Nektar is near the top of my list of most underrated bands of all time. I've seen one version or another of the group five times in concert over 35 years, have most (not quite all) of their albums, love their music. Roye Albrighton is also one of the most underrated guitarists of all time and Mo Moore (who was on most of the band's most important albums) is one of the all time great bass players. In short - I'm a Nektar fan, big time, always will be. They rank with Yes, Genesis, Krimson in my book.
When I saw the advance notice for this collection my hopes were extremely high. It looked like much more than a set of covers. It looked like an argument for prog rock; a comeback of sorts, a notice that this music is still alive and has something to say. I know there are those who won't think such an argument has to be made: what about Marillion? Porcupine Tree? Dream Theater? Shadow Circus? We can talk about it another time. (Or you can ask any post-punk rock fan what they think of prog and see what I mean.) Suffice to say that it would be a great piece of the Nektar legacy to lead a charge of classic prog musicians with a disk full of bold new prog takes on some rock classics. And the lengthy list of musicians with solid prog credentials here strongly suggests that something like that was intended.
So the question is: how's that proggy thing workin' for us here? And the answer is that, though the disk is not without considerable merit, it is not what you would expect from this kind of undertaking.
First, let me state up front my main criticism of the album, one that I'm sure some folks who consider themselves prog fans will wholeheartedly disagree with: I think the song selection does not help make the disk a success. More bluntly, quite a few of the songs are outstanding examples of what I consider the decline of progressive rock into commercialism, by bands who epitomize the reasons why I practically stopped listening to the radio in the late 70's. Rush's "Spirit of the Radio", Toto's "Africa", Gary Wright's "Dream Weaver" and Steve Miller's "Fly Like an Eagle" all fall into this category. (Why not add a Journey song? Styx? Anyone remember Starcastle?) Nor was I a big fan of the Alan Parsons Project (represented here by the instrumental "Sirius"). That's 5 out of 14 cuts, a bad start for an album that is apparently supposed to support prog's place in rock history.
There are other issues with the song list, too. Among the other bands on my grossly underrated list is 10CC. Nektar covering a 10CC song: this should be the musical version of simultaneous orgasm. Yet... while I AM in love with "I'm Not in Love", I can think of half a dozen better 10CC songs that would be powerhouse, mind-blowing vehicles for Albrighton's guitar and a gang of top notch proggers - say, "Baron Samedi", "The Second Sitting for the Last Supper", "Flying Junk", "Lazy Ways", "I'm Mandy, Fly Me" and "Shock on the Tube" just for starters. Instead, we get the extremely radio-friendly (read, overplayed) pop hit that everyone knows. Even "Channel Swimmer", the brilliant flip side of the "I'm Not in Love" single, would have been a more exciting choice. A missed opportunity if you ask me.
I'm getting to the good news. But first I have to say that the rest of the song list is nothing if not eclectic, and I don't really get what it is supposed to prove. Neal Young's "Old Man" is a great song, but what's it doing here? I dig the O'Jays but really, whose brilliant idea was it to put a Gamble and Huff number on this album? I could see reworking some Marvin Gaye or even a Four Tops tune if you have to go Motown (for some reason), but the O'Jays are just too funky (in the positive sense) for this song mix. Next, I regret to say that nothing can save the Stones' "2000 Light Years From Home" from being a dim star on a burned-out album. This leaves just a few untainted numbers, from Pink Floyd ("Wish You Were Here"), Blind Faith ("Can't Find My Way Home"), The Doors ("Riders on the Storm"), Manfred Mann (a cover of their cover of the Boss) and Roxy Music ("Out of the Blue"). Or, to put it another way, exactly ONE hard core progressive rock classic, on an album that superficially seems to be full of them, and a couple of acid rock tunes. Very bizarre even if you assume the choices were commercially driven.
So, prog fans, consider the song list that might have been: a rethinking of some great but lesser known classic prog (what about Nektar's own "Astral Man" or "Fidgety Queen" for instance?); an updated visit to central numbers in the prog canon (Genesis? Crimson? Yes? no...); or some of these prog founders interpreting the best of Porcupine Tree, Doves or some of our other newer friends in the classic prog spirit (which the Rush number at least hints at). And now think of Bobby Kimball doing yet another take on a Toto hit with his pal Billy Sherwood. Not what the doctor ordered, sorry.
Okay, enough of that. You see why I'm only giving this 3 stars. But having gotten the disappointment off my chest, I can now freely admit to liking a good bit of the album in spite of everything. Here are my highlights (and maybe a few more minor complaints):
Sirius - This was an under-2-minute instrumental in Parsons' original version; it has expanded to almost 3 minutes, and the main keyboard motif has a much punchier sound than it had in the original. I find it extremely appealing, or worse: can't get the damn thing out of my head. A great start to the album.
