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handful of rain review by clay marshall
Handful of Rain marks a turning point in Savatage's existence. It is the first studio album issued after Criss Oliva's death, and when one examines the time frame of the record, it is absolutely remarkable how quickly it came to be. After Criss' death in October of 1993, brother Jon did not even start on this record for at least another two months. Considering that it was issued in September of 1994, and that the band, obviously in need of a guitarist, had to wait for hired gun Alex Skolnick (formerly of Testament) to lay down guitar parts, the disc is phenomenal for more than its content.

A 10 track, 50 minute opus, Handful of Rain relies heavily on rich, prominent keyboards, superb vocal melodies and harmonies, stellar guitar work, and some of the deepest songs (in terms of subject matter) that I have ever come across. It is largely the work of Jon Oliva himself, although one couldn't tell from the album jacket: he is credited only with songwriting, co-production, and "additional keyboards," but in fact, he did the drum tracks, most of the bass tracks, and apparently some rhythm guitar work as well. Paul O'Neill produces another masterpiece here, something that should be doubtlessly expected. This record showed that the proverbial show could and would indeed go on, and that even with the loss of a major creative force, there was plenty of musical genius still to come.
1. taunting cobras - 3:22
Opening on a thunderingly heavy note, this full-throttle thrasher features a catchy riff and slamming rhythms. I've read an interview where Zachary describes this song as being about a movie star/actress type who teases and pleases as she wishes, taunting (wink wink) so-called "cobras." The song's lyrics are spoken by one who has been sucked in by this "she" for "nearly a year." Part of the song is a warning to other potential victims of her attraction; the chorus is a direct message to the woman, saying that now that he's "cold sober," the speaker can see through all of the woman's illusions to the truth. The song contains much "bar imagery," not only with the "cold sober" reference, but the "water mixed with whiskey..." line, which just shows the lengths to which the narrator resorted when under the mysterious woman's spell.

This is an absolute killer song, and kicks off the album with raw, unrelenting power, immediately grabbing the listener's attention. My only objection to the track is that it doesn't fit in perfectly with some of the slower, moodier pieces on the album. Still, when viewed as a separate entity, heavy tracks don't get much cooler than this. Alex's solo is perfectly crafted, fitting into the song flawlessly and possessing both the traditional heavy Savatage sound and Skolnick's own distinctive style. Singer Zachary Stevens' performance is right on target, as he connects with high notes without fail.
2. handful of rain - 5:01
The only song on the album for which a video was filmed, the title track opens with a catchy riff in dropped D on an acoustic guitar, and then at about the one minute mark, the song breaks into a slow, driving, pounding, heavy, killer tune. The guitar tone is absolutely perfect, having an ideal combination of both acoustics (which return at the halfway point) and the crunch of Alex's electric. There is no solo as such, but the song truly does not need one. It features another one of the mysterious Savatage verses printed in the album jacket, but is nowhere to be found in the actual song. The track is more or less about a lost dream, and reaching out (or here, crying out) and grasping for something to soothe the soul (the handful of rain).

Personally, I interpret this as a metaphor for alcoholism, and some sort of cleanser to ideally cure someone of this disease. The cut verse was about a "lost soul" wallowing in his drink; the night numbs the mind "till it's feeling no pain"; the booze gives "insulation" from the regretting of missed opportunities- - all of these lines further this idea. I see the song as a tale about getting deeper and deeper under the spell of alcohol and desparately relying on it as a buffer of the mind, heart, and soul, for the picture of alcohol painted here is not flattering: "adding up the cost" and "staring up at heaven from the bottom of a glass"; asking God's forgiveness for living this way; and especially the line, "the whiskey's getting deeper, and I use it like a moat." To fully interpret this line, one needs to ponder the purpose of a moat. It is used for protection, to build a buffer around yourself, and to keep out what is perceived as being bad. But it also keeps you in, not just sheltering you, but hindering you to grow as well. In other words, you're trapped. This is a killer song music-wise, yet more mind-blowing in its content, even though it disturbs the hell out of you. A definite standout by all means.
3. chance - 7:50
Speaking of standouts, they don't get much cooler than this. As nicely described in the FAQ (and detailed in the linear notes of the Japanese version), this song, the longest on the album, is about Chiume Sugihara, a Japanese diplomat to Lithuania during World War II. Like Schindler, but much less famous, Sugihara defied orders and wrote exit visas to free some 6,000 Jewish refugees who otherwise would have been killed or sent to other concentration camps. It is left to Savatage to tell the story of this remarkable man, or at least to make people aware of him. He risked his life and his career to do the right thing, by taking a "chance." Sugihara is to whom most "he"s refer; the song tells what is going through his mind, and in the multiple part harmonies near the end of the track, it also gives examples of what was or could have been going through the minds of some of the refugees.

