Album Review: Nektar – Time Machine

In 2013, there aren’t all that many bands making progressive rock of the sort that walked the Earth in the first half of the 1970s. But while the popular thinking is that punk killed off prog, that simply didn’t happen: it merely went back to being a slightly underground movement – as did punk, really – and it soldiered on in various forms. Groups like Marillion, Spock’s Beard and Porcupine Tree would keep thing interesting and breathe new life into the genre, and to this day there are new prog bands popping up (mostly in Europe).

A few of the old guard remain, however. While Nektar never made much of a commercial dent in the US charts, they stayed at it. With a revolving cast of band mates, guitarist/singer/songwriter Roye Albrighton has kept the Nektar flag flying. Though the group hasn’t exactly been prolific (2013’s Time Machine is only their twelfth album of original material in 42 years!), the quality of their music has remained fairly consistent.

True, like so many bands, Nektar somewhat lost their way in the 80s. Their 1980 effort Man in the Moon dialed back the prog in favor of a harder stlye that would win them few new fans; the group went inactive for some twenty years in its wake. But beginning with 2001’s The Prodigal Son, Albrighton and company have resumed a relatively steady stream of new albums.

Time Machine is – wait for it — a sort-of concept album. Or perhaps it just feels like one: spoken passages, ambient sections, soaring guitar work and a story line…these are all ingredient of the group’s latest album. But Albrighton’s strong (nearly unerring) pop sensibility means that the songs have hooks aplenty. With stomping passages that recall Yes, Time Machine weaves its way across ten tracks of varying tone and style. As one might guess from the title, “Set Me Free, Amigo” features Herb Alpert-style horn charts (or perhaps “horns,” seeing as there are no musician credits on the record beyond Albrighton, Ron Howden (drums), Klaus Henatsch (keyboards, and probably those “horns”) and the ubiquitous Billy Sherwood on bass and engineering.

Albrighton’s shimmering arrangements enliven the instrumental passages, and the entire affair holds together nicely. Some of the guitar work and keyboard textures (take “Destiny,” for example) are evocative of Moody Blues, and while Albrighton’s no Justin Hayward, his weedy vocals suit his lyrics and melodies. And happily, Sherwood has clearly picked up a thing or two about bass playing from his years of working closely with Chris Squire; nowhere is this more evident than on Time Machine‘s lengthy title track. His bass lines carry the melody forward. The instrumental “Juggernaut” is the most progressive/jazz-leaning piece on the album, and it’s among the best.

In a bid toward band democracy, both Henatsch and Howden each get a writing credit (“Mocking the Moon” and “Talk to Me,” respectively). Both tracks fit seamlessly on the record, though the former has a lot of lyrics.

And there’s nothing really wrong with any of the vocals or lyrics on Time Machine, but the playing and arrangement are solid enough that the vocals feel a bit like filigree; Time Machine would have worked nearly as well as an all-instrumental album.

When the band rocks out (as on “If Only I Could”), it’s tough to peg the music as belonging to any specific, er, time period. And that’s good: taken as a whole, and quite unexpectedly, Time Machine is, shall we say, a timeless progressive rock album.

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