The band broke off from mixing A Tab In The Ocean in October 1972 to play a live show in the studio, with only a few people invited, and record it – with a view to not only using that unrecorded stuff, but also to cast light onto the looser, improvisational jamming side of their performances.
Even by the standards of the early ’70s, Nektar were an odd beast. Not only musically (we’ll get onto that in just a moment), but in terms of their actual perceived existence. The band were actually all British, but for years all but their most dedicated fans appeared to believe they were in fact German (reviewer shamefully holds hand up at this point also). Such a mistake would appear to be a somewhat strange oversight to have, but there were plenty of reasons. Firstly, the band formed in Hamburg in 1969, and were all based in Germany. Secondly, their initial success was all in Germany itself, as they quickly became a popular live attraction there. Thirdly, their first two albums, the conceptual song-cycle Journey To The Centre Of The Eye and follow-up A Tab In The Ocean were initially released in Germany alone, on the Bacillus label. Finally, well, the name – when a band based in Germany, releasing albums on a German label and playing to popular German audiences call themselves Nektar with a ‘k’, it isn’t hard to make two and two equal a resounding ‘five’, and large swathes of the world’s prog rock listeners were led down that particular garden path. Of course, if one actually got the albums and read member names such as Derek ‘Mo’ Moore, Allan ‘Taff’ Freeman and Ron Howden, it became clear that not only were they from this side of the English Channel, but they also sounded rather like a collective of plumbers. They even had a fifth ‘member’ contributing lights and visual effects, with some lyrics, called Mick Brockett, and the idea of a Mick Brockett coming from a directly Teutonic lineage is not a likely one. Guitarist/vocalist Roye Allbrighton may have had that unusual ‘e’ in the spelling of his name, but it still wasn’t sounding any more German than the rest. Even when they gained more success in the UK and US, however, they were still regularly referred to in the music press as ‘English/German band Nektar’.
Still, what’s in a nationality when it comes to prog rock? With the Italian scene in particular marking out continental Europe as the earliest adopters of the progressive form outside the UK, it was resolutely the music which mattered. And Nektar delivered music which was, for large amounts of the time in their earlier years especially, as fascinatingly out-there as you could wish. If you’re new to their catalogue, just look at their first two releases: first off, a thirteen-part ‘conceptual song cycle’, joining the end back to the beginning with repeated music producing a theoretical infinite loop, based around an astronaut being given strange and arcane knowledge by seemingly omnipotent alien beings, called Journey To The Centre Of The Eye. Then a follow-up containing a side-long title track entitled A Tab In The Ocean. Without hearing a note you would form a good idea of what they might sound like. And you’d be right. Even their fourth album Remember The Future, which was their US breakthrough, was made up of two side-long pieces called – you guessed it – Remember The Future Parts One And Two. This is proper, old-school, no apologies and no excuses, full-fat prog rock. And it’s rather wonderful stuff. Then, however, you have the 1973 double album …Sounds Like This, which was a little different.
In 1972, having accumulated a large amount of unrecorded material which they had regularly played live, and frustrated that their rather cerebral studio recordings differed somewhat from their looser, freer playing on stage, the band broke off from mixing A Tab In The Ocean in October 1972 to play a live show in the studio, with only a few people invited, and record it – with a view to not only using that unrecorded stuff, but also to cast light onto the looser, improvisational jamming side of their performances. To that end, they duly recorded that live-in-the-studio session, but promptly decided that it wasn’t quite good enough and shelved the tapes. Fast forward to February 1973, and they elected to have another go at it, repeating the live-in-the-studio format but changing some of the material which had evolved or else been dropped. The result is this album, which still stands a little aside from the rest of their output, and as such has always divided some of the fanbase. As long as you expect less precision together with heavier and more powerful playing, however, there is some superb music to be explored here.
The original double vinyl album, found on the first disc here, contains nine tracks, of which three break the ten-minute mark, coming in at around the 13-14 minute ballpark. These three – the uninspiringly-titled 1-2-3-4, the three-part A Day In The Life Of A Preacher and the oddly spelt, sprawling 14-minute closer Odyssee – are arguably the best on the record. 1-2-3-4 grows from a fairly basic song structure, sustaining itself over almost 13 minutes by some stunning ensemble playing, and really emphasises how good these guys were when they threw off the shackles to just ‘blow’. A Day In The Life Of A Preacher spans three easily differentiated sections which nevertheless knit together perfectly, while the similarly tripartite Odyssee contains some thrillingly wild and unchained guitar work, with the closing section perhaps the most exciting few minutes of music on the whole album. Which may be surprising since the subtitle of this section is the less than prepossessing Da-Da-Dum. Indeed.
The rest of the tracks are a little more compact, but mostly still have an air of improvisational, exploratory jamming at least in their conception. The opening Good Day and New Day Dawning are quite accessible songs given a bit of freedom to roam, with only the rather jarring and unnecessary departure into Norwegian Wood in the latter failing to fully gel. What Ya Gonna Do? is straight up boogie-rock of a kind you would never associate with these guys in a month of Sundays, yet it’s leg-pumpingly thrilling for all that. The shortest track, the sub-four-minute Wings, is a sharply composed and thoughtful song which was the only survivor from that initial session to make the album itself, while the remaining two, Do You Believe In Magic and Cast Your Fate are both strong yet slightly flawed. The former is one of the best songs here in its basic structure, but frustratingly loses focus when it comes to its instrumental development, while Cast Your Fate is better as a whole without entirely catching fire.
The really exciting thing here is the second disc containing performances from that initial October 1972 performance along with a couple of out-takes from the February 1973 sessions – these have been released once before, but here have been remastered from the newly rediscovered 16-track master tapes, and now sound as good as the officially released album in terms of the sound quality. There are great discoveries here – two 13-minute pieces which were omitted from the original album, Sunshine Down On The City and It’s All In Your Mind are both excellent, and also for the keen-eared listener contain some music which was later repurposed for the Remember The Future album, with the former also contributing a little to the still-unwritten A Day In The Life Of A Preacher. Cast Your Fate is extended from six minutes to a massive 20 in a form titled Cast Your Fate Jam, and while a little ragged in one or two places still contains some cracking playing, and once again has a little bit of it repurposed for that would become A Day In The Life Of A Preacher.
If you’re looking for a typical entry point to the Nektar catalogue, this probably isn’t the one – not that it isn’t good enough (indeed in many ways it is as exciting if not more so than some of their more ‘typical’ albums), but more by way of the fact that it won’t fully give you an idea as to whether the band are for you. It is easy to imagine fans of slightly heavier material making this their favourite Nektar release, while others might rate it lower for the same reason. It’s most definitely a record which deserves hearing, however, and the bonus disc is essential for fans. The packaging is as good as you would expect, containing recollections of Moore and Brockett along with all of the original notes and artwork – including the brilliantly mind-expanding front cover artwork by Helmut Wenske, which we learn was unbelievably done from conception to conclusion over a single night! The only thing still remaining something of a puzzle is the name of the album itself. As a release which sets out very deliberately – and successfully – to highlight a different side of the band’s playing, a more accurately descriptive title would arguably be ‘…Doesn’t Sound Like This’!
The band (without the sadly departed Allbrighton) are still going strong today featuring most of this line-up, although not without one or two convoluted changes along the way – suffice it to say that there is also a second configuration of Nektar (official, yet now branded as ‘New Nektar’), alongside the main band, and as if to finally bring closure to that early mistaken nationality of the group, ‘New Nektar’ are now made up entirely of four German musicians! So the wheel turns…