The music itself is remarkable, and is a textbook definition of "progressive." The song opens with soft keyboards, with Zachary singing softly. Then, following some nursery-like chimes, heavy, invading, almost church-like keyboards boom their way into the soundscape. Alex's wail is then heard, as the guitar part is effectively layered into a stunning arrangement. The music then picks up, moving into a familiar Savatage groove. The rhythms are phenomenal, and in my opinion, this track features Zachary's best work on the album. It briefly slows down at about the 4:30 mark, before the heavy keys burst their way back onto the scene. Then, the real fun begins: with a bass playing a constant A, and some periodic bursts or wails of a guitar or piano, the lyrics then portray the various voices, one part at a time adding on, demonstrating the different thoughts at the time. At song's end, it becomes (by my count) an unbelievable six-part harmony. The effect created is mind-blowing, stunning, and even chilling. It is a true testament (no pun intended) to the band's talent, and is a definite precursor to "One Child" off Dead Winter Dead.
4. stare into the sun - 4:42
This is a slow-moving, moody, bluesy number about an aging veteran watching the world and his neighborhood change around him. Jon has stated that it is about the rise and fall of an urban neighborhood, inspired by Los Angeles, circa 1994 (riots, I suppose). I see it as being much more about this veteran, though, and the changes have made him somewhat of an outcast and forgotten soul. The track does not paint a flattering portrayal of what "we" have become as a society, foghting wars that are soon forgotten or simply fighting for no purpose whatsoever. The "he" fought for clear objectives; now, in this day and age, he sees the "colors run," seemingly a metaphor for blood, and "fear(s) his brother [and] his child." Killing today now has "style," causing the narrator to ask the "old man... what have we become?" The narrator sees him "watching [and] waiting," and upon his "anticipating all the hating that was [not] yet undone," the old man turns and stares into the sun.

I don't want to seem as though I'm picking over minuscule details, but I believe the use of the word "into" in the title (instead of "at") is significant: by using "into," I see the man communicating and becoming one with the heavens, and pessimistic about the future, relinquishing his life and time on Earth. The narrator noted early on that the man's time was "nearly done," and I see the staring into the sun as the man's acknowlegdement of that fact, and mercifully asking to be taken to a better place. In this world, he "only hears, and his eyes, they only tear," meaning that he has no control over his surroundings anymore, He has been usurped by the "young and bold," and upon anticipation of their fate, he can do nothing but simply stare into the sun.

Musically, the verses are soft in terms of vocals, guitar, and drums, but all pick up in the chorus. Alex plays excellently in the in-between spans of the song, and shines in the nearly 60 second solo, crafting another perfectly put together piece.
5. castles burning - 4:39
For pieces like this (and "Chance," for that matter), I truly wish that the band would include longer, more detailed linear notes in the album jacket that provide some background information. Outside info is definitely needed here, for the song is about Giovanni Falcone, an Italian crusading anti-organized crime attorney who was murdered. Falcone, the "he" the song refers to, "stands alone" in the "dark and bleeding, with the shadows seething," dealing with the evil in hopes of its eradication.

