Album Review

Curved Air – The Albums 1970-1973: Album Boxset Review

The early albums from Prog Pioneers, Curved Air, get the 4-disc clamshell treatment

Release Date:  29th January 2021

Label: Esoteric Recordings

Formats: 4CD Clamshell boxed set

1970-1973 was a classic period for Curved Air.  True musical innovators, they appeared, apparently fully-formed in 1970 and set about releasing three groundbreaking and well-received albums during the next two years.  They also achieved singles chart success, hitting the UK No.4 spot in 1971 with the memorable Back Street Luv and all seemed set fair.  Inevitably, the upward trajectory wasn’t sustained, but we were left with an excellent collection of music, which has now been remastered and repackaged by our friends at Esoteric in this welcome boxed set.

The set comprises remasters of each of the band’s first four albums – the seminal Air Conditioning, the adventurous Second Album, the sublime Phantasmagoria and the futuristic Air Cut.  The attractive clamshell-packaged set comes complete with a 48-page booklet with an informative and comprehensive essay by Malcolm Dome and is a must-have if you, like me, have gaps in your Curved Air collection or if, again like me, your vinyl copies of these early gems have been exhausted.

A Curved Air treasure trove

Curved Air evolved from Sisyphus, a band formed in 1968 after a chance meeting at London’s Orange Music Electronic Company store between organist Francis Monkman and violinist Darryl Way, respectively graduates of The Royal Academy of Music and The Royal College of Music.  The lineup was boosted by the recruitment of bassist Rob Martin, pianist Nick Simon and Drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa and, after vocalist Sonja Kristina had been spotted singing in the London stage production of Hair and was invited to join the band, the genesis of Curved Air was complete.  In early 1970, Nick Simon left the group and the opportunity was taken to re-christen the band Curved Air, the name being taken from A Rainbow In Curved Air, an album by the much-admired avant-garde composer Terry Riley.

Curved Air, 1970

Hitting the road after intensive rehearsals, the band were quick to build a strong reputation throughout the UK, Belgium, Holland and Germany and, in July 1970, they made their first venture into the recording studio to begin work on what would become their debut album, Air Conditioning.  That summer, Curved Air were signed by Warner Brothers, famously receiving a massive cash advance, and Air Conditioning hit the stores in November 1970.  The album was a truly innovative mix of the band members’ various influences of prog rock, jazz and folk, with an unusual slice of classical content and it received deserved attention, with John Peel acting as a particular champion. 

The album’s musical qualities were, however, matched – and perhaps even overshadowed – by the decision to release the album as the UK’s first-ever picture disc.  Production problems involving the clear vinyl used to overlay the picture meant that sound quality was often poor (indeed, after hearing numerous complaints from disgruntled friends who had been seduced by the glamour of the multi-coloured disc, I took the coward’s option of buying the plain black vinyl version!)  Nevertheless, the album was a deserved success and reached the number 8 spot in the UK albums chart.

Air Conditioning – The Picture Disc

Another line-up change followed the release of Air Conditioning, when Rob Martin was forced to leave the group after sustaining a hand injury.  He was replaced by Ian Eyre and the band set about consolidating its success with the hit album and a series of well-received US tours.  However, all was not necessarily well in camp Curved Air and when the eagerly awaited Second Album appeared in September 1971, the first signs of musical divisions were detectable, with Darryl Way’s compositions grouped together on side one and Francis Monkman’s on side two.  Notwithstanding this evident fissure, the album – dressed in the novel and tastefully layered rainbow sleeve that gave nodding acknowledgement to the Terry Riley influence – was once again well-received and achieved another high chart placing.

Third album Phantasmagoria (the name comes from a Lewis Carroll poem) was the last Curved Air album to chart, following its release in April 1972.  Livewire bassist Ian Eyre had been replaced by Mike Wedgewood, formerly of The Overlanders (remember their hit version of The Beatles’ Michelle?) and the album featured a host of guest musicians on instruments as diverse as flute, xylophone, trombone, trumpet and vibes.  Once again the Way and Monkman compositions were placed on separate sides and, although Phantasmagoria was a fine album (arguably their best to date) by the end of 1972 both, along with drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa had announced their intentions to leave the band, leaving Sonja and Mike Wedgewood to pick up whatever pieces were left.

Kristina and Wedgewood recruited the services of guitarist Kirby Gregory, drummer Jim Russell and teenage multi-instrumentalist prodigy Eddie Jobson for a venture originally intended to go under the guise of the Sonja Kristina Band.  After persuasion from manager Clifford Davis, and with the acquiescence of the departed band members, it was agreed that the band would continue with the Curved Air name.  The music moved deliberately in the direction of “textbook” prog rock although, perhaps thanks to the abilities and background of Eddie Jobson, some of the classical influences were retained.  The fourth Curved Air album, Air Cut, released in June 1973, reflected this new aspiration but, despite some fine moments, the album didn’t find the hoped-for favour with the public and, not long after the album’s release, the remaining members of Curved Air went their separate ways.

