dvd & video review
Access all areas? Not really.
I’m writing this review after watching the basic edition of “Access all areas”, the first version I have received. First of all, I thoroughly recommend you the acquisition of the special 2DVD edition, with an additional DVD from the Marathon Tour 2003, released some months ago separately through Saga’s website (this is also the document of the last tour with their classic drummer Steve Negus, who left the band the same year).
As some of you might know, I’ve been following the career of this band for more than twenty years. I consider myself fan enough as to have shown several times my love and support for the players and their music, but also fan enough as to be critic if necessary. Saga has been a band which has tried hard to find a place in a complex musical scene. They have tried to avoid –at least, until recently- to stick only to the same old formula: albums like “Generation 13” or even “Pleasure and the pain” show it clearly. They could have made much less, they could have simply become a carbon copy of their past of twenty five years. They haven’t. But they are capable of more, either in their studio work or in their other releases. I still remember the remastered editions of their previous albums, with supposed extras that ended being at best some bonus live track (sometimes an audio track, sometimes a video track, sometimes simply a Screensaver, sometimes you wouldn’t know).
“Access all areas wants” to be the chronicle of the concert held up in Bonn, celebrating the 25th anniversary of the band, with the additional interest of the coincidence in time with their most solid album since “G13”, “House of cards” (the better from their “neoclassic trilogy”, completed with “Full Circle” and “Marathon”). The presence of very special guests was expected (there were rumors of the appearance of James La Brie or even Brian May), but it didn’t happened, so we finally experienced a very good gig, with all the usual stuff and some surprises… I know it perfectly well because I was there (I traveled alone from Barcelona only for the event). Unfortunately, the absence of the promised guests and the cancellation of the announced after-gig party in a centric music bar diluted the charm of a night to remember.
Two years later the video recording of the concert finally sees the light of day, and I must say that the result is not completely satisfactory. Why? First of all, some of the songs of the original setlist have been deleted. I’m missing at least, “Night to remember”, “The flyer” (¡), “On the loose” (¡!), “Always there”, “Entracte”, “God knows” and, if I’m not mistaken, “Scratching the surface”. As you can see, some of the omissions are really surprising and it ends up in a feeling of unbalancing. It might be the consequence of some technical problem, which would justify all the successive delays of the release of this DVD (scheduled originally for the end of 2002). Consequently, we face an incomplete document. But then we face an additional problem: the decision, hard for me to understand, to separate each song with a fade to black. I could try to justify it some way or another in a live audio recording, but hardly in this case. Another technical problem? It may be. Finally, I have to point a conceptual problem from my point of view: the video recording focus mainly on what is happening onstage and not much on the audience. We can see recent examples of concert DVD releases where the audience has a very especial role (as the excellent REM’s “Perfect Square” and the mesmerizing Rush “Live in Rio”), but here the audience is only a resource to be used now and then. And the problem is that what’s on stage is not that interesting. Saga band members are really rock hard working men, they play and play, they sweat each and every single minute of gigs over two hours (this was two hours and a half originally). But their scenic appeal nowadays resides almost exclusively in their singer Mike Sadler. They don’t use great stage effects either (not projections, just the usual lighting): we have just the impressive keyboard set of Jim Gilmour, the performance of Mike and some details of the guitar playing of Ian Crichton to break the visual monotony of the set (I can’t help feeling amazed while seeing in various shots, a camera operator next to Ian ready to take a close up of their hands during a solo, but we never actually see this shot!).
Because of the songs deleted for this DVD version, I’ve found an additional problem: there are too many mini-epic songs together or very close, the original chapters and songs from the first albums in the same vein (I like to talk of “trailer-epics”, as for their structure of condensation of ideas and emotions in short format for progressive standards). Contrast is then lost, as it could seem that Saga has only one register (which is not true, see again “G13”). For instance, “Remember when” (the “Full circle” opener) is an update of “Don’t be late”, while “We’ll meet again” (from “House of cards”) is a new interpretation of “Careful where you step”. They are different songs and Saga have anyway perfect right to do that, but it can let you think the gig was too repetitive, which is a shame, because it wasn’t. In retrospective, I must also point out that Steve’s drum solo, titled “A brief case”, was not as good as I’m used to, even if it was a duo with Mike playing electronic percussion on a case, which was indeed funny.
What could we find then in this release to justify its interest beyond completion? Well, the songs remain the same, and they are very good in general. The playing is also great and you can still experience the best moments of the night, especially, some early songs, rarely played live, like “Compromise”, “Time’s up”, “See them smile” and “Take it or leave it” (these two, from the “Images at twilight” album, are fortunately linked together, and the continuity effect between the two make them the best moment in the DVD). The sound is also very good, and most of the songs are technically perfect. I have to single out the classics, from “Careful where you step” to “Wind him up”, “Don’t be late”, “Humble stance” and “You’re not alone”, together with some of the new songs with more punch, like “The one” or “The runaway”.
My friend Alfonso, who knows very well my devotion to Saga, thought that I would end this review saying that Access all areas was the definitive live album from the band. Nothing would have pleased me more, but I can’t say so. Ironically, maybe the definitive concert of the band, if we refer to video, is actually scattered in various albums, as bonus tracks or in the first DVD, “Silhouette”: it is the extraordinary “Head or Tales” tour from 1984, with these rock working men at their stage peak. I can’t really understand why this concert has never been released in its entirety, as one set: it could be the best gift for Saga fans twenty years later.
As for the future, with a stage finished and a new drummer, Christian Simpson, I must say I’m still excited about Saga (“Marathon” has some great moments), but also a little bit worried. Saga is still a good band, but they are –it is not the first time, anyway- in a crossroad. They know that we will wait.