The "in the end" verse is intriguing, especially with the line, "the children cried that the jackal surely lied." Webster's defines a jackal (beside the animal) as "a person who does dishonest work for another: from the notion that the jackal hunts game for the lion and eats the leavings; a person who cheats or swindles in a mean, underhanded way." So the "jackal" lied when he said to not look behind these "walls" of the "castle," now burning apparently. "The world is blind" to these lies, and "he" is caught in a "maze" of lies and deceit, mocked and haunted by "ghosts" and "shadows." I find this song difficult to interpret fully without more knowledge of this man, but what I do get does move me.

The music here is rich and varied, moving from soft to intense. The bass is heavier here than on other tracks, and the trend of verse-softness followed by a heavy chorus continues here. Zachary's vocals are phenomenal, as he especially displays his range in the chorus, and Alex's tone varies from distorted at times to almost acoustic purity. The keyboards provide the interlude, and the doubled guitar creates a magnificant effect leading into the well-done solo. This is another content-deep track with amazing music to accompany it.
6. visions - 1:26
Having no relation whatsoever to the "Visions (of Hell)" track off The Dungeons Are Calling, this brief instrumental, rich in keyboards, is what the band used (in recorded fashion, like "Christmas Eve" off Dead Winter Dead) to open their tour in support of this album. Powerful drums, pounding bass notes, heavy guitar chords, and backing keyboards provide the support for the lead keyboard melody. The title is really a metaphor for the whole album: reflections on and visions of various people, events, and images. Its placement, directly in the middle of the album, also furthers this point. It is not really a lead-in for the next track, although it does indeed flow well.
7. watching you fall - 5:20
This slower-moving track is a poignant social commentary about Bosnia, and was a hint as to the direction the band would take on their next album. The band, like many Americans, was watching the tragedies of the Bosnian war unfold on television and decided to write this song about watching, unable to physically become involved or help. "We" as a society "pretend that we never see" any of the tragedies that take place, and "on a TV, mounted on the wall," the narrator sits and watches the demise of the warring peoples.

The narrator is among those doing nothing, but is still emotionally shaken by the situation. He poses the question, "Is there a trick to the art of not feeling?," wondering how any human can go about their normal business and live without being moved and upset by the situation that they see, read, and know about, but do nothing and seem like they don't care. These people are "safe in a world where another's child bleeds." They do worry, however, and "pray that God won't demand a redealing of cards we have held and pretend you don't need." This vivid line states that the people, even though they see what goes on and act as if nothing is, do privately worry and pray that this could never happen to them. They know it is just luck and the hand that God dealt them that placed them where they are, rather than in the center of a war environment. Still, some of the "cards" that these people were dealt, they pretend that the Bosnians "don't need," a way of saying, "They can help themselves."

The song continues in the pre-solo verses, explaining the thoughts of those who feign apathy, saying that "[we] better not think about it, in time we'll start to doubt it," hoping to just ignore it until it goes away. "It's not that we lack the vision" of what's going on, but we do lack "a quick decision" as to what to do. "Who wil blame us?" the song asks, for "rules restrain us" from getting involved in a foreign conflict. "It's all in history," the next line, is what I see as a reference to Vietnam. There, we tried to stop a war in a foreign country and got decimated in the process, and this is the weak way out, saying, "It's their fight." As a result, the narrator feigns sleep, afraid to both remain awake and see the war unfold before his eyes, and to go to sleep, where there is a chance that visions of the war will "visit [his] dreams." A deep, haunting social commentary on a nation of spectators.

The mellow verse trend again demonstrates itself here, and the chorus is agaim comparitively more powerful musically. The song is piano-heavy, not only in the verse, but in the chorus as well. Guitar wails are interspersed throughout in between lines, with chords waiting for the chorus. Zachary's vocals are smooth and soft in the verse, and more porweful in the chorus and bridge. The solo is driving and powerful, and the track again mellows afterward. The tinkling of the ivories (or plastic, I guess) closes the song.
8. nothing's going on - 4:08
Another unexplained Savatage mystery, like their planned live albums and videos, deleted verses, and line changes: The linear notes of the album (where the lyrics are printed) have this titled as above, indeed the way it appears the most in the song. However, on the back cover of the CD and tape, it appears as "Nothing Going On." To make things even more confusing, on the CD for Japan Live '94, it appears as "Nothin' Going On." Go figure.