But what a legacy they left – four excellent, yet very different albums and a whole trunk of musical ideas that went on to entertain and inspire over the intervening years until the band’s return.  But more of that shortly – for the moment, let’s have a look at Esoteric’s latest box of goodies….

It’s easy to forget, but so great to be reminded what an excellent, truly innovative album Air Conditioning (Disc 1 in this collection) was.  Electric violin wasn’t an instrument commonly used in experimental rock music in 1970 and Darryl Way’s contributions in that department set a style that would be adapted for years to come.  Add to that Francis Monkman’s fluid guitar work, Sonja’s sonorous, intimate, ice-maiden vocals and a whole set of novel compositions, and you’ve got all the ingredients for an iconic album.  And iconic it certainly was.  If the picture disc idea can be considered gimmicky (and opinions are certainly divided in that respect) the music broke new boundaries – arguably Air Conditioning matches In The Court Of The Crimson King in its influence and in its contribution to setting a course for progressive rock. 

Opening track It Happened Today is simply delightful and I still find it incomprehensible that the single version of the song (also included on this Disc 1) failed to make a greater impact on the singles chart.  We get a taste of psych/folk – a genre to which Sonja’s voice is eminently suited – with Screw and Blind Man (where Sonja sounds like she’s whispering in your ear – how good must that have been?!)  Vivaldi is Darryl’s quasi-classical magnum opus and, as one of the tracks on the band’s first single and a staple on early 70s Student Union juke boxes, was the first taste of Curved Air for many soon-to-be fans.  It’s here that the impact of the remastering first becomes clearly evident and the sound is crisp and full of vitality. 

Elsewhere, Hide and Seek is psychedelic and slightly disorientating (in the nicest possible way) Proposition is fast and frantic, Rob Martin’s tune, Rob One is lush and pastoral and Situation is simply epic.  Bonus track What Happens When You Blow Yourself Up is also worth a mention; the “other” track on that first single (along with It Happened Today and Vivaldi) it’s a welcome piece of proto-prog with some tremendous bass guitar work from Rob.

Sonja Kristina

Despite the signs that musical divisions were beginning to emerge, the follow-up Second Album (Disc 2 min this collection) showcased a band that had become noticeably more confident and mature.  The classical and psychedelic influences were still evident but flavours of pop, a lot more straight rock and even splashes of soul had started to enter the mix.  Production is lush, and richer than was achieved on Air Conditioning and Second Album, as a consequence of all this, has worn pretty well.  The instrumental inputs are similar to those of Air Conditioning with violin and piano generally dictating the terms but Francis Monkman’s synthesizer is far more prominent and Sonja’s vocal is richer and, somehow, more commanding.

Second Album – The Rainbow Cover

The album opens with Young Mother, a song left over from the early Sisyphus days, but with performed with a confidence that gives an early indication of how the band had developed.  Back Street Luv was, of course, the breakthrough single and gave the band the prominence they were denied by the relative and unjustified failure of It Happened Today.  It still sounds great and it’s a telling demonstration of what Curved Air were capable of.  Jumbo is grandiose – violin and piano work together delightfully and provide the perfect setting for one of Sonja’s best ever vocal performances. 

By contrast, You Know is riffy, persistent and almost soulful and Puppets is jazzy, dreamy and also highly enjoyable,  Everdance, the B-side to the Back Street Luv single is classic Curved Air; it’s folky, frantic and lively, with a violin/synth break that still sounds stunning today.  The penultimate track, Bright Summer’s day ’68 is the album’s token quirky track with a marvelously enticing vocal – and then we get to Piece of Mind – in some ways the culmination of everything Curved Air had hitherto built.  Nearly 13 minutes in length, it’s Francis Monkman’s signature piece and features virtuoso performances on piano, violin and synth, all behind a whispery, ethereal vocal.  An awesome end to a still-excellent album.

Curved Air’s third album, Phantasmagoria, (Disc 3 in this collection) is a fine piece of work which gives no outward indication that the band were, by this stage, speeding towards the buffers.  It’s probably Curved Air’s most overtly progressive album, although jazz, folk, straight pop and even a venture into the avant-garde also get a significant look-in.  The sound is fuller than on either of the previous albums, particularly on the tracks on which they are augmented by their guest brass section and Frank Ricotti’s xylophone and vibes and the band sound very together.  In fact, the only clue to the forthcoming departures of Messrs Way, Monkman and Pilkington Miksa is the track sequencing which assigned Way’s and Monkman’s compositions to separate sides of the vinyl pressing.  Phantasmagoria is possibly my favourite Curved Air album.

