Each new Saga album provokes greater levels of skepticism in the weeks immediately preceding street date. 1999's Full Circle remains a truly excellent offering that followed up the abysmal Pleasure and the Pain and set the tone for the next pair of albums, which were loaded with good ideas, yet a bit on the patchy side this is glaringly evident on 2002's Marathon, which harbored some lackluster tuneage. This time around, the band has more than made up for it, but first things, first:
There have been some changes. Original drummer Steve Negus is gone, and his replacement is the considerably younger Christian Simpson. Negus had been using a hybrid kit with triggers, so his sound as of late wasn't as beefy as earlier in his career Simpson restores the meat-and-potatoes formula with his pared-down five-piece power kit. This makes a world of difference! More importantly, no parts were "mailed in" Jim Gilmour, Ian Crichton and Simpson flew from Toronto to Los Angeles to join Michael Sadler and Jim Crichton at Sound Image Studios. Everything was recorded in-house; when all the players are in the same building, the results can be astounding. Every melodic idea on Network practically buries what was effected on Marathon and House Of Cards (with a few exceptions on the latter). Furthermore, Jim Gilmour's synthesizers surface with a fullness not heard for some time: there are passages you'll actually be able to play air keyboards to, e.g. the superb Moog solo on... Yes! Jim Crichton's Multimoog has been dusted off, helping to instill a feel more in line with Heads Or Tales and Worlds Apart. There's a lot to be excited about, here. Without looking for an excuse to be redundant, the entire sound mix is yards ahead of the last several albums; optimal separation of instrument levels makes music that much more enjoyable.
The theme is television and its protracted influence on our everyday lives. 411: "On The Air" is the best opener since "The Flyer," over twenty years ago. It's almost too good to be true. A number of elements converge within: a speedy synth arpeggio dualled by Ian Crichton on guitar; alternating atmospheric and uptempo sections; powerful drumming with rather swell Powellian fills; and, as always, the incredible voice of Michael Sadler, one of rock's most consistent vocalists (but we already know that). "Keep It Reel" is a rocker hinged on a background air raid siren sample. If Ian Crichton's Van Halen-esque riff from 2:29-2:57 isn't the best thing EVH forgot about in his notebooks, then somebody today is doing EVH better than EVH is. Factor in Simpson's heavy-handedness and Sadler's soaring vocal, and we have an FM-ready single.
"If I Were You" and "Outside Looking In" are shorter, nifty quasi-ballads (yes, those are Mellotron flutes you hear on the latter). "Don't Look Now," "Live At Five" and "Back Where We Started" are template rockers from the compositional bag that have more in common with Marathon in terms of presentation; the fiery guitar leads, huge drum sounds, mammoth bass grooves and retroline keyboard solos seem more inspired, however. Nearly every album with Jim Gilmour contains one lead vocal by him "Back Where We Started" is just that ("Scratching The Surface" and "Not This Way" still remain his top two). "Believe" is a stunning number that begins as a piano~voice duet, its resolve strengthened to a vertiginous degree with the entry of the other three.
And now on to the most retro-friendly track: "Don't Make A Sound" returns us to 1981 and 1983 without resembling an outtake or fancying a shameless longing to wax nostalgic. Nevertheless, it's a certain vibe ushered in by the fat, warm Moog sounds and the dramatic shifts this song takes, like a play in three acts, that firmly reassert what Saga does best. Gilmour's swirling orchestral flair escorts us to the banquet; pulse-wardens Simpson & [Jim] Crichton prepare the table. Sadler nails that ethereal plateau by aiming for some notes higher than usual, and
wait. The last section have mercy, spare the spoiler. Let's just say the instrumental finale will take you back. Another song of this caliber would have yielded a perfect score.
What more is there to say? Network may or may not make any new converts (that's what the first six albums are for), but if one song will, it's the closer. Will a more impassioned studio album appear this year? We'll see.
1. On The Air
2. Keep It Reel
3. I'm Back
4. If I Were You
5. Outside Looking In
6. Don't Look Now
7. Live At Five
8. Back Where We Started
10. Don't Make A Sound
Total time 49:51