Musically (structually, that is), this is about as straightforward of a hard rock tune that the band has done in quite some time: opening riff, chords, return to riff, etc. The song begins with an Alex fretboard jingle, and then progresses into the crunching, powerful, catchy, yet remarkably simple three note riff. Other than "Taunting Cobras," this is the only real fist-pumping, headbanging, testosterone-filled tune on the disc. There are not a great deal of lyrics here, as the song is mostly heavy music. In fact, the last two minutes of the song feature no lyrics but the title stated repetitively. The pounding bass and drums are prominent throughout; Zachary's mildly sneering vocals fit the track perfectly; and the song is a good showcase for Alex's hard rock/metal ability.

I honestly don't know the deep meaning of the song. I see it as a cross between Alice in Wonderland and a warped relationship tale, and indeed an ironic contrast in title to the content of the previous track. The lyrics state, "don't turn your back," "cover your tracks," tell of a soul being ripped by a proverbial "cheshire cat," and say that the narrator or the "she" has "gone too far [and] can't retreat," that they can't get out of the current situation. These are like warnings, telling of something far from an ideal scenario. In the final two verses, the narrator speaks of a "she" who is "good to [him]" but still "no queen of hearts." She, a "hardcore dancer," is a "puppet on a string strung so tight, gotta watch her swing," maybe conveying the message that she is in deep and a little screwed up, too. I mean, the line, "bring her coffin roses, brush her thorns, let it bleed" just weirdens this even more for me, reminding me of "Necrophilia," but also making me wonder if this is a reference to "Edge of Thorns" or "All That I Bleed." I just don't know. Kind of like Wonderland, I guess.
9. symmetry - 5:06
This track addresses the suicide of musicians, particularly those especially prominent. The first lines of the song paint a vivid picture, asking if life and death are "a symmetry, balanced on scales, neither side chosen." This implies that the two are in equal proportions, and that it is just as easy to enter this world as it is to leave it. Still, neither is chosen, resulting in a type of purgatory and one constantly drifting. The chorus tells of the speaker's life (not "lie," as misprinted) "burning," with "letters [he's] written, never to follow," possibly inferring a life of lies, false illusions, and charades.

The next line, "poets and madmen... all defy reason," is intriguing: the two are placed on the same scale, making one wonde if there is not, after all, much difference between the two types of people. The song continues to say that the speaker wants to live his life with a certain 'you', "dying hard," and to "play [his] whole life 'till it's through, dying hard." The speaker here states his wants and desires, to apparently live fast and die young. He seems to be a lost soul, having to deal with "night's darker tyrants." He spends "some nights alone inside [his own] head," justifying this by saying, "it's better than losing it." Still, the next line states that it's your own choice to "turn your life around." So it is this individual's choice, in a way, to live how he does, even though he may have not asked for all the pressures that fame has brought him.

The music for this track can be best described as progressive. It is relatively bass heavy, and both acoustic and electric guitars are employed here. The song is slow, moody, and driving in the chorus. Guitar heavy, its vocals are low and powerful, and softer in the verses, where no drums play. The track slows and softens in the interlude, with pounding interruptions after the lines. The 40 second solo is well-crafted and fits the song perfectly.
10. alone you breathe - 7:29
A funny misprint gives the title on the back of the album: "Alone You Breath." Humor aside, this is probably the most moving track the band has ever done. Dedicated to (and about) Criss Oliva, this lengthy, piano-heavy, beautifully composed number features lyrics filled with vivid imagery, soft and delicate piano melodies, well-played bass and drum tracks, perfectly done vocals, and superb guitar work. It can be perfectly described as progressive, but not in the crunching or heavier sound usually referred to by that word; it simply means that the song varies and changes in speed often.