Phantasmagoria

It gets off to a cracking start with Marie Antoinette, certainly one of Sonja’s best ever songs.  The vocal and the historic storyline are almost folky but the heavy instrumentation gives an indication of the progressive intent of the album.  Melinda (More or Less) is another excellent song and probably the closest thing to folk song on any of Curved Air’s albums; it’s happy and tuneful and includes some lovely flute contributions from Annie Stewart.  Not Quite the Same is yet another corker, and the lyrics, which include lines such as the one about the young man walking his “…doggy – who saw a young lady who made him feel soggy” and “He busied himself, quite amusing himself, by abusing himself” manage to shock even after the passage of 48 years.  And they’re sung in such an angelic voice too!

Cheetah is a frantic chunk of jazz from Darryl Way and ends with a growl from guest cheetah, Doris, and Ultra-Vivaldi is a lightning fast reprise of the Air Conditioning centrepiece played, this time, on synthesizers. 

The original Side 2 of the album opened with the delightful title track – one of Curved Air’s all-time greats.  On a lovely example of intelligent pop, the band are at their very best and Sonja’s beautiful, light-touch, vocals are the icing on the cake.  Contrast that with Who’s Shoulder Are You Looking Over Anyway, an avant-garde noodle with the band experimenting with a vocoder – obviously their latest toy…  The original album ends with two more excellent tracks – Over and Over, a full-on jazz exploration and certainly the most musically complex piece on the album, and Once a Ghost Always a Ghost – more jazz, this time with a carnival feel and a stunning vibes solo from Frank Ricotti.  Disc 3 concludes with Sarah’s Concern, a single from March 1972.  It’s a slightly grungy number that sees the band returning to its psychedelic roots, and it’s pleasant enough, but I have to question whether the title track, Phantasmagoria, wouldn’t have been a better choice of single to give the band the second big hit that they richly deserved and also to draw attention to a classic album.

And so to Disc 4.  After Phantasmagoria, Darryl Way, Francis Monkman and Florian Pilkington-Miksa moved on to pastures new and Sonja set about forming a new band that would – as noted above – take on the Curved Air mantle.  For the new lineup, Sonja and Mike Wedgewood brought in Eddie Jobson on piano, synthesizer, mellotron, organ and violin, Kirby Gregory on guitar and Jim Russell on drums and percussion – all highly accomplished musicians with the ability both to reproduce the tried and tested Curved Air sound and also to take the band in a variety of new directions. 

Air Cut

The album Air Cut (the punning title was suggested by warner Brothers – Sonja was never fond of it) was excellent; it provided a showcase for the dexterous talents of the new members, particularly on the epic Metamorphosis and the instrumental Armin and showed a band exploring a number of territories including conventional rock (The Purple Speed Queen and U.H.F.), folk (Sonja’s delightful Elfin Boy), E.L.P.-flavoured prog (Metamorphosis) and even ragtime (Mike Wedgewood’s song, World).  The classic Curved Air sound was still evident on Armin, which featured synth and violin passages that harked back to the Vivaldi days and particularly on Easy, the closing track, a song bursting with tinkling piano, heavy bass, some glorious guitar soloing, sprinklings of synthesizer and, above all, a mystical, breathy vocal from Sonja.  A terrific way to end an underrated album and an excellent boxset.

Perhaps the public viewed the rebuilt lineup of Curved Air with suspicion.  Perhaps it was suspected that a new lineup had been cobbled together to wring the final shreds of goodwill out of a revered name.  If so, that’s a shame, because Air Cut is a piece of work by a highly capable band with some tremendous potential – if only more of us had taken notice…

Air Cut failed to sell in significant volumes, Eddie Jobson left the band to replace Eno in Roxy Music, Kirby Gregory and Jim Russell left to form Stretch and Mike Wedgewood departed to join Caravan and that, it seemed, was that.  But, thankfully, Curved Air refused to die; in 1974, the original lineup, plus bassist Phil Kohn reunited for a short tour and various permutations of the band continued to operate until what appeared to be a final break-up in 1977.  And still, that wasn’t the end… 

From 2008 onwards, various versions of Curved Air, always with Sonja Kristina as the band’s central personality, have been a touring presence and they’re still with us!  The current lineup is: Sonja Kristina on vocals, Chris Harris on bass, Robert Norton on keyboards, Andy Tween on drums, Grzegorz Gadziomski on violin and Kirby Gregory on guitar.  Keep an eye open, post COVID – they might be appearing somewhere near you!

Curved Air – 2019

Incidentally, I grew up in Bolton, Lancashire, a town whose inhabitants find words like ‘air’ and ‘fair’ as well as names like Mary and Claire and household items such as ‘chairs’ and ‘stairs’ phonetically challenging.  When Curved Air first started to make waves, I thought they were called ‘Curve D’ur,’ until I eventually saw their name in print.

Watch Curved Air performing Phantasmagoria in 1972 here:

Curved Air Online: Website/ Facebook/ Instagram

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