The Calm After the Storm  

from Metal Edge Magazine, Nov. 94
by Marina Zogbi
transcribbed by Dave Harris


In the aftermath of last year's tragic car accident that claimed the life of guitarist Criss Oliva, veteran rockers Savatage have emerged with a new album, HANDFUL OF RAIN. Enlisting the talents of ex-Testament guitarist Alex Skolnick, the band (vocalist Zachary Stevens, bassist Johnny Lee Middleton, and drummer Steve Wacholz) and Criss' brother, lyricist/songwriter Jon Oliva have produced an LP they're especially proud of. Says Zackary, "We were inspired and we had a lot of emotions we individually wanted to get out in our performances... Everbody went way above the call of duty on this one. That's what makes the record so good."

The period immediately following the accident in October '93 was naturally a painful one for the band; for a while they weren't sure they could continue. "A tragedy like this will devastate you to the point where you don't even want to do anything," attests Zach, "But given a little time you heal. There was a time when I think each of us said 'I don't think I can really go on,' because you get to low to put things in perspective." However, they realized that "Criss would have wanted us to go on, and he would have been down here slapping us around: 'Hey, get your ass off the couch, go out and play rock n' roll, this is what you love, man!"

Once the band decided to do just that, HANDFUL OF RAIN came together pretty quickly. According to Johnny, when it came to guitarists, Jon Oliva had only one person in mind. "The only call that was made was to Alex, because Criss had admired his playing back when we toured with Testament. We wanted to have someone do it that Criss liked." Alex had been a fan of Savatage for a long time. "I had SIRENS back when it came out, everybody in the Bay Area was really into that album. We [Testament] were thrilled to take these guys on tour when we did." Initially, however, he had to turn down Jon's offer to join Savatage. "I had already put together a project, Exhibit A, which I still have. Basically, I'm the captain of that ship, which I really wanted after all those years with Testament." He did agree to play on HANDFUL, "then we started talking about promoting it and doing a tour with both bands, so I can stay captain on my ship and I can be co-captain on this one; it worked out really good." (Plans for Exhibit A to tour with Savatage were in the works at press time.)

Early this year, Zachary joined Jon and longtime Savatage producer Paul O'Neil in New York to write new material. "The songs came together rather quickly," he notes, "We spent about a month and a half together in New York and probably had seven out of ten songs written." Once in the studio, "It seemed like a great vibe, everybody really working hard," he recalls. "It had to be the right thing to do because it turned out to be the easiest process and one of the most fulfilling." "It had the intensity of the early stuff, which I really liked," adds Alex. "Also, everybody wanted to make Criss proud; I think that really helped it."

Everybody concerned is especially happy with the musical variety on HANDFUL. "Savatage has always been like that," says Johnny. "There's always been diversity, different styles on the records; we've always done that and I think we always will." The album's centerpiece is the seven and a half minute "Chance," "a big orchestrated number that takes you through a whole maze," describes Zach. "It reminds me of something off A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, Queen," adds Alex. "A lot of guitar magazines have asked what's really different about this album, and I can say this one has actual rock n' roll on it; ROCK, not just thrash music, not grunge."

Savatage lyrics have always been full of dramatic imagery and the new album is no exception. Zach explains the theme of the title track and first single: "I guess there are a lot of different things this song can symbolize: you want to escape something, but you have an addiction; you're trying to reach out for a handful of rain, but you really can't hold onto it. It's almost like you got things slipping through your fingers, you can't quite grasp what you need to pull you through...or it's about reaching for something you know is never there but you're not accepting the fact that it's never going to be there." At the other end of the lyrical spectrum is "Taunting Cobras." Says Zach, "In my opinion-and this is only one opinion-it's about a beautiful woman who's either a movie star or an actress and you try to date or have a relationship with someone like that who's so worldly and confident and doesn't seem to need anyone, but youre' really obsessed with her... She's always up there taunting cobras, and we won't go into what a cobra is!"

When asked about the musical climate these days, Alex quipped, "Just when you think it's tough it gets tougher," but also had this to say: "One thing you can say about these guys, and I'll give my old band, Testament, some credit too - they stil have a record deal. A few years ago, Winger and White Lion were selling tons of records, over a million each, and these guys and Testament were kind of chugging along. Well, these two bands are still chugging along!" Zachary compairs it to "a hare and turtle race. All the other bands are hares that went way up ahead..." "We're the turtle coming through," finishes Johnny. Savatage will no doubt be crawling through your vicinity by the time you read this.

Liner note 1: Zach contributed vocal melodies and "a few other things here and there" to Jon and Paul's songs. "This is my second record with the band and I've developed a good working relationship with (producer) Paul. Now we're all in synch and it's a really good formula."

Liner note 2: "I think when you listen to it, you could probably tell that we wrote it for Criss," says Zach of "Alone you breathe." "It starts off kind of solemn, then kicks in, different emotions throughout the the song." The band were touched by Rob Cannavino's tribute to Criss ("R.I.P.") on Overkill's new W.F.O. LP. "We really appreciate them," says Zach.

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