Review Summary: Good album that marks the beginning of a new era of Savatage. For all of its strength, the band cannot step out of Criss Oliva's shadow.
On October 17th, 1993, Savatage guitarist and co-founder Criss Oliva was killed in a head-on collision, casting a shadow on the band's future. Long-time drummer Steve Wacholz left the band, and Johnny Lee Middleton did not want to record another album at the time. With all of this in mind, this "Savatage" album isn't much of a Savatage album - it's really Jon Oliva's first solo album.
After his brother's death, Jon Oliva went into the studio and wrote and recorded the album on his own. A versatile musician, he performed on guitar, bass, keyboards, and drums. Zak Stevens, Savatage's lead singer since the band's previous album, "Edge of Thorns", went back and recorded over Oliva's vocals, and Alex Skolnick of Testament recorded the lead guitar, but left most of Oliva's rhythm work intact. The record company left the original line-up on the album for continuity's sake, but it's really Jon Oliva's baby.
The result is, understandably, very dark: themes of loss (Handful of Rain), hopelessness (Watching You Fall), societal atrophy (Stare Into the Sun), suicide (Symmetry), and war (Chance) can be found in the lyrics. Also obvious in the music is a lack of energy and fun that can be found in the early albums; there are no silly fist-pumpers like "Warriors" and "Sirens" to be found her. It's very serious stuff. There's also a wide variety of musical styles: metal, grunge, blues, and theater.
The album also boasts one epic: "Chance", which has been hailed by some as the band's Bohemian Rhapsody. The song has several sections, going from soft, piano-driven ballad to a guitar-driven midsection, and then to a Broadway-style climax with counter-point vocals. In seven minutes, we are told the story of a World War II Japanese diplomat who has to make a choice: to do what he's told, or do what he knows is right.
Another great song is "Symmetry", which sounds like it could have been taken from an "Alice in Chains" album. This is another serious song about suicidal musicians - maybe a sequel to "When the Crowds Are Gone" from Gutter Ballet? And the bluesy title track is brilliant, possibly one of the best Stevens-era Savatage songs.
For all of its strengths, this album is not without weak songs. The opener, "Taunting Cobras", sounds like it's an outtake from the Edge Of Thorns album - it's just mediocre. "Watching You Fall" sounds very generic. And the album closer, "Alone You Breath", a tribute to Criss Oliva, is severely lacking. It just feels maudlin, the emotion forced, and it's too long for its own good. The bonus track, an acoustic version of "Alone You Breath", with just Oliva on vocals and piano, is far more powerful at just four minutes. It might just be because Stevens didn't know Criss Oliva long enough to make a really emotional performance.
Overall, "Handful of Rain" is a pretty good album, that suffers from being made in the wake of Criss Oliva's passing. There's a profound feeling of loss all over it, and is, in most places, joyless. Still, I'd recommend it, as it shows the depth of Jon Oliva's skill as a writer and musician.