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Progressive Rock CD Reviews

Saga

The Human Condition

Review by Bill Knispel

This is Saga reborn for the later end of the 21st century’s first decade. Saga has gotten heavier while still maintaining several of the classic Saga elements. As Ian Crichton puts it, “It’s still us, of course with a different twist, some of the ideas on the CD are more prog than before.” I do think Jim Gilmour’s keyboards could either be mixed higher, or he could pick patches that are less guitar like (this is something that bothers me about Jordan Rudess at times with Dream Theater...he can pick patches that sound so close to a distorted guitar that it can be difficult to discern his playing until he steps out to solo at times)…he’s shown himself to be a very able player, and he should be showcased more. Ian Crichton is as strong as ever on guitar, and his brother Jim’s bass playing is solid and in the pocket. Jim pairs up exceedingly well with Brian Doerner (ex-Helix) on drums, and they are the pulse that drives Saga’s music forward.

Of course, everyone is curious how new boy Rob Moratti carries himself. His singing is good. His voice is perhaps a little less unique than Michael Sadler’s…Sadler has a voice that you immediately recognise, and Moratti simply can’t match that personality. He handles the material very well, and I can’t agree with some criticism I have read that says his voice is flat and featureless. Having said that, he’s simply not a Michael Sadler clone. That’s a good thing for Saga in a way…the new guy sounds different, and that means change and growth. I might have been more upset had they picked a clone, as it’d infer a fear of change that would result in stagnancy and petrifaction/ossification.

I think it’s going to take some getting used to a far different voice fronting Saga…the proof is going to be in how Moratti handles the classic material in a live setting, and we’ll find that out soon. One hopes Saga gives Moratti more than one album to prove himself, unlike some bands who changed singers and only gave the new guy one album and tour before hanging it up (coughGenesiscough)…The Human Condition is a solid, if sometimes unspectacular rebirth of a band for a new generation of listeners.

Track by Track Review
The Human Condition
On first listen I had to stop the CD player, remove the disc, and ensure I was listening to Saga and not an old Dream theater album (or release from any of the “DT Clones” for lack of a better term).  I don’t know that I have ever heard Saga as heavy as they are here.  Keyboards are at their most prominent on this track, and the playing is intense; one unison section in particular reminds so heavily of Dream Theater that again I had to look to see where it might have come from.  Not much is here in the way of vocals; Moratti’s voice is heavily processed for his only contribution on this piece, but the opening track does offer hope that Saga is not ready to rest on its laurels with a new guy in tow.
Step Inside
Lest one think that the heaviness on the title track was an anomaly, it carries on with “Step Inside.”  The band plows forward in almost merciless form, and when it’s time for the vocals to come in…one isn’t sure how to really react.  Moratti’s got a nice enough voice, but he’s no Michael Sadler.  In some ways, that’s the genius of this decision.  Unlike bands such as Journey who went out of their way to find someone who sounded as close to Steve Perry as possible with their newest singer, Saga found a different voice entirely.  I think it’s a bit "generic" for lack of a better word to use, but he acquits himself nicely here.  Ian Crichton’s guitar playing is excellent here…he is truly one of the most under-rated guitar players on the planet.
Hands of Time
After the heavy double shot that opened The Human Condition, some subtlety and shift in mood is required.  “Hands of Time” fits this need perfectly, with gently keys and guitar setting the scene for some wonderfully plaintive vocals from Moratti.  I doubt it was necessarily intended, but having back to back tracks showcasing heavier and gentler singing from the band’s newest member was excellent track programming.  The arrangement is sublime, the playing purposeful and beautiful, and the vocals superb.  This is one of the stronger pieces on The Human Condition.
Avalon
If any song on here sounds like older Saga, it’s “Avalon,” with a title and synth sounds that seem lifted right out of the 1980’s.    This is the kind of song Michael Sadler would have driven to radio airplay and hit status in the early 1980s.  It’s poppy, it bounces, and despite the somewhat mid-tempo feel of the piece, it’s perhaps the biggest highlight on the album, showing that Saga can still craft a hell of a catchy, hooky pop song that still offers something for the more discerning muso listening.
A Number With a Name
Some cool keyboards and a skittering guitar line introduce “A Number With a Name,” the fifth composition on The Human Condition.  I’m not sure of Moratti’s vocals are processed or simply multi-tracked, but they have an odd dimension to them throughout that is a bit disarming from time to time.  As always the band is in fine form, and while the song is perhaps not quite as strong as the previous “Avalon,” it’s still a fine piece of work.
Now is Now
Another laid back track, “Now is Now” is an interesting mix of 1980’s power ballad and Saga pomposity.  Moratti lets loose with some nice high pitched vocals, but in the end, this piece seems a bit more fluff than anything else.  It’s not the most memorable composition here, and while all parties involved acquit themselves with the utmost in effort, the final result just falls flat.
Let it Go
“Let it Go” more than makes up for the shortcomings of the previous piece, with the band playing with fire in their collective bellies, and Moratti singing his lungs out.  It’s hard to say whose contribution is more impressive here…Moratti’s vocals, which seem to have finally fit in and no longer stick out as sounding wrong, Crichton’s guitar playing, Jim Gilmour’s keyboards (which I think could have been mixed higher throughout), Iam Crichton’s bass playing, or Brian Doerner’s drumming.  It’s just an intense piece overall.
Crown of Thorns
Another heavier track, “Crown of Thorns” almost verges toward the angry at times, as Moratti practically spits out lyrics with some not unsubtle social commentary in them.  Gilmour’s keyboards get a bit more space to work here, but when the full band kicks in, they become almost non-existent again, which is a shame, as he is a fine player.
You Look Good to Me
The Human Condition closes out with a track that again looks to the past in some ways while sounding entirely set in the present.  “You Look Good To Me” even sounds like it could have been taken from an older Saga album, title wise.  We get a bit of funkiness, some nice change-ups beat wise, and some almost playful vocals from Moratti.  The classic Saga pomp comes to the fore here, and the song is all the better for it.  “You Look Good to Me” is another highlight on this release, and another good sign that the band still has it in them to carry on.
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