The track opens softly, with only a piano and vocals, but after the first verse, bass, drums, and a massive sounding guitar explode with a booming note, crashing cymbal, and power chord, respectively. The guitar takes a brief break, while the drums stay, playing softly. The song explodes again in the first chorus, only to soften again in the following verse. It picks up again in the next chorus, and progresses into a quicker, comparatively harder number. It does slow again later, as it moves into the second chorus, but retains the engulfing Savatage sound. There is a line change from the printed lyrics: "Or then again" becomes "or could it be."

The guitar chords boom, the keyboards chime, and the doubled vocals create a dramatic effect. The song is connected to "Believe" off the Streets disc, which in turn is connected to Gutter Ballet's "When The Crowds Are Gone." Some of the lines used in "Believe" are utilized here: "I am the way, I am the light, I am the dark inside the night; I hear your hopes, I feel your dreams, and in the dark, I hear your screams." These moving lines create a chilling effect. The song moves into a perfect solo next, and then returns to the second chorus, closing the album with the soft sounds of Jon's keyboard.

The song has fueled some debate in its interpretation, in that some feel it is saying that Criss had a hand in his own death, even though in reality, this is not the case -- Criss was killed by a drunk driver. He is idolized in a way by the lyrics, yet a troubled soul as well. Lines furthering this assumption include "you [Criss] just let go," and "you've thrown it all away." Criss is compared to Icarus in the lyrics. According to Greek mythology, Icarus, escaping from the island of Crete by flying with wings constructed by his father, flew so high and so close to the sun that the sun's heat melted the wax that was fastening his wings. As a result, he fell to his death by plunging into the sea below. So, "like Icarus, who heeds the calling of a sun but now is falling," Criss died unexpectedly... or did he? Did Criss take notice of any warnings yet not fully prepare? The line, "I stand here believing that in the dark, there is a clue" doesn't help, for it can be interpreted two ways: a clue as to why this happened, in a metaphorical "Why me?" sense, or a clue as to why and how Criss could "let go."

The line, "Which of us is now in exile? Which in need of amnesty?" intertwines the feelings of the brothers Oliva. In other words, this is questioning which of the two is being forced to live alone and separate and which is in need of forgiveness, a pardon, and help. When put with another line, stating that Criss was "out there drowning, but it never showed," it makes one ponder if Criss was in need of some kind of help. Now, "we" can only "stand and wonder" about his life and "what was meant to be." Perhaps there will be a "clue," but again, maybe "we'll never know," leaving Jon to wonder, "What am I to do"? He wants to believe that this is just a dream, that he is "clinging to a fading fantasy." He will continue to believe that "in the dark, there is a clue," and answer as to why -- either interpretation of the word. A moving track, stating that in Jon's and Savatage's legions of fans, Criss forever will remain in their hearts and minds -- "In my mind, alone you breathe..."
conclusion
Handful of Rain is an amazing album, and in my opinion, a true masterpiece. It disappointed some, in the way of it not being "heavy" enough, but emotionally, lyrically, and interpretively, it is probably the "heaviest" recording of their career. It is a moodier, slower disc in most parts, yet shows the band retaining its progressive elements. It is full of variety, from the thundering "Taunting Cobras," to the heavy-blues feel of the title track, to the comparatively softer "Stare Into The Sun" and "Watching You Fall," to the moving, riveting "Alone You Breathe." The content is varied as well, going from tales of heros like Chiume Sugihara and Giovanni Falcone, to warnings about certain women, to tales of alcoholism, decline, war, and suicide, to the loss of a brother. It hints in a few places about the direction the band would take on their next album, Dead Winter Dead, as well. Alex Skolnick does an admirable job of being an interchangeable part or sorts, and does an outstanding job on the disc. Zachary Stevens delivers incredible vocals, and Jon Oliva, the mastermind behind it all (not to shortchange wizard Paul O'Neill), does everthing superbly: he co-produces, writes, and plays almost everything. He creates another masterpiece here, and even though the album definitely has a different feel without Criss Oliva, it definitively showed the world that Savatage was back... with a vengeance.