Spirit of the Radio - I can't stand Rush, often racing the DJ to see if I can switch the channel before the lyrics to any Rush song get under way. (Pleased to say I have avoided "Tom Sawyer" this way for years.) The single most important reason for that is a severe allergic reaction to Geddy Lee's voice. Rip that out of the mix and substitute a mellowed-out Albrighton and suddenly we're in a different world. Roye definitely does not have the crystalline tenor he once sported on classic Nektar albums, and his vocals are pretty heavily modulated here, but I still find his sweet and slightly rougher tone very attractive. Only a small step behind Lee's voice on my distaste list are his lyrics, and behind that Alex Lifeson's guitar, all of which are distressingly in-your-face and obnoxious. But neither the lyrics nor the busy guitar lines bother me as much in Nektar's hands. So I am left having to admit that whatever I think of Rush (and I basically blame them for what they engendered, i.e., prog-metal, as well as what they were) the song is actually not half bad.
Fly Like an Eagle - Though I never particularly liked this tune, the realization of the keyboard work here (supplied by Joel Vandroogenbroek of Brainticket and Geoff Downes) is stunning, and without the dead weight of some of Steve Miller's pop hits Nektar makes a case for this as a legitimate prog piece.
Wish You Were Here - Wish you had done more with this. Maybe repeated listening will reveal more that's new in here, but in any case, it's still a great song done by some great musicians.
Can't Find My Way Home - Somehow it fits. Don't ask me why; it was not even one of the more psychedelic songs out of the acid rock era. Perhaps because it occupies the kind of place that semi-acoustic numbers occupy on old prog albums: Crimson, Yes, Tull, The Moody Blues, ELP and Genesis all interspersed their keyboard-heavy sound with some more spare acoustic numbers. I might have preferred one of my favorite Traffic cuts here, but this is a great Winwood number and works well in the set list.
Riders on the Storm - Here you can say that the musicians definitely do not slavishly follow the original, even if the production is very similar. The question is whether the variations they give us are enough in place of Manzarek's masterful keyboard part. Rod Argent gets keyboard credit in this song, but I suspect he is only doing the break, with Klaus Henatsch carrying the main part. Setting out to riff on one of the great keyboard parts in recorded rock history is a tall order, and for me the variations and added technique and experimentation are not equal to the moody tastefulness of Manzarek's work. But after all these years it is nice to hear other interpretations, before the song petrifies in its most famous form. There is another side to this, though: unless I'm losing my hearing, that is not Albrighton on the vocals. I suppose it is Sherwood, though I can't really identify his voice with any certainty. In any case, it is a very nice take on the song, a bit more nuanced than Morrison's version. So all in all, this is a keeper.
I'm Not in Love - Okay, I said what I thought about the selection. But the song is well done. Albrighton captures the spirit of Eric Stewart's vocals - for me, a deep testament to the spiritual connection between these apparently very different bands. As a 10CC fan, though, I do have one complaint. 10CC, who were famously derided as "too clever by half", rarely let a song go without a major pun or two, and "I'm Not in Love" is no exception. But the pun here is on the song production itself: the line "it's just a silly phase I'm going through" speaks not only to the underlying theme of the song but to the fact that all the background vocals and keyboards (and maybe more than that) are being channeled through a phase shifter. But where is the phase shifter in this Nektar mix? If it happens at all, it drops out completely before the vocals come in. Did they miss the gag? Or consider it unimportant? Not sure, but I would have preferred if they had outdone the 10CC mix with an even heavier use of the phaser - which would also have been entirely in the prog spirit. All that said, there is some very nice mood-appropriate production here, well worth listening to.
Out of the Blue - There are a lot of songs by this name (one of my favorites is by Tommy James and the Shondells) but this is a take on the Brian Ferry/Roxy Music tune. A new one on me, so I checked out the original on Spotify, and was reminded why I was never a big Roxy fan. Be that as it may, this version is spot on, crisp, moving, a real find and great reason to check out this album.
Dream Weaver - Jerry Goodman sounds like he just stepped out of the "Inner Mounting Flame" recording sessions on this cut. Though the only part of the original Gary Wright recording I actually like is the deeply layered intro, which is not really reproduced here, I've always liked Goodman's work and it is a nice idea to put him in the mix. Moreover, while I don't like the song, Albrighton's voice (I guess I'm making a big bet that it really is Albrighton here) really shines. Compared with Wright's twee vocal this is something I can at least listen to.
Africa - I will admit to liking this tune about the way I admit to liking one or two Abba songs (it could easily be mistaken for one) - i.e., with great embarrassment and a lot of caveats. Prog it ain't; not even sure it qualifies as rock. But it's a feelgood pop tune, and not the worst that Toto ever did (that title would have to belong to "Rosanna", though "99" is not far behind). So, while I'm sure it entirely owes its position here to Sherwood's relationship with Kimball, it is kind of like finishing off a decent meal with a junky mint that is too sweet but satisfying in a guilty sort of way.
My final recommendation: buy it without outsized expectations for a prog revival and you will enjoy it. Then go listen to A Tab in the Ocean and remind yourself how great progressive rock can be.