Some of you who have read my columns over the years know that I am a big fan of one of the great underdog bands of progressive rock called Nektar. An English group that was mistaken for a German band due to their signing with a German label in the early stages of their career, the group has been misunderstood and more often than not, mis-marketed. They were SO close at one point in the mid 70s to breaking out in a grand manner alongside bands like Yes, Genesis, Pink Floyd and King Crimson. They were very popular in the NY area, even getting feature radio broadcast of a sold out concert from The Palladium on WNEW-FM.
But you know how things go in rock and roll... stuff happens.
Fast forward and here in 2013 we have the latest Nektar incarnation revived and putting out now their fourth really solid album since the turn of the new millenium. And they are touring! I even got to see them perform twice in 2011 in Southern California and was not disappointed.
They are the little prog rock band that could, delivering really well composed and performed modern prog that keeps one foot in their past -- their signature sounds are in place -- yet fine tuning their songwriting skills along the way. Their latest epic, Time Machine, is arguably their best since 2004's Evolution, produced by Billy Sherwood (who was in Yes for a while in the late 90s and now plays bass with Nektar on their current tour)
What does Nektar sound like in 2013? They sound like Nektar! A four piece of drums, bass, guitar and keyboards, vocals generally fall to band founder and main songwriter/lead guitarist, Roye Albrighton, whose voice sounds something akin to Peter Gabriel and Gary Brooker (Procol Harum). His playing ranges from fiery to finessed, with the delicacy of The Moody Blues' Justin Hayward to some of the fire you might expect from Frank Zappa (who, by the way, was an early champion for the band -- Nektar opened for them on a tour in the early '70s).
Nektar has always been more of a band like Pink Floyd than Yes, so listening to them is all about kicking back and enjoying the journey, not waiting for the flash bravado -- don't get me wrong, the wonderful tasteful solos are there, but they are more of a piece, a mood to fit the song.
Take the keyboard solo at the start of "Juggernaut," an instrumental close to the end of the piece -- Klaus Henatsch channels Chick Corea by way of Happy The Man's Kit Watkins as opposed to Rick Wakeman or Keith Emerson, yet it bears his own stamp. Roye Albrighton's solos are incredibly understated and tasteful for a guy who once jammed with Jimi Hendrix;, again, think more David Gilmour than Steve Howe. And again, he has his own sound and vibe.
Time Machine is another Nektar-ian journey that traverses many places, from Mexico to the Moon and beyond. There are even musical flashbacks to one of Nektar's early breakthrough hits, Remember the Future.
So how does it all sound? The CD sounds fine, if a bit on the, well, digital side of things. It isn't horrible or anything like that and presents the music fairly well all things considered (it sounds great in the car). The LP sounds quite a bit warmer and more musical. I don't know for sure but I'm willing to bet that the album was recorded digitally and not knowing what level it was recorded at (ie. 48 vs. 96 kHz) its hard to make judgements aside from what I'm hearing and I like what I am hearing for the most part
But is the LP the definitive way to hear this album? Well kiddies, there in lies the rub. You see, the CD has three additional songs on it and they are not insignificant tunes (I really love "Set Me Free, Amigo" -- a prog tune about being jailed in Mexico that works in mariachi style horns!).
Both versions work just fine as a listening experience. I can understand why the label might not have wanted to put out a three-sided release to keep the pricing on the vinyl below $20 and even with just the seven songs the disc sides seem very full with very little in the way of a run out groove. What I don't like is that there was no free download with the LP to allow you to get the additional tracks. I am a hardcore fan so I don't mind buying the CD and the LP for this group. But I can imagine that new fans would not want to buy both items, so this is an important oversight for the label to contend with.
Still, with the LP you get to see the wonderful futuristic cover artwork in all its glory including Nektar's iconic "bee man" character (which has graced most of their records since the early 1970s).
My simple advice is : if you are new to Nektar, get the CD; if you are a fan already, get both -- the band will no doubt appreciate your support. They deserve it.
If the album does well, perhaps label Cleopatra Records will issue a deluxe edition containing the full album spinning at 45 RPM over two discs pressed on thick 200-gram multi-colored vinyl.
If I had a Time Machine I could predict the future... we'll have to wait and see.
Mark Smotroff is a freelance writer and avid music collector who has worked for many years in marketing communications for the consumer electronics, pro audio and video games industries, serving clients including DTS, Sega, Sony, Sharp, AT&T and many others. Mark has written for EQ Magazine, Mix Magazine, Goldmine/DISCoveries Magazine, BigPictureBigSound.com, Sound+Vision Magazine and HomeTechTell.com. He is also a musician / composer who's songs have been used in TV shows such as Smallville and Men In Trees as well as films and documentaries. Mark is currently rolling out a new musical he's written. www.smotroff.com