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Saga: Saga (1978)

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Oh, you mean those guys that had that huge single back in the 80s, “On The Loose”?

Sad but true. This is how most people remember Saga, one of the most unique musical entities to emerge from Canada or the world within the last three decades. Their eponymous debut, released in 1978, was a collision of symphonic-progressive and arena rock styles, streamlined into an accessible hybrid that didn’t compromise the players’ integrity. A Saga trademark was, and still is, the prominence of synthesizers in their sound, a mutual openness between members towards electronics in a musical role, and not consigned exclusively as bastions of experimentation. By the late 1970s, synthesizers were typically found in the arsenals of artists like Tangerine Dream, Yellow Magic Orchestra, Vangelis, Isao Tomita, Jean-Michel Jarre, Kraftwerk and Synergy—acts widely regarded to not produce genuine rock music.

In the mid-1970s, drummer Steve Negus, bassist Jim Crichton, and keyboardist Peter Rochon left Fludd to form a new band; they found their frontman in Truck vocalist and keyboardist Michael Sadler, who also played bass. The quintet was complete once Jim added his younger guitar-playing brother, Ian, to the fold. From the outset, the members of Pockets, as they called themselves, swore off cover songs—to bother with them would be backsliding; the future was grounded in original music. As the story goes, Michael would stop by Jim’s pad to write during breaks from his shift as a cab driver; successively, the band notched more and more songs under their collective belt. By the time the first gig was booked in the early summer of 1977, Pockets had enough material for a full two-hour set.

Some prog purists contended the virtuosic superfluity that groups like Yes and King Crimson were known for was countered by degrees of tunesmithing in Pockets’ music. Clearly, this wasn’t a band so much as an ensemble, and Sadler wasn’t exactly the typical showman, choosing to remained seated at his keyboards, side-by-side with Rochon—who also sang backing vocals—a stance more on par with a jazzman’s. Additionally, the pervasiveness of electronic synths wasn’t balanced by a real Hammond organ, Clavinet or Mellotron. Considering the Hammond’s marked unwieldiness & the ‘Tron’s reputation for instability, those beasts of old were eschewed in favor of newer, portable analog synths. Several Moog units and at least one by Roland—possibly a Jupiter 4, considering the time—were employed. Rochon’s preferred platform for soloing on was the Minimoog, and he may have had a second one, or a Multimoog. Jim Crichton played many bass parts & accompaniments on a Multimoog & Minimoog, while Steve Negus triggered a Micromoog with a Moog drum controller.

Less-than-endearing assessments didn’t invalidate Pockets’ motives nor their music—they had a game plan and were sticking to it. Close to one year after their debut in an intimate club roughly an hour from their home base of Toronto, their eponymous first album hit record stores after a deal was inked with Polydor Records. The versions on the album are basically the same well-rehearsed demos recorded in Toronto’s Phase One Studios, with producer Paul Gross. There was one noticeable change: in keeping with their long-term objective, the band members unanimously agreed to change their name to Saga, a term which denotes a “long story.” The first two tracks, “How Long”—a rock-steady number that was easy on the ear—and “Humble Stance”—a “space-rock waltz”—were the singles; each made a modest dent in North American FM charts, but generated quite a buzz in Europe, primarily Germany and the Netherlands (where they remain very popular to this day). Over thirty-thousand units of the album would sell in Germany alone.

Saga acquainted rock ‘n’ roll audiences with a band who were clearly a few years ahead of their time. The double-edged prong that was Rochon & Sadler’s multi-keyboard attack affirms this is a synth-lover’s album, with swell, sweeps, pads & unison lines. It’s Negus who’s actually heard first: the sequence of notes in hi-hat fashion on the aforementioned Micromoog and controller are him, at the start of “How Long.” Anchored by Ian’s bluesy guitar lead, it must have sounded like the ultimate fusion of blues-rock and space-rock in 1978. The waltz-like shuffle of “Humble Stance” and its infectious vocal melody is like an insect to adhesive paper—hard to shake once you hear it; a dash of harpsichord is added for an indirectly-medieval flavor, while the song’s (and album’s) defining moment is a dignified Minimoog solo by Rochon. Straight out of the Book of Moraz, realtime-modulating and careful phrasing supplants banal flurries of sextuplets, septuplets and octuplets strung together like popcorn on a string. One of the most beloved tunes in Saga’s repertoire, “Perfectionist” also houses one of the best synthesizer riffs ever heard, while the laidback space grooves of “Climbing The Ladder” wouldn’t sound out of place on a Gary Numan album. [Note: generous hands-on-keyboards footage can be viewed during a live performance of “Perfectionist” and other songs on the new DVD, Silhouette.]

