Short Cuts: Saga, U.D.O., Michael Sweet

CD Review: Saga – Sagacity
earMusic/Eagle Rock Entertainment
All Access: B+

Saga -Sagacity 2014
"These are the days of the improbable," sings Saga's Michael Sadler in "The Further You Go," suggesting perhaps that modern technological advancements are the stuff of miracles.

Just in case they don't lead to the fulfillment of mankind's hopes and dreams, Saga hedges its bets with this piece of sage advice: "Might want to leave a trail of crumbs for the future." Likewise, with Sagacity, the Canadian progressive-rock code breakers' newest album, Saga looks forward, while holding fast to past triumphs.

Engineering some of the most innovative and intricately layered arrangements of their career, Saga combines Ian Crichton's brilliant guitar riffs and sparkling solos with the dazzling keyboard theatrics of Jim Crichton and Jim Gilmour on a collection of songs that trades some of the powerful immediacy of 20/20, their last LP, for deeper, richer sonic experiments and unpredictable melodic movements, such as those found in shape-shifting pieces "Vital Signs," "Luck" and "It Doesn't Matter Who You Are." While the funked-up, heavy grooves and muscular guitars of opener "Let It Slide" have a metallic edge, the bulk of Sagacity is not so straightforward, showing more devotion to the more imaginative, maze-like designs of "Don't Forget to Breathe" and "The Further You Go" – all of it produced to sound as clean and clear as of Saga's recordings, each song a city of tomorrow unto itself.

Throw in a nine-track bonus disc with thrilling, expansive live renditions of classics such as "Wind Him Up," "On the Loose," "Mouse in a Maze" and "Humble Stance," and the topical, thought-provoking Sagacity  exploring themes of modern alienation in age of social media, the satirical, customer-service lament "Press 9" being a prime example, even if it does feel utterly disposable – is a pretty good value for your prog-rock dollar.

CD Review: U.D.O. – Live From Moscow
AFM Records
All Access: A- 

U.D.O. - Steamhammer:
Live from Moscow 2014
It's a new era for U.D.O., and the revamped lineup, missing Udo Dirkschneider's longtime collaborator Stefan Kaufmann, delivered the goods on 2013's sizzling Steamhammer, a thunderous expression of Udo's vision of what traditional metal is supposed to sound like.

Losing such a vital organ as Kaufmann, a dual threat as a musician and songwriting partner, put U.D.O.'s long-term health in doubt. Working closely with bassist Fitty Wienhold in Kaufman's absence, while bringing aboard young and hungry guitar-shredding transplants Andrey Smirnov and Kaspari Heikkinen, only seemed to invigorate the former front man for Accept, however. And now, with this electrifying two-CD/DVD live release under their belt as well, U.D.O.'s prognosis is excellent.

A 10:52 version of "Mean Machine," with its dynamic drum and guitar solos, highlights Steamhammer: Live in Moscow, recorded with perfectly mixed sound in a place that's always warmly embraced U.D.O. Hard-nosed, brass-knuckled maulers "King Of Mean," "Stay True" and "Burning Heart" sound even tougher and more aggressive in this setting, as does the surging, fully engorged title track, while the dark, enthralling melodies and tight hooks of "Future Land," "Cry of a Nation" and "Never Cross My Way" come into sharper focus, as U.D.O. galvanizes its flock. Worship the head-banging riffs, witness in awe the scintillating dual-guitar dogfights and let Udo's gravelly growl send shivers down your spine. This is U.D.O. at their best.

CD Review: Michael Sweet – I'm Not Your Suicide
Big3 Records
All Access: A-

Michael Sweet- I'm Not Your Suicide 2014
Now an author, too, Stryper's Michael Sweet goes solo on I'm Not Your Suicide, and from the heavy, serrated riffing and wailing vocals of opener "Taking On the World Tonight," it's clear Sweet has some inner demons to exercise.

Just as his autobiography, "Honestly: My Life and Stryper Revealed," pulled no punches and candidly copped to a surprising array of weaknesses, I'm Not Your Suicide is at once defiant and strong, but also emotional and raw. And where Stryper's glorious last album, No More Hell to Pay, was, in all respects, a satisfyingly heavy, if more straightforward, juggernaut of Christian metal, I'm Not Your Suicide showcases Sweet's wonderful diversity and creativity as a songwriter.

On this, his seventh full-length studio effort of melodic hard rock, Sweet's ever-evolving mastery of melody and pop songcraft is on full display, as uplifting sermons like "The Cause," the title track and "All That's Left (For Me To Prove)" soar on emboldened, sweeping choruses, like the one that also raises the riff-mongering "Taking On the World Tonight" to such dramatic great heights. And if it's great hooks you're looking for, "Anybody Else" has a bag full of them. Never has Sweet's songwriting seemed this organic or soulful, and that's especially prevalent in the album's rousing vocal treatments, so well-plotted and yet completely free of artifice. So is the introspective ballad "This Time," Sweet baring his soul to the world and yearning for salvation.  

Not one, but two, nicely rendered covers of Neil Young's world-weary classic "Heart of Gold," one featuring an engaging duet with Electra Mustaine, perhaps reveal a folk influence that, prior to this release, had rarely manifested itself previously in Sweet's work, as does the countrified "Country Home." Guest spots from Chris Jericho, Doug Aldrich, Tony Harnell and Kevin Max give rise to the notion that Sweet is tired of being pigeonholed. I'm Not Your Suicide makes damn sure that'll never happen again.
– Peter Lindblad

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