In order to give an honest assessment of the unexpected new release from Saga, a few matters of full disclosure are in order.
First, I’m generally a major fan of this Canadian prog/pop/rock outfit, because they developed a very unique sound in the landscape of progressive rock. Ian Crichton is criminally underrated as an innovative electric guitar player, and Jim Gilmour’s bombastic synth playing pairs remarkably well with Crichton’s when they do fingers-a-blazing runs in tandem or trade widdly lead lines back and forth. The guitar/synth interplay is a signature sound element that is one of their greatest assets. More on that later.
Second, I generally have very little enthusiasm for acoustic renditions of songs I’ve grown to love in their electric format, because they tend to just feel like weakened, neutered versions of their originals. They usually don’t offer anything new, just something less. And they often feel lazy.
The same can often be said about covers records. They often seem more like a quick cash grab or a lackadaisical completion of contractual obligations, rather than an artist’s sincere creative expression.
The harsh truth is that the new album from Saga, “Symmetry,” is basically an acoustic rendition of Saga covering their own tunes. Depending on your viewpoint, this is either something we should be grateful for or discouraged by. It could be argued that listeners should be happy we’re getting anything new from Saga at all, given that the band announced its retirement in 2017 after celebrating 40 years together as a musical unit.
It can’t be denied that many a band has played the “last tour ever” card to eke out some extra ticket sales, only to have a change of heart down the road. Whatever the motivations for Saga, it appeared that the final curtain call was made a few years ago, but pandemics have a funny way of coaxing new music from the studio out of musicians. And in this case, some things are very different than before.
That signature sound previously mentioned of Saga? Don’t look for it here. “Symmetry” may be the music and members of Saga, but it is a very different sounding animal. Those epic sounding electric guitars and widdly synths that blasted through the speakers have been unplugged. In their place is a kinder, gentler set of acoustic guitars, banjo, piano, clarinet, fiddle, cello and more. The vocals are also treated like a different instrument, with the ever-expressive Michael Sadler taking a unique approach to the arrangements and even reconstructing established melodies to better suit this softer instrumental pallet.
On the surface, these are all disappointing facts for this listener, who would like nothing more than to have Saga roar back in action with another in-your-face, rocking studio release. But to write off this record as a gutless lightweight derivative of older Saga songs would be dishonest and unfair. The fact is, Saga was anything but lazy in their effort here.
In trying to transform their punch and power to an easier listening format, Sadler and Crichton did major reconstruction work, and while the end result might be less exciting than a new electric rock record, it’s nonetheless fairly interesting—at least for the existing fan base. I truthfully cannot imagine hearing these versions without being familiar with the originals, nor can I imagine how they would be evaluated by a listener if this was their very first encounter with the group’s songs.
Instead, I can only describe how new versions soar or suffer from being bent and broken into softer sounding renditions.
The record opens with “Pitchman,” a clever, rousing track that served as the closer of 1983’s “Heads or Tales” closer. The original is wonderfully representative of all things good in Saga—Michael Sadler’s distinctive and soaring vocals, Gilmour’s widdly synth lines, Crichton’s jutting, angular tone, Steven Negus’ stand out drum timbres, and a frenzied breakdown instrumental section that goes on a wild race of cascading notes.
On “Symmetry’s” version, all of those signature elements are gone. And yet, somehow, the song holds up still as an interesting listen. Sadler takes a more intimate, relaxed approach to the lead vocals, and Gilmour’s clarinet and piano lay a platform around which Crichton splays acoustic guitar. A fiddle replaces Crichton’s fiery solo and the normally crashing drum set is given a sedative with the deployment of brushes instead of sticks. The breakdown section becomes more of a country sounding jig, and while the edges are mostly sanded off, the playing is still pretty combustible, making it an intriguing opener.
“The Perfect Time to Feel Better” is a medley combining “Time to Go” and “The Perfectionist” with a bit of “We Hope You’re Feeling Better.” The tune sounds like something that could be played at a Cracker Barrel wedding, with strings again entirely reshaping the vibe of the punchy rock tune. It’s relaxed but not boring.
The original version of “Images” opens with a haunting piano melody that aches of loneliness. This version loses its melancholic power for a happier sounding tone. Sadler restructures the vocal lines to stay more ‘between the lines” in range, and acoustic percussion lightly propels things along until the final minute, when the pace slightly quickens and a banjo joins the ensemble. It never really takes off, though, and this is one track that worked better in original form, even though it was a soft ballad to begin with.
