Saga - "The Chapters Live"
(InsideOutMusic 2005, SPV 48712 DCD)
From Aural Innovations #33 (March 2006)
Way back in 1981, I interviewed Saga's Jim Crichton on the southern Ontario leg of their World's Apart Tour. The album Worlds Apart had found the band at the peak of their success, with two hit singles in the charts (On the Loose and Wind Him Up). But the rumour mill amongst hardcore fans was not about their current success or singles, but that the current album included the songs No Regrets (Chapter 5) and the epic No Stranger (Chapter 8). Since their first album in 1978, two chapters each had appeared on every album, out of order, but seemingly slowly bringing together a mysterious science fiction tale set to music (fuelled all the more by the fantastic album covers featuring such things as post apocalyptic city ruins and swarming alien insects). With Chapter 8 completing a set, it seemed that the story must be finished. Listening to the lyrics over and over again, we tried to piece together what it all meant. When I asked Jim Crichton, who was the bassist for the band, but also one of the principle song/lyric writers, what was up with all these "chapters" he remained enigmatic, but hinted that at some point in the future we would hear it all come together.
And so we waited. And nothing happened. Saga lost their footing in the charts. Their increasingly more commercial albums featured no new chapters, no dazzling cover art. The band found themselves more popular in Germany than in their own home country of Canada. Line up changes ensued. And eventually, it seemed, our beloved band were all but forgotten, along with their epic musical story. But after their return to a more progressive style of music with the concept album Generation 13 in 1995, the band released Full Circle in 1999, and much to the surprise and joy of their fans, two new chapters appeared, Remember When (Chapter 9) and Uncle Albert's Eyes (Chapter 13)! With each successive album, more chapters came. And finally, the entire 16-chapter saga, as Jim Crichton hinted at to me all those years ago, has come together in The Chapters Live. There is no precedent in rock music that I know of for this: a space/prog rock musical epic that was 27 years in the making.
Saga was always a hard band to classify. They had a progressive edge to their music, with complex arrangements and dazzling displays of creative virtuosity, especially from lead guitarist Ian Crichton, one of the greatest underrated guitarists of the rock era. But unlike progressive rock bands of the 70's, they eschewed long, laborious epics in favour of shorter, more commercially viable songs. But even so, their obscure, sci-fi tinged lyrics and spacey synthesizers kept them mostly out of the mainstream. Undeniably, they had a sound like no other rock band. And this was always best portrayed through their chapters segments.
It was a wise choice to do this as a live album. A collection of the studio tracks would have found them bouncing between different eras, and while the band has kept a remarkably consistent sound over the years, playing the entire saga live in 2003 (with the band's classic line-up intact) brought it all together into a more coherent whole. The story remains as enigmatic as ever, but Jim Crichton hints at what it's all about in the liner notes. The story deals with an insectoid race of extraterrestrials who find Albert Einstein's brain and revive the great thinker in a new body to act as an intermediary between them and our own race, to try to save us from our own self-destruction. But even so, if their efforts fail, they are drawing together a mysterious back-up plan.
The music begins with the haunting piano runs of Images (Chapter 1), setting the stage, but amps up into high-energy mode for the next chapter, the fan favorite Don't Be Late (Chapter 2), which features some of the first of many dazzling displays of Ian Crichton's guitar and multiple synth interplay from lead vocalist and keyboardist Michael Sadler and keyboard whiz Jim Gilmour, not to mention the incredibly tight rhythm section of Jim Crichton on bass and Steve Negus on drums. The songs remain, for the most part, in high energy mode, as was the band's style, but there are a few slower breaks, most notably the haunting No Regrets (Chapter 5) and the memorable acoustic ending of No Stranger (Chapter 8). I remember back in the day, Saga was exemplary at reproducing their songs in a live setting with such precision that you could not often tell the difference between the live and studio versions. I was happy to hear that they've loosened up a bit in live performance. The songs are still eminently recognizable, but a little more ragged around the edges, in a good way. They definitely have the punch and spontaneity of a live performance.
I find the songs of the latter half of the saga, Chapters 9 through 16, written and recorded in the band's later years, to be a little weaker than the earlier tracks. But that could just be the fact that the earlier tracks have had 25+ years to sink into my subconscious. The nostalgia factor cannot be discounted. Still, there's some great tunes in the second half, including the opener, Remember When (Chapter 9), which recaps what has gone before, and features an absolutely stunning guitar solo from Ian Crichton towards the end. The band takes a break for Not This Way (Chapter 10), which features only piano and voice to powerful effect. But the whole band is back to form for Ashes to Ashes (Chapter 11), complete with some great vocal histrionics from Sadler in the chorus. The entire saga is brought full circle with the final chapter, appropriately titled World's Apart (Chapter 16), where the alien's back up plan is at last revealed...sort of. Crichton keeps the lyrics just obscure enough to keep fans guessing.
But that's always been the tradition. Over the years, the band has received many a letter from fans speculating on the nature of the story, and they don't want that to stop. At any rate, the long, long wait has not ended in disappointment. The Chapters Live is a great live document of a band still playing at the absolute top of its form, and at long last, we have a reconciliation of all the disparate chapters of Saga's epic masterwork on a great double CD. Highly recommended.
For more information you can visit the Saga web site at: http://www.sagaontour.com.
Reviewed by Jeff Fitzgerald