The Curator – Living Space: Album Review

An intriguing multi-media projection of a future that never came to be – from The Curator, aka Alistair Murphy

Release Date:  22nd September 2023

Label: Self Release

Formats: CD / Vinyl / Download

Some introductions, first of all.  The Curator is one of several creative vehicles piloted by composer, songwriter, recording artist and producer, Alistair Murphy.  He adopted the name for the simple reason that he was, for many years, the Curator of Cromer Museum, and Living Space is the sixth album that he’s released under that particular guise – his first was Sometime Soon (2010) and his most recent, All Lombard Street to a China Orange (2021).

But, over a musical career that started way back in the mid-seventies, he’s done so much more than that.  Between 1991 and 200, he released four albums with his band, The Half Life, and he’s also put out four albums under his own name, most recently, 2008’s Passing.  And, on top of all that, he’s also worked extensively with ex-Fairport vocalist Judy Dyble (five albums between 2009 and 2020) and with Terry Stamp of punk pioneers, Third World War.

Living Space is a significant work.  I suppose that it would be termed a ‘concept album’ in times past; I’d prefer to call it a multi-media project, coming, as it does, in a range of formats and accompanied by a novel, A Fool’s Errand. Subtitled A Lament For a Lost Future, the album is an expression of disappointment that the future that those of us lucky enough to spend our formative years in the optimistic days of the 1960s thought we had in store never really came to pass. 

When The Beatles were assuring us that all we needed was love, the counterculture was shaping a world without war in which everyone would be of equal importance and small teams of American astronauts seemed to walking on the moon’s surface every couple of weeks, the future did, indeed, look to be a bright one.  It couldn’t carry on that way, and it didn’t.  The Beatles disintegrated, the counterculture crumbled and the technological advances that promised to take us wherever we wanted to go shrunk into what Alistair terms “… the idiot offspring of television; social media, sat-nav, childish ideology and division.”  Living Space is a consideration of what might-have-been.

And the accompanying novel – A Fool’s Errand – deals with that same subject matter, albeit in a very different way; it’s been variously described as “Sci-fi novel, discussion of the meaning of life, flight of fancy, religious examination, magi-like quest and philosophical tract.”  But that’s something you’ll maybe need to explore and decide for yourself – our concern here is the music.

For Living Space, Alistair is joined, as usual, by regular collaborators Mark Fletcher (bass), Jez Salmon (guitar) and Ian Burgess (drums).  He’s also managed to entice a few guests to come along to flesh out the sound and classical violinist Steve Bingham (who also plays with art-rock outfit No-Man) contributes violin and viola, Chris Lee of Pigbag plays trumpet and flugel horn and Brian Gulland, the multi-instrumentalist at the heart of medieval proggers Gryphon features on what the album’s press release describes as ‘lots of things.’

I’ll confess that I didn’t really know what expect when I picked up Living Space, but, whatever it was that crossed my mind, it certainly wasn’t this.  The music here is many things, particularly jazz and prog rock, but – ultimately – it can only be described as “unclassifiable.”  If you’re looking for them, you’ll find passages that might, or might not, have been influenced by the likes of Frank Zappa, Yes, Pink Floyd or The Moody Blues.  You might even find splashes of music hall and film score sounds, but, ultimately, this music belongs to The Curator alone.  There’s often a tremendous amount of stuff going on, and, on occasion, the lyrics fall victim to that; they hold the key to the album’s message and they do tend to get lost in the mix.  For the purpose of this review, I listened to a stream; purchasers of physical product, LP or CD, will fare better – those packages come with printed lyric sheets.

As for the tunes themselves – well, my best advice is: Be prepared to listen, be ready for the unexpected and, above all, be open minded.  Living Space is, by no means an easy listen, but it’s a rewarding one to those willing to loose themselves in the music.  There’s a lot of spacy soundscapes: opening track Between Worlds, the chaos-to-calm In a Crowded Street and the (ultimately) comforting 10,000 Billion Miles From Home are three such examples.  Each one commences with a cacophonous overture that, almost imperceptibly, resolves itself into cohesive music – in the case of Between Worlds, into a warming jazzy theme filled with keyboards, piano, horns and bass, a hope-filled, warm song in Crowded Street, or a driven, Zappa-esque passage with some amazing trumpet parts in the case of 10,000 Billion Miles.

Some of the album’s cuts are more accessible than others.  The swirling keyboards, honking horns and howling guitars of Farside City Three disguise a backing that is almost conventional in its structure, the three-part The Sea Lanes merges straight-ahead rock with a delightfully dreamy closing sequence, laced with trilling guitars and psychedelically-panning keyboards, and the stunning Falling, Searching, Falling – arguably the album’s pivotal track – has a flamenco feel and harmony vocals that reminded me (at least) of The Moody Blues.

Perhaps my favourite of the lot is the epic The Sun After the Rain.  In the best prog tradition, it clocks in at over 8 minutes, but, boy, do those minutes pass quickly.  The piece is in three parts with Brian Gulland adding his woodwind magic to the medieval-flavoured first movement.  Synths and rocky guitars are followed by a guitar solo straight from the grooves of a David Gilmour album in part two, before the piece is rounded off by a grand keyboard-led passage.

After the experimentation of what precedes it, the accessibility of closing track In The Glare (We Fall But We Fly) comes as something of a surprise.  For once, Alistair’s vocals are upfront in the mix, as he concludes his speculations of what might have been, what could have been and, perhaps, what should have been, before, after a lush, jazzy horn-led passage, wrapping up the project with an embrace of the entire universe and a declaration that: “For now, I’ll lay me down to die.”

Living Space can be ordered, in all available formats, from Burning Shed.

Watch the official video to Falling, Searching, Falling – a track from the album – here:

The Curator: Website / YouTube

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