“You Were Always There” retains much of its original vocal melody, and rolls along in a more subdued fashion, but the solid songwriting reveals its strength in this stripped-down version, and Crichton plays a tasty acoustic solo section that sounds like nothing I’ve ever heard him play before. I miss his signature tone, but respect the way he’s reinvented himself to offer something new to this record.
“Prelude #1” is a short, acoustic guitar interlude that further reveals the degree of reinvention Crichton has undergone here. It leads into a softer version of an already soft tune, “Say Goodbye to Hollywood,” that features Jim Gilmour on lead vocals. In all honesty, Gilmour’s voice never seemed to reach the professional standards of Sadler, though it provides a unique counter point to their typical sound. This track suffers from being perhaps closer to its original than others, and therefore seems less intriguing than most of the record. Crichton’s guitar work is delicate and distinct from his typical delivery.
“Prelude #2” is another short acoustic diddy that’s pleasant, though not particularly compelling. “The Right Side of the Other Hall” is an upbeat track that plays very different from its frenetic original rendition, and this one features some nice piano and drums interplay, along with layers of Sadler’s vocals that move closer to the classic Saga sound. The middle breakdown section is almost something out of a renaissance fair, morphing into a funky groove that Sadler croons over. This track works well despite its relationship to a rockier original, and one could envision this being played late at night in a small jazz bar on a cruise ship. Perhaps that’s just a hope for 2022’s Cruise to the Edge from one listener.
“La Foret Harmonieuse” features Gilmour on piano and some light vocals from Sadler. Again, pleasant though not particularly memorable.
The next track is one of Saga’s bigger hits. “Wind Him Up” is a fantastic track in original form, with dated, thumping electric drums providing an essential aspect of the rocking ode to one man’s gambling addiction. It has tension and fantastic instrumental interplay, all of which are sadly missing in this laid-back acoustic version. Though this rendition features some nice acoustic guitar and cello interplay, it’s probably a song that suffers from too much strength in its original form to stand up in this format. An uninitiated Saga listener might have a different experience than this jaded one.
“No Regrets” in its original form was another softer tune with Gilmour on lead vocals, and this version is not dramatically different, though Gilmour’s piano and clarinet performances are nicely executed here.
Wrapping up the record is “Tired World,” originally from the 1978 debut album. This memorable track is pretty timeless, working well 42 years later in a deconstructed, acoustic arrangement. Crichton plays an unexpected banjo while strings deftly carry the staccato center section previously dominated by electric guitar. It’s a great melody that holds up strongly and showcases just how different Saga sounds when you take away the signature elements that make up their unique voice.
In the end, props must be given to Saga for resisting the easy road of releasing a watered-down version of what we’ve already heard before. There are new things to discover in these acoustic renditions, with a lot of rework and effort put in to make this something different. And different it is. Is it the new record I was hoping for from Saga? Absolutely not. But respect must be given for the care and effort put into what could easily have been a haphazard effort.
I’m very happy to have Saga back and eager for a chance to finally see them live after years of failed attempts. I can only hope they’ll follow up this effort with at least one more studio record that features those crazy tandem keys and guitar runs with fat drums and Sadler unleashed at his rocking best. That would be a real beauty, eh?
Released By: earMusic
Release Date: March 12th, 2021
- Michael Sadler / vocals
- Ian Crichton / guitar
- Jim Gilmour / synthesizer, keyboards
- Mike Thorne / drums
- Dusty Chesterfield / bass
- The Perfect Time To Feel Better – Time To Go – The Perfectionist – We Hope You’re Feeling Better
- Images – Chapter 1
- Always There
- Prelude # 1
- Say Goodbye To Hollywood
- Prelude # 2
- The Right Side Of The Other Hall – Footsteps in the Hall -On The Other Side You Were Right
- La Foret Harmonieuse
- Wind Him Up
- No Regrets – Chapter 5
- Tired World – Chapter 6
Rising from the ashes of retirement, Saga returns with a record that is an intentional departure from their established sound, delivering a tame but at times interesting listen with some new twists as a result of reworking old songs on acoustic instruments.