The Symmetry of Saga
Talking with frontman Michael Sadler about the most unique album of the Canadian prog greats’ four decades in rock
On March 12, seminal Canadian prog rockers Saga released Symmetry, a studio album that is like no other in the band’s four-decade career.
Taking some of their well-known songs (and deep cuts) from across their 20+ albums, they created acoustic versions that are anything but mild. After looking at fans’ reactions online when the album was announced, however, vocalist Michael Sadler wants to clear up one thing about this release.
“There’s been a few comments from people who are really clinging to the original [songs]: ‘You can’t really replace the original.’ Well, it’s not meant to,” Sadler says. “That’s the misconception. We are not releasing the [original] songs and just playing them on acoustic instruments. It’s a reimagining. So it is new material, in that sense.”
In fact, Sadler says he and his bandmates went out of their way to make Symmetry as unpredictable as possible. “The obvious thing would have been to take the ballads or medium tempo songs that were easy to transcribe into this kind of thing,” he says, “but we thought, ‘Let’s give ourselves a challenge and take some of the bigger songs that rely on a lot of guitar and keyboards and break those down. It’s going to be much more difficult for us, and more of a surprise for the audience, as well.’ It was very tricky.”
The idea to do this type of album came during Saga’s 2017 European tour to commemorate their 40th anniversary as a band. “We basically opened for ourselves,” Sadler says. “We would come out before our own show and play five or six songs in an acoustic setting. We called ourselves Pockets, which was the name of the band way, way back in the beginning, before we changed it to Saga. And it was great.”
VIDEO: Saga “On The Loose” (Live 2017)
Though the band recorded some of these performances, with the idea that they’d release it one day, nothing came of it – until 2020, when the band was forced to cancel the rest of their tour dates due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Casting about for something to do while they were stuck at home, Sadler says they realized this was the perfect time to revisit this acoustic project. “It had already kind of begun, so we just took it to the next level,” he says.
Known for his powerful vocals, Sadler shows he’s equally adept at working with Symmetry’s more stripped-down music, as well. It’s a skill he first began learning when he was growing up just outside of Toronto, Canada. “I was singing in a church choir since I was about eight years old until I was about fifteen or so,” he says.
Despite his singing ability, Sadler admits that he very nearly went down an entirely different career path. “As I left the church choir, the first year of high school, I was actually very interested in football,” he says, noting that he’d shown significant talent as a wide receiver. “The day of the tryouts for the team, I made the cut. I was so happy!”
Later that same day, though, tragedy struck: “I was watching some TV, and I went to stand up – and I couldn’t straighten my leg. I ended up with a thing called Osgood-Schlatter Disease, and I had to have a cast on for six weeks. A full cast from hip to ankle. So goodbye football, hello music.”
Sadler decided to return to singing, but he didn’t rejoin to the choir. Instead, he says, “There was a band in town that was a three-piece blues band – they were all older guys in their twenties. I ended up joining that band. I was the singer for an authentic sort of Chicago blues band – white kid from Oakville, fifteen years old, singing the blues!” he says with a laugh. After that, he played in a Top 40 covers band.
Still, Sadler says, this work didn’t seem right for him, either – but then, he heard a band called Gentle Giant, and it changed the way he viewed music entirely. “They were like the godfathers of prog [rock],” he says, “and I remember thinking to myself, ‘I don’t know what that is, but I want to start music making music like that.’”
Unfortunately, by this point, Sadler’s dissatisfaction with playing cover songs had led him to not only quit the Top 40 band, but stop singing entirely. “I got out of the [music] business for about a year and a half – I had a straight job at the time. I was actually selling graphic arts. Company car, three-piece suit, the whole bit,” he says.
Some of Sadler’s former bandmates convinced him to come and sing some of their songs at a rehearsal, just for fun. The experience was so good, he says, that “I went to work the next day and came home and looked in the mirror and didn’t recognize myself. I was remembering the night before, and I thought, ‘What am I doing?’” He quit that job and joined the band, and Saga was born. From the start, it was clear that with this group, he was finally on the right track.
“We had a common goal, in terms of musicality,” Sadler says. “We wanted it to be interesting and different, and each one of our personalities, as much as possible, infused in the music. It wasn’t a cold, calculated, ‘Let’s put together this instrumentation and we’ll play a certain way.’ It was just, ‘We’ll do what we feel good and natural doing.’” In 1978, the band released their self-titled debut album.
Though the band’s initial efforts were critically well received, things changed significantly with their fourth album, 1981’s Worlds Apart. “When we did the album in England with [producer] Rupert Hine, I remember he looked at me and said, ‘Okay, Michael, listen: here’s the deal. We know you can sing. There’s no question about that. Now, what I want you to do is forget everything you learned.’ I just kind of looked at him like, ‘What?’ What he was trying to say was, ‘It doesn’t have to be perfect. That’s not what you’re doing here. You’re presenting the song. Live the song. Don’t worry about all your training. That’s going to come naturally.’”
AUDIO: Saga Worlds Apart (1981) (full album)
This new approach worked: a single from Worlds Apart, “On the Loose,” became a mainstay on the fledgling MTV network in the U.S., and the band hit number three on the charts there and in several other countries. That established them as one of the leading prog rock bands in the world, and they’ve retained that status ever since.
Even after four decades of success, Sadler says that he hasn’t become complacent about his work, though. “I still get nervous walking onstage after forty-plus years,” he says. “The day that I don’t feel nervous before going onstage is the day I will pack it in, because at that point I would have to say to myself, ‘It’s just become a job and it’s routine.’ If it starts to turn into that I will say, ‘That’s enough.’”
Until the pandemic restrictions ease and Saga can get back to touring, Sadler says he’s found some silver linings, such as spending significant time with his family at their home (which is “in an undisclosed location in the Midwest,” he says).
This time off the road also “gives us a lot of time to write, as you can imagine,” Sadler says. In fact, he wants Saga fans to know that he and his bandmates have no intention of letting the pandemic – or anything else – stop them from continuing their work. “We have no sign of slowing down from this end. We can’t wait to get back onstage and get a new studio album out as soon as possible. I can’t imagine being in a state where I’m not wondering, ‘What am I going to do next?’”
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