to do?!" which shows how lost inside Jon must have felt after his brothers' death. "I stand here believing that in the dark there is a clue" this is Jon clinging to his faith, at this moment of doubt.

The next part Jon tries to answer his own question "Perhaps inside these midnight skies, perhaps tomorrow's new born eyes. Or could it be we'll never know, and after all this was the show" which is to say, 'Maybe tomorrow we'll find the answers, or maybe we will find that this really is it after all.' He then asks "What am I to do" and repeats "Got get back" much like in "A Little too Far" when DT is trying to get back to a reason, a hope, his fatih, and his innocence, well now this is how Jon feels as he tries to get back to normal life, but without his brother, which is why they put this part in the song, perfect literary allusion. Thin we have one of the best lyrical statements ever!! "Standing on a dream, isn't what it seems, could we then reclaim a dream refused. Knowing what we know, could we let it go, realizing that all are years are used" Which is to say, 'Living a dream isn't all it's cracked up to be, and in the end, after we know this, can we let go and see how we wasted our time?!' Incredible moment. We then repeat Jon's questions to God, but this it is followed by the first part of the chorus to "Believe" (the second part is on Criss's grave stone) which demonstrates the regaining of Jon's faith, the Lord's answer to his questions (we learn this by applying the meaning of the song "Believe" here as this is again a literary allusion). During almost all of this (meaning the second part of the song) the guitars are going nuts, but here they peak emotionally. We then have the "Tomorrow, and after." part repeated one last time and the song ends. Absolutely incredible, and must be heard to believe. This song alone, makes the whole album worth is.

Skills by Position Break Down:

Guitars - 18(A) - After the tragic death of Criss Oliva (most underrated guitarist of all time!!) Savatage forged on ward with new axeman Alex Skolnick, previously of Testament. The benefit to this is that Alex Skolnick was an already well-respected guitarist, and proves himself capable of filling in the leads very well. Though I feel Criss Oliva was a more passionate guitarist, there is no doubt Alex has the skills to perform. Though he doesn't takeover any writing responsibilities that Criss left behind, he still makes his presence felt in his style of play. The opening track, "Taunting Cobras" as well as "Nothing Going on" are both very "Testament-esque" in the sense that they are very heavy, and thrashy - pure power metal. He also shows the bluesy/jazzy type style that he pursues after his stint with Savatage. This shows through on tracks like "Handful of Rain", "Watching you Fall" and especially on "Stare into the Sun". Overall, he does a great job of filling in some very big shoes, and his very emotional work on "Alone you Breathe" shows that though he didn't know Criss the way to others did, he still appreciates what Criss did for Metal guitar. Drums - 17(A-) - Even though the album sleeve lists Steve Wacholz as the drummer, he doesn't play a lick on the album. All the drumming is done by Jon Oliva, who is actually a better drummer then Steve any way if you ask me. Jon proves that he could have been Savatage's drummer all these years, but I am glad he wasn't, we would have missed some truly magical moments on both vocals and keyboards/piano. Keyboards - 20(A+) - Jon never fails to disappoint us here, beautiful job done once again. Not as much piano as on previous albums, but still a prominent feature here. And again we have some magical moments once again, especially on the final track "Alone You Breathe" which is of course a tribute to Jon's brother, Criss.

Bass - 18(A) - Like the drums, Jon actually plays the bass on the album as well. And, well he proves he could have bass the bass player for Savatage all these years easily (actually did start out as the bass player in the pre-Savatage years). However, Johnny Lee Middleton is one the best bass players of all time, and I would rather have him play. Vocals - 20(A+) - Zak Stevens now fully becomes the voice of Savatage, proving emotional and powerful, and maintaining the polished and smooth delivery that defines him, and sets him apart from all others. Zak is most defiantly one of the greatest vocalists of all time, if not the best.

Creativity Break Down: Music - 19(A) - This proves to be the most diverse song set yet for Savatage, however it ultimately proves to be weaker then the last albums (barely), though still very strong, with Power Metal anthems, to Progressive Metal masterpieces, to rhythm and blues, this album keeps you interested, a job well done.

Lyrics - 20(A+) - This album features some of the best lyrics they have ever written. On this album, we see some reoccurring themes as they explore some of their past, and future topics covered in rock operas. The theme I find most interesting though, is the theme of "Visions" why are seeing things from the vision of another. This really puts the whole album into perspective. We have the song "Chance" in which we explore the thoughts and visions of Sempo Sugihara, a man who contemplated on the meaning of a moment of life, and how one moment in life can define who you are. In song, we see that when given the 'chance' to do the right thing, he does it. Similarly, in the song "Castles Burning" we see the vision and explore the thoughts of an Italian attorney who makes a stand against organized crime, and eventually gets murdered by the mafia for this stand. It is clear that he too contemplated the meaning of a moment in life. This same theme is more in depthly explored later on the album "The Wake of Magellan". However on this album we also see a contrary theme in a few tracks. For example, the song "Stare into the Sun" is about an old man who stands back and does nothing as his neighborhood tares itself apart. In this song we see that moment of life that defines you and I slip by with no action taken. Similarly we have the song "Watching you Fall" which is about not just one man standing by and letting injustice take place, but an entire nation. In this song, we also see Savatage establish the basis of its next album "Dead Winter Dead". That is, of course, the Bosnian civil war. Also, with songs like "Taunting Cobras" and "Handful of Rain" we revisit the themes of "Streets". Some very good lyrics in all of these songs, but we find the best of them in the ballad "Alone you Breathe" in which we explore the 'visions' of Savatage's very own Jon Oliva as he copes with the death of his brother. Arrangements - 20(A+) - Arrangements prove strong on this album, especially on songs like "Chance", featuring the first counter point harmonies in the history of rock. Time will prove that Savatage will not release another album without this feature on a song somewhere, if not on two songs. "Alone You Breathe" also features top-notch arrangements, as it is a powerfully emotional composition. These are only two stand out tracks on a spectacular album.

| 5/5 |


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