“Will It Be You?”, the album’s most aggressive track, is subtitled Chapter Four. The Chapters are a long-form apocalyptic sci-fi concept, developed initially by Jim Crichton. The Chapters do not appear in order: eight installments are scattered over the course of the first four albums, and a second series of eight were conceived for the three most recent albums, beginning with Full Circle in 1999 (a total of sixteen). Much debate has been made as to what the Chapters entail, and whether they comprise a dream sequence, or a vision (or not), but they are some sort of chronicle concerning an alien invasion and the threat of human extinction.

A recent bit of news suggests the Chapters document the exploits of a synthetic, sentient entity which inhabits a future Earth following the dissolution of human civilization. This reasoning would alternately suggest that scattered groups of humans may attempt an uprising against this being and its kind, in a human-and-insect role reversal. To date, Jim Crichton has not gone on record to explicitly set down exactly what this “saga” is about, and he probably never will. The covers of the first four albums— Saga (1978), Images At Twilight (1979), Silent Knight (1980), and Worlds Apart (European pressing; the USA pressing bears the famous “sunglasses” cover)—and the latest three—Full Circle (1999), House Of Cards (2001), and Marathon (2003)—all feature artwork visualizing elements found in the Chapters, complete with insectoid soldiers resembling locusts and destruction of an urban metropolis.

Its torturous cadence only relenting when the lines Will it be you? and/or Will it be me? are sung, “Will It Be You?” has no proper chorus, only a resolution. The lyrics blatantly document an attack, a battle; assuming the engagement is between humans and nonhumans, logic would dictate that the song assumes the PoV of the invaders—who may actually be the humans, in an attempt to recover something of vital interest:

Are you quite sure you’ve grown so strong/ Since last we met it’s not been long/ Will it be me, will it be me, will it be you?

If you bring some you know I’ll have one better/ What you want to know I’ll own forever

My contact’s made with your feeble raid/ Your fleet lies silent, black starlit grave/ Will it be me?

The overall funkiest, “Give ‘Em The Money” could very well be a reason for a prog purist to want to ignore this album, but to shun the band’s stone-solid penchant for melodic sensibility would be unjust. Ian’s guitar again manages to be the dash in the recipe which coaxes a certain quality from an otherwise basic flavor. Jim fingers a great Minimoog bass line—a total of three players helming keyboards on this track. Rochon makes good on a savory, succinct solo near the end. “Ice Nice” is simply fantastic—sans drums for the first half, Saga shaped a soulful, introspective, and at moments downright confessional ode to materialism. Found here is one of the best keyboard solos ever—it would not sound out of place on an album by SBB or Josef Zawinul [please refer to the mention of Silhouette above, where (Rochon-replacement) Jim Gilmour faithfully executes this solo on a Moog Liberation.]

Saga concludes with ”Tired World” is Chapter Six, a disturbing treatment on the price paid for ignorance and futility—speculation has it that the barrenness described indicates the extermination of the human race or a global evacuation:

A vision of buildings sitting empty/ There’s not a person to be found/ All the cars sit silently waiting/ All the leaves have fallen to the ground

Waves crash with no interruption/ There’s not a ship that you can see/ No rock is shown to change its motion/ Rhythms moving, all naturally

The Rhodes intro soon joined by Jim Crichton’s Minimoog bass, the underlying instrumentation parallels the lyrics by crescendoing to majestic heights, and terminating suddenly, with sustained strings fading out in character with a ghostly denouement.

The entire Saga catalog has been resurrected via budget-priced remasters which sound excellent; Steve Negus, in fact, is responsible for remastering every album up through 1997’s Pleasure & The Pain. Remasters couldn’t have appeared any sooner, since the first three albums sounded terrible on disc; rumor has it that they were mastered from the original vinyl! Now that these albums sound the way they’re supposed to, the time is better than ever to experience the timeless music of this Canadian export; the remasters also provide extra incentive in the form of bonus multimedia accessible via your PC. CDs may now also be purchased directly from the official web site, saga-world.com, and are available from most if not all reputable online CD vendors and Tower, Virgin, and HMV music stores.

Elias Granillo

  

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