After having survived a seemingly endless US Presidential election process in which the word CHANGE was bandied about with conflicting meanings; and depending upon who was at the podium at any given time it could be presented as a positive CHANGE for a brighter future - or a frightening alternative vision of doom. So needless to say Iíve developed a knee-jerk reaction to the word CHANGE, mindful that the very nature of the word takes me out of my comfort zone. So when change came to one of my favorite groups - SAGA, I was more than just a little apprehensive about reviewing the first Sadler-less album - THE HUMAN CONDITION. But I approached it with an open mind and fingers crossed.
The revolving door policy of most rock groups is a fact of life. Itís rare for any band to maintain the same personnel over the course of three decades, including SAGA, which has had a few personnel shifts over the years. Yet the nucleolus of the group and principle songwriters Michael Sadler and Jim Crichton remained unscathed, scarcely missing a beat in the process. So his loss was much more crucial than simply plugging in a new bassist or drummer to fill a gap Ė Sadler was the unique voice of the band. And itís that voice which makes it hard to replace Sadler without seriously altering the patented sound of SAGA.
History has shown us that itís a real crap shoot when replacing the lead vocalist in an established prog/rock band - and the results have been mixed. GENESIS survived and thrived after the loss of Peter Gabriel Ė but dissolved soon after Ray Wilson replaced Phil Collins. The band IQ languished in mediocrity during the period when Paul Menel replaced Peter Nicholls Ė luckily Nicholls returned to the fold and the group continues to maintain a level of excellence with each new album. The loss of Jon Anderson changed the chemistry and complexity of YES when Trevor Horn assumed vocal responsibilities for the recording of DRAMA, and itís doubtful the group would have gone on to perform another 20+ years and record nine additional studio albums had Anderson not returned. The departure of Fish from MARILLION marked a major change in the direction of the group when the diminutive crooner Steve Hogarth replaced the towering angry Scotsman. And in my humble opinion SPOCKíS BEARD hasnít made a good progressive rock album since the departure of Neal Morse - good rock and roll Ė but not prog/rock by any stretch of the imagination.
So what Ė if any Ė changes has the new vocalist, Rob Moratti brought to SAGA?
Well Toronto musician Rob Moratti (formally of Final Frontier) has a great set of pipes and hits all the right notes, but is indistinguishable from the bevy of generic heavy metal rock vocalist that populate the genre. And as a result a majority of the tunes on THE HUMAN CONDITION sound less like SAGA and more akin to progressive metal groups DREAM THEATER, ENCHANT, SHADOW GALLERY or QUEENSRYCHE with a bit of STYX and IT BITES tossed into the mix. The new SAGA sounds very similar to many of the groups that appeared on the Magna Carta label in the late 90sí: ALTURA, CAIRO, ENCHANT, ICE AGE, ROYAL HUNT, and UNDER THE SUN .
Now mind you, thatís a fine line-up of competent progressive metal groups, but anyone familiar with the genre can tell you Ė there is little to differentiate one from the other. So having SAGA suddenly lumped in with that company probably isnít what they had in mind when recording THE HUMAN CONDITION Ė but unfortunately thatís the way I hear it.
The title tune, THE HUMAN CONDITION starts out with a bang; the impressive light speed digital gymnastics between guitarist Ian Crichton and keyboardist Jim Gilmour is dazzling. The vocals are processed to sound more android than human, so itís unfair to critique the vocals based on this tune.
STEP INSIDE sees the band moving in a heavier QUEENSRYCHE direction. And itís at this point when you realize that this is not that same SAGA that was fronted by Michael Sadler.
HANDS OF TIME is a power ballad in the tradition of STYX or JOURNEY, and there are momentary flashes when Moratti sounds uncannily like Dennis DeYoung.
AVALON is one of my favorite songs on the album. And for a brief moment I didnít care whether it sounded like SAGA or not Ö itís an excellent tune with a great hook, and will dance around in your head long after the album is over. It ranks right up there with SAGAís best material from any era.
A NUMBER WITH A NAME recaptures the vintage SAGA sound, tossing in a hint of GENTLE GIANT and more than just a passing nod to IT BITES.
NOW IS NOW is another short power ballad reminiscent of Dennis DeYoung and STYX .
LET IT GO and CROWN OF THORNES are both stand out rockers which should appeal to fans of groups like ARENA and PALLAS Ė nothing to complain about here. By this time Moratti has won me over.
The only tune that didnít sit well with me was the final track, YOU LOOK GOOD TO ME. It begins promising enough with a quirky intro reminiscent of the Gentle Giant tune JUST THE SAME from the album FREE HAND, then degenerated into a bouncy pop tune that would be more at home on a NEW KIDS ON THE BLOCK album. Up to that point SAGA appeared to be redefining themselves as a harder edged progressive band, so the inclusion of this light weight bubble gum tune really seemed off kilter.
So to sum it up Ö this is an excellent album with one hiccup along the way Ė but is it SAGA? To my ears Ö no. But to the current line-up Rob Moratti (vocals), Ian Crichton (lead guitar), Jim Gilmour (keyboards, clarinet, vocals), Chris Sutherland (drums), Jim Crichland (bass, keyboards) Ė that hasnít kept them from making one of the best progressive metal albums of 2009.
So since my job is to review the actual music on an album and not evaluate the personnel or lament the ghosts of SAGA-past, Iíd rate the album THE HUMAN CONDITION a solid 9 out of 10 and highly recommend it to progressive rocks fans. And for those fans mourning the departure of Michael Sadler might I suggest a quick glance at the Play List below - and I refer you to tracks 6 & 7 Ö NOW IS NOW and LET IT GO.
Reviewed by Joseph Shingler on April 30th, 2009