Enjoying a relatively stable and fruitful near 40-year career, Saga have operated very successfully on the musical borders between hard rock, pomp rock, AOR, prog and pop. Sagacity brings their tally of studio albums up to 21.
The band’s last release, 2012’s 20⁄20, saw a reassuring return for singer Michael Sadler after his self-imposed, four-year hiatus from the band. It made for a satisfyingly strong collection too, melding Saga’s classic songsmithery with contemporary sounds and production. So now, two years on, how far has the Saga project advanced?
Expectations rise with the suitably hard-edged album opener Let It Slide. With driving drums and big guitars, it’s the sound of Saga rocking out in epic style as only they can, with some great quick-fire, syncopated vocals in the chorus. Vital Signs marks a change of pace and dynamic, especially on the spacious verses, and third track It Doesn’t Matter Who You Are is fairly standard Saga fare with a lead vocal from guitarist Ian Crichton.
As the album progresses, it’s clear that the staples of the Saga sound are mostly present and correct. Sadler’s immediately identifiable, charmingly portentous vocals are in good shape, and the band play around with some trademark songwriting with instrumental and vocal hooks galore, even introducing some different elements – the odd-time choruses and almost folksy verses of Go With the Flow – although the lack of a real ending on half of the songs can prove irritating.
If there’s a sticking point, it’s that the interplay between, and juxtaposition of, Crichton’s vivid guitars and the band’s multi-layered keyboards – such a large contributor to Saga’s impact – are all too often off-kilter. Apart from some notable exceptions with a handful of nice keyboard intros and solos, the guitar-keyboard ratio can be out of whack, with keyboards frequently relegated to a background role.
The worst offenders are Wake Up, Don’t Forget To Breathe and On My Way, the latter featuring raw guitar pushed to the fore in a manner that actively distracts from the vocal line in places. This mars some otherwise strong and interesting songs, drawing focus away from the rest of the band, including drumming newcomer Mike Thorne, who does an impressive job of channelling both immediate predecessor Brain Doerner and original incumbent Steve Negus.
Sagacity isn’t a landmark Saga release, but all these mix-related quibbles aside, it’s very them and it’s sure to please their many die-hard fans. Especially admirers of Crichton’s playing – they certainly won’t be straining to hear him!