The last of the first six Saga releases from 1978-1983 (still their best period) has finally surfaced by way of [drummer] Steve Negus's superb remastering. Prolonging the melodic penchant sanctioned by Englishman producer Rupert Hine at his farm-studios, Heads Or Tales packs as much firepower as its predecessor, Worlds Apart, and like that album, clearly bears the insignia of the 80s with a very bright aural dynamic—that skimps a bit on bass and mids—and intro-verse-chorus-verse-bridge-chorus-outro templates that hardly vary. The music is so exciting, however, that one may not give a damn.
Heads Or Tales' opening two tracks are similar to those on Worlds Apart in that they are back-to-back crushers which leave only the women and children breathing; the rhythmic schemes of "The Flyer" & "Catwalk" gel with Michael Sadler's vox into the equivalent of war cries, save the melodrama. Ian Crichton's guitar playing had reached a plateau he would sustain indefinitely; Steve Negus' drumming is anything but ordinary. Jim Crichton's bass line for "Catwalk" is one of his best: muscular, yet lean. Videos were filmed for these tracks, which made the rounds on eMpTyVee. Saga's premiere DVD release Silhouette has these, and more—"Catwalk" has some priceless moments, in a very 80s way!
All Things Saga cannot be devoid of mention of Jim Gilmour's large-scale symphonic synthesizer treatments in the form of emulated brass hits, fingered piano motifs and wirey Moogy things.
"The Sound Of Strangers" is a shuffle-borne walkabout on which Negus' percussion is as noticeable as anything else in the mix—the threat "Strangers" presents is that its uncharacteristic demeanor may be off-putting at first, but it's a highly enjoyable, smooth rock & roll track. Gilmour casts his funky timbres like dice rolls turning up 7's & 11's on one of the best Tales, concerning "The Writing" [on the wall] and what it portends; a tumultuous crescendo is built on a rapid-fire swell by Ian and the majestic synth parts. "Intermission" hides nothing in the very fact that it is what it implies, a low-key, downtempo tune light on guitar, heavy on synths (Jim Crichton plays synthbass here, as he is known to do) and electronic percussives, with lyrics delving into a man's reflection of his (wasted) life, the boy he once was, and the potential he didn't invoke. "Social Orphan" is 3-½ minutes of invigorating arena-rock—much better than its descendants, much of then-future album The Security Of Illusion would be filled with similar material. Not much can be said about "The Vendetta (Still Helpless)," the album's sole low point—if a scapegoat is to be targeted, producer Hine may be guilty by association. What might have been an interesting melody is diluted to conform to AOR principles. Next!
Fortunately, "Scratching The Surface" is a pinnacle of brilliant songcrafting; penned and sung by Jim Gilmour, and driven by an arpeggiated Moog patch (a huge sound!), Gilmour could be given props for the best vocal line on the album, next to "The Flyer" and "The Writing." When performed live, Steve Negus would play an electronic drumkit on the tier above his acoustic kit, while the Crichtons joined him on synths—Sadler usually took a break. "Pitchman" will not be easily forgotten, either—anything but the mundane sort that "Vendetta" was, the second half is almost entirely instrumental, beginning with a stunning, fusiony Moog solo by Gilmour—the rest just takes off from there. A rollercoaster ending! The remaster is closed out by a bonus track that isn't really a bonus: found on certain cassette & previous compact disc releases, "Catwalk (Unabridged)" is an extended version which showcases a much longer instrumental outro and more soloing by Ian. A perfect rating is prevented by the looming presence of something rather helpless.