The new studio album from Saga, and the sixth consecutive album with the definitive lineup: lead keyboardist Jim Gilmour & original drummer Steve Negus reentered the fold on 1993's The Security Of Illusion after a seven-year absence during which they formed their own group, Gilmour-Negus Project/GNP. Gilmour and Negus had been ousted from the band during the recording of Behaviour (1985), an album that marked a drastic but not unexpected stylistic shift that favored a leaner (read: commercial), hook-based sound. Rounding out the lineup are founding members Jim Crichton (bass/synths), Ian Crichton (guitars), and the irreplaceable Michael Sadler on vocals and keyboards.
Since 1999's Full Circle (a much-lauded return to form following the abysmal Pleasure And The Pain just two years prior) Sagafans have been experiencing the second wave of the Chapters—an extended, multi-part sci-fi epic (see Saga under Past Present Classics)—a complete set of eight new tracks based on Jim Crichton's original narrative. Marathon is still a modern work, not as retro as Full Circle, and a bit less organic-sounding than it could—and should—be, with its state-of-the-art production values, Pro Tools arrangements, and steadfast endorsement of Korg synthesizers. Yes, this is 2003, but Moog synths (which the band used almost exclusively on their first five albums) have a timeless reverence for a reason—and sounds which modern synth-workstations cannot replace. Perhaps Jim Gilmour could test-drive the new E-Mu Vintage Pro?
First things, first: Sadler still sounds great, his pipes carefully preserved as parchment in an airless seal. His is one of those instantly-recognizable voices, not without imitators. That's no surprise, but what is, is that Marathon is largely guitar-driven, more so than usual—Ian Crichton has always had to make do in what is essentially a 'keyboard' band (not that anyone, including this reviewer, ever complained). Ironically, Ian's struggle to fill his niche led to the development of a unique style typified by his trademark squealing trills. Ian's presence is bolder than ever on the quasi-metallic title track, with its power chords and thundering chorus section. The energy doesn't let up on "How Are You?" wherein the guitar line assumes what would normally be a keyboard lead by Jim Gilmour (refer to "Careful Where You Step" from the classic 1980 Saga favorite, Silent Knight). "Breathing Lessons" will no doubt be a single with its harmless keyboard textures and simplistic lyrics, e.g., I know how to lock & load it/& I know how to crack and de-code it. Simple can be good, but mundane is another issue, entirely.
Like its predecessor, House Of Cards, Marathon is not without filler: "Hands Up" is another ear-friendly, template-cut pop-rock number which threatens to slow down the album's momentum. It's a good thing, then, that the next track is "Streets Of Gold (Chapter 14)," blessed with its inspired verses & choruses and Gilmour's synth wizardry; Ian also anoints the tune with a syrupy, legato solo. Still, Jim Crichton's Korg synthbass simply makes one yearn for his old Multimoog & Minimoog. Being the fifth song in, "Streets Of Gold" is still the best one, so far. More filler: "The Blind Side Of Your Heart" is heartfelt drivel which would be more at home on Wildest Dreams or Beginner's Guide To Throwing Shapes, their mid-80s albums. "Return To Forever" is no fusion affair—it's an uptempo pomp-rocker again fuelled by Ian's hi-octane fretboard chordings. Quite a fun track, if Jim Gilmour's keyboards are again undermixed, blending in with the background aural tapestry—a problem which commonly results from the recording and pasting via software tools instead of "in-house."
"Too Deep" is a little better, a tad reminiscent of "Cat Walk" or "Social Orphan" from 1982's Heads Or Tales (an album which usually makes Sagafans' Top-5 lists). Gilmour's vocoder is even onhand, just like in the good ol' days. Grandiose synthstrings pad out the track—louder, this time, but still a bit lost in in the middle register. The going gets good with "You Know I Know (Chapter 12)": Gilmour serves up a nice analog-y lead and more vocoder, and Sadler's performance may be his best on this disc. As with all the Chapters, the lyrics continue the SF trend of an apocalyptic future on the Terran horizon, involving insectoid invaders & human refugees. "Rise And Shine" is another potential single—and, surprisingly, not a dip in the road, this time, but much better than "Breathing Lessons" or "The Blind Side Of Your Heart." Tasty acoustic work by Ian, and a suspiciously trip-hop drumline combine with Sadler's poignant vocal to make this a pleasurable 3-˝ minutes.
The curiously-titled "Worlds Apart" (as they called their famous 1981 album) is the final, sixteenth Chapter…The end of the 'saga' is a mixed-bag: the Crichtons & Gilmour work their magic, but Negus keeps everything on a leash with a 4/4 beat which seldom breaks free; the lyrics are also nothing special, unfit for what should be a standout cut and album closer—an anticlimactic conclusion. Still, 7 out of 11 ain't bad: on par with House Of Cards, yet several notches down from the near-perfect Full Circle.
"It's Time" to fess up: the art direction on the album is fab! Eric Fulghum returns to provide the cover art and close to two dozen interior b&w illustrations of the insect warrior who's now graced five album covers, lending a comic book feel to the overall package with storyboard panels.
Saga are currently touring Western Europe in support of Marathon, soon to play Canada (unless they are already en route). The current setlist draws largely from their early period—the rest of us in the USA cross our fingers and hold our breaths in the remote possibility that Saga might stage a show in the States. Until then, we have the music.