When you saw that Nektar was working with Billy Sherwood — a guy whose Rolodex needs its own boarding pass — you might have guessed that an all-star album was on the way courtesy of Cleopatra Records. You would have been right.
Sherwood, whose latest such Cleopatra projects have included The Prog Collective and the Songs of the Century tribute to Supertramp, provides bass, backing vocals, guitar or synthesizer work for 8 of the tracks on A Spoonful of Time — the legendary prog-rock band’s first original album since 2008′s Book of Days. That would be the last with original keyboardist Taff Freeman. Nektar’s core lineup is now made up of founding guitarist/frontman Roye Albrighton and drummer Ron Howden, along with keyboardist Klaus Henatsch — well, and seemingly a cast of thousands.
A Spoonful of Time, which finds Nektar covering songs from across the rock landscape, features members and former members of King Crimson (David Cross, Mel Collins), Tangerine Dream (Edgar Froese), Cream (Ginger Baker), Dream Theater (Derek Sherinian), Mr. Big (Billy Sheehan), Toto (Bobby Kimball), Mahavishnu Orchestra (Jerry Goodman), Deep Purple (Ian Paice) — and, of course, Sherwood’s former band Yes (Rick Wakeman, Steve Howe, Geoff Downes, Patrick Moraz). Also Rod Argent, Simon House, Michael Pinella … well, you get the idea.
The trick, for Nektar, is not getting lost in this oceanic tide of big names and recognizable sounds. A Spoonful of Time doesn’t completely pull that off, not with some of the warhorse song selections here, but it certainly works as an approachable way to re-introduce a legacy band that, after all, made its biggest splash back in 1973-74 with Remember the Future and Down to Earth.
“Can’t Find My Way Home,” the Blind Faith tune, is the album’s centerpiece triumph, with smart contributions from Sherinian — and a brilliant exchange between Collins’ sax and Howe’s guitar. Likewise, the Rolling Stones’ “2000 Light Years from Home” and Roxy Music’s “Out of the Blue” turn out to be is the perfect vehicles for a series of spacey interludes from Albrighton.
“Wish You Were Here,” with a surging electric guitar courtesy of Albrighton and Froese’s cumulus keyboards, takes on an even more devastating sense of loss than the Pink Floyd original. Argent’s insistent organ drives the Doors’ “Riders on the Storm” toward a sizzling groove. “Dream Weaver,” the Gary Wright tune, is transformed through the outer-limits profundity of Goodman’s bow.
Something that shouldn’t work, but somehow completely does: Their take on the O’Jays’ “For the Love of Money.” From Nik Turner’s scronking sax turn, to Sherwood and Paice’s thunking cadence, to Albrighton’s gravelly bark, everything about this one is fun. Nektar adds a sizzling guitar crunch to the Alan Parsons Project instrumental “Sirius,” too.
Sure, there is the odd misstep, those times when the material doesn’t quite match the mood. Rush’s “Spirit of the Radio,” for instance, can’t reach its proper flying altitude without Geddy Lee’s stratospheric vocal. Steve Miller’s “Fly Like an Eagle,” 10cc’s “I’m Not In Love” and Bruce Springsteen’s “Blinded by the Light” seemed like poor fits for this particular group and, even with Albrighton’s volcanic solo on the latter, that’s mostly true. Having Kimball sing “Africa,” his smash hit with Toto, feels a bit too on the nose, as well.
Then again, “Old Man” — as far away from prog, maybe, as you can get in its original form — is perfectly attenuated, with Albrighton’s beaten-but-unbowed vocal rekindling Neil Young’s sense of faraway reverie. Cross’ angular violin accents help connect the song with its roots, even as Albrighton unleashes another ragged rumination on guitar.