Progressive Rock/Metal

Saga – Network

I should start off by saying that I’m no expert on the band Saga. Back in the early 80s, when their song “On the Loose” was big on U.S. radio, I bought the album Worlds Apart and enjoyed it. From time to time, I considered getting another Saga album, but never quite got around to it. So when an email went out to Ground and Sky reviewers asking if anyone was interested in review copies of a couple new Saga albums, I jumped on them.
Saga is one of those bands that are clearly influenced by prog, but sound like an 80s pop band at heart. Think along the lines of Planet P Project or Styx. The latter of those two is probably the closest comparison, but while I’ve grown much less fond of Styx over the years, Saga still sounds pretty good. Maybe it’s because Michael Sadler’s vocals, while bearing a distinct similarity to Dennis DeYoung, are a bit less effeminate sounding. Or maybe it’s because Saga is unapologetically pop, without Styx’s pretentions. And I’d say Saga has a slight edge in the chops department. Whatever the reason, I’m finding myself enjoying this, their new CD, more than I expected.

Network is a concept album about how television news shows are constantly trying to improve their ratings by scaring people. The opening lyrics of “Live at Five” sum it up pretty well: “We are working on it every day / to fill you full of doubt / The clock is tickin’ and we won’t get paid / unless we knock you out.” It’s ground that has been covered by others recently, but since people still tune in to that sort of thing, maybe it’s a message that needs to be repeated. And the band does a pretty good job of pulling off the concept, both musically and lyrically, despite the occasional misstep (like the power ballad “Believe,” which is the weakest song on the album, doesn’t fit the concept, and seems like it was only thrown in to have a sensitive ballad on the disc). The lyrics also take a direct jab at the Bush administration and their color-coded terrorist threat levels in the final song “Don’t Make a Sound”: “Isn’t it strange / how the colours will change / but the level of fear / never quite disappears.”

The CD definitely has an 80s feel to it — in fact, when it was playing in the car a couple weeks ago my wife asked what it was, because she thought she knew all the 80s albums I owned. She was surprised to hear that it was a new release. One change from the “On the Loose” days: the music sounds much more guitar dominated nowadays. The keyboards that were all over “Worlds Apart” are still there, but they’re largely buried in the background. There is one little “twinkling” keyboard sound that reoccurs throughout the album that gets fairly irritating after a while. Overall the album doesn’t have as many “hooks” as Worlds Apart, but it does have enough to keep bringing me back to this CD.

The review copy that I got is the “special edition”, which includes a bonus DVD with a 5.1 surround sound mix of the album. It’s well done, using the extra channels mostly to separate the instruments — the keyboards are generally in the back speakers, the vocals in the center speaker, etc. There’s a bit of “look what we can do” here and there — the keyboard pattern that starts the first track swirls slowly around the room, a siren sound effect in another song moves around, etc. But they don’t beat you over the head with it. And they give you something to watch while you listen, which is nice. When the vocals are present, the lyrics are shown on screen (in case you’re in the mood for some Saga karaoke), and during instrumental passages we see images of outer space, old stock footage, cartoons, pictures of the band in concert and, amusingly, a “technical difficulties” card. The occasional images of Einstein tie this album in nicely with their other 2005 release, The Chapters Live.

If you’ve heard Saga in the past and liked them, then the chances are good that you’d enjoy Network. Their formula is pretty much the same as it was back in the 80s, with a shift to a slightly heavier sound. The DVD is a pretty nice bonus. On the other hand, if Asia gives you hives and you change the radio station when “On the Loose” comes on, then this definitely isn’t a disc for you.

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