Saga – Now And Then, The Collection (2 CDs)

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Purposeful, elegant, tuneful progressive rock…

Review by Brian McGowan

ear MUSIC

Release date: 3 August 2015

Disc One:

A Saga “Best Of” is bound to be highly subjective, there are so many tracks to choose from. Even over two CDs. Favourites will be missed, and occasionally a less obvious track might make the cut, when a previously thought nailed-on certainty will be left out. Fans will already know the story. But the curious may find this carefully sketched outline of the band’s career to be a very useful primer. One way or another, it is what it is.

The brutal critic might put aside the Canadian band’s first two albums, Saga (1978) and Images At Twilight (1979) and point to third album, Silent Knight (1980) as the one on which the stamp of individuality is writ large. Edgy and agitated, it shows a complexity in music and lyrics missing from the generic progpop of those earlier releases. That said, the band’s foundation is and always was the strength of the songwriting. The style and form of the music is almost incidental. Arguably, the artfully shaped pop of the lyrically disturbing ‘Don’t Be Late’, from Silent Knight, is as much influenced by the burgeoning New Wave movement of the time, as it was by the Progressive Rock of the seventies.

Critics and fans sat up and took notice. Now that Saga had walked out from under Rush’s shadow, into the light of recognition, they flourished. Singles began to make regular appearances in the USA’s Billboard Charts. The band’s finely tuned lyrical brevity and trenchant narratives, combined with repetitive keyboard and guitar interplay, became a feature of their ensuing albums. Punchy and powerful, ‘On the Loose’ and ‘Wind Him Up’ from Worlds Apart (1981) boosted the band’s growing profile, cementing their position as real contenders, although only the former appears here.

Heads Or Tails (1983) and Behaviour (1985) revealed a subtle shuffle out of the progrock arena into the rewarding world of pop, as the band dropped to a 3 piece. Respectively, ‘Scratching the Surface’ and ‘Take A Chance’ mirror that movement. And that’s why they appear here. But by 1989’s ‘The Beginners Guide To Throwing Shapes‘, crisp, polished progrock production sounds were re-emerging, the guitars and keys had muscled up again, doing the heavy lifting for what now seemed to be a progrock band reborn. The closing track on that album was the magnificently apposite ‘Giant’. Melodic, complex, it sounded like Saga should.

Disc 1 is rounded out with the title track from The Security of Illusion (1993), and Steamroller’ from Steel Umbrellas (1995), both of which reinforce the notion that the band (now back to a five piece) had rediscovered its raison d’etre, engaging with the music to create purposeful, elegant, tuneful progressive rock.

8 out of 10

Disc Two:

Many fans, and indeed critics, consider Generation 13 (1995) to be Saga’s magnum opus. The title track opens this second disc, giving us only a tantalising glimpse of an album that seamlessly merges progrock and classical conceits, free of the pretensions and the bombast that blights so much of the music in this genre (and indeed the output of other, more feted practitioners). As an opening track and spine tingling appetiser, it works a treat. And yet, on the other hand, misdirection is in the nature of “Best Ofs”. Second track, ‘Heaven Can Wait’, heavy and hard rocking, is on here, misrepresenting the album ‘Pleasure And The Pain’ (1997). Most of the rest of this follow up suggests the band’s energies were spent, depleted in the creation of their acclaimed masterwork.

The band perked up on subsequent albums, Full Circle (1999), House Of Cards (2001) and Marathon (2003), but the evidence indicates the music had solidified into Saga-rock. Hard edged, melodic, dynamically produced, but no longer stretching the music into dark corners it once attempted to expose and explore. Doesn’t make them bad people of course. Not playing it safe is often a misguided career choice.

The suite of albums that followed, Network (2004), Trust (2006) and 10,000 Days (2007) emphasised the band’s musicianship and nous. This was clearly a proud band with standards and values in the studio. Workmanlike songs like ‘On The Air’ and ‘Book Of Lies’ were delivered with the skill of craftsmen, in an often beguiling union of art and invention. Vocalist Rob Moratti replaced Michael Sadler on 2009’s The Human Condition. It’s still informed and influenced by the band’s past, but it notches up a gear in dramatic presentation, adding a contemporary sheen to standout track ‘Step Inside’.

‘Anywhere You Wanna Go’ and ‘I’ll Be’, from 20/20 (2012) and Sagacity (2014), close out this second selection of Saga songs. The first, lifted from the band’s comeback album with Michael Sadler (Moratti only lasted one album), sounds tentative, like they were worried the affair with Moratti had permanently undermined a 34 year marriage, but the closing track is prime Saga, inventive, passionate and technically brilliant, confounding any such doubt.

Fans of the band, devoted or casual, will have most of these tracks in some form or another. But, as we said in the review of Disc One above, anyone not familiar with Saga might well enjoy exploring the world of a Progrock band who’ve made little concession to sonic fashion. You can start here.

7 out of 10

Saga Collection2015Disc One Track Listing:

  1. The Perfectionist
  2. You’re Not Alone
  3. Don’t Be Late
  4. One The Loose
  5. Scratching The Surface
  6. Take A Chance
  7. Wildest Dreams
  8. Giant
  9. Security Of Illusion
  10. Steamroller

Disc Two Track Listing:

  1. Generation 13
  2. Heaven can Wait
  3. The One
  4. Always There
  5. Breathing Lessons
  6. One The Air
  7. Trust
  8. Book Of Lies
  9. Step Inside
  10. Anywhere You Wanna Go
  11. I’ll Be