For most people, British progressive rock band Curved Air are known for two things: being the first band to ever issue a picture disc and for the having the legendary Stewart Copeland having occupy their drum stool in the mid 70s. Considering that vocalist Sonja Kristina had previously been an important part of the London theatre scene in the late sixties – appearing in Hair – and Curved Air actually scored a UK top five hit single in 1971, you’d expect them to be more widely celebrated. Perhaps the reason they aren’t is due to lots of their classically- and jazz-derived music being very hard going. Their earlier work often values complexity over obvious hooks – something that makes the funky ‘Back Street Luv’ single seem like something of an anomaly – and the way they switch between different moods from track to track can, at first, be disorienting. They are very much a band that requires a lot of time and patience before most of the listening rewards become obvious.
As suggested by its title, ‘Curved Air: The Albums’ is a box set that brings together a selection of their early work. The albums are largely presented without the extra bells and whistles and live tracks on previously available deluxe editions, making this set something that’s geared more towards the potential new fan. Arguably, it still contains most of the essentials, so for listeners who never made it much past that 1971 single, this four CD box set will more than act as an intensive educational tool. In lots of ways, it’s almost all the Curved Air you’ll ever need.
The fact that Curved Air’s approach to composition and performance is seemingly without boundaries is clear right from the beginning. Their debut album, 1970’s ‘Air Conditioning’, presents a forty five minute selection where nothing is immediate in terms of focus…or enjoyment. Each track is different from the one preceding it – and there aren’t any guarantees that the songs will be particularly linear, either. ‘Screw’, for example, begins with a frenzied violin melody from Darryl Way, but that doesn’t really relate to the collection of dark and haunting folk melodies that follow. Those, in turn, are interspersed with passages of music where dense organ sounds and Way’s violin – often substituting the lead guitar – echo the sounds emerging from Genesis around that time. But this isn’t just another 70s prog rock scenario playing out: Sonja Kristina’s strong voice and heavy folk influence sets Curved Air apart from everyone, and the way bassist Rob Martin constantly throws in little flourishes often suggests a jazz perspective. Eventually, there’s a weird beauty to be found in these complexities, but first, you’ll probably need to explore a broader selection of Curved Air recordings before the brilliance of this really begins to shine through. With four albums presented in one package, the necessary exploration will be easy, even if the listening doesn’t always seem to be. At the other end of the spectrum, the debut takes in the heavy blues rock of the era, something at its most obvious when guitarist Francis Monkman unleashes his inner Tony McPhee and throws out walls of Groundhogs-esque distortion throughout ‘Hide & Seek’. The amount of distortion placed on his guitar makes it seem like a genuine threat, which has nothing in common with ‘Blind Man’s pleasingly floaty hippie vibes, where Sonja’s folkiest voice is a perfect fit for some hard strumming and bongos. If not for such a distinctive vocal, these three numbers could’ve been performed by three different bands.
‘It Happened Today’ takes another folk melody and pushes Sonja’s voice throughout and although her louder volume could be intrusive, the album is recorded in such a way that the whole band are given equal space within the final mix. It’s one of those times when – once you’ve had time to adjust – hearing her strong and emotive trill darting in and out of stabbing piano lines and funky basslines can be absolutely thrilling. Somehow, Curved Air even manage to invent glam rock during ‘Stretch’, where a chunky guitar riff is a match for Norman Greenbaum’s ‘Spirit In The Sky’, but played with the kind of swagger that Chapman/Chinn would later turn into hits. The only time ‘Air Conditioning’ misfires is during the seven minute ‘Vivaldi’, where Way indulges in various classically influenced riffs, reworked under a truckload of distortion and effects. It’s all a little too muso, but luckily, the second instrumental piece, Martin’s ‘Rob One’ with its warm basslines and sad guitar melodies redresses some balance. Here, a gentle jazz fusion really showcases a great player. It’s enough to make you realise that his depature from Curved Air a short time later was somewhat of a travesty.
For listeners willing to challenged, ‘Air Conditioning’ eventually marks a place as one of the decade’s most interesting debuts, but ‘Second Album’ takes the core of a fusionist sound and sharpens it considerably. By ’71, the blues oriented jams have all but vanished, and the band have disappeared further into their rabbit hole of experimental oddity. Part of this is due to a more obvious split in writing duties and musical interests: Way’s compositions are keen to experiment with theatrical themes and dark pop music; Monkman (taking charge of the LP’s second half) has much more obvious prog rock interests. Sonja has the unenviable task of linking their disparate ideas, but since she was rarely in better shape vocally, the album just about hangs together. Despite obvious tensions arising, this set up results in a more interesting collection of tunes – and potentially this set’s best work.
‘Second Album’ showcases everything from the purest musical theatre of Kristina’s then recent past (‘Jumbo’), to much more aggressive, rhythmic pieces (‘Everdance’, a tune where drummer Florian Pilkington-Miksa channels the heavy end of Gong’s Pip Pyle while Way throws out gypsy folk melodies with abandon), to neo-classical prog in the vein of Renaissance (‘Puppets’). Each of these could be the work of a different band if it weren’t for Kristina, so full kudos must be given to her maintaining such a strong presence under trying circumstances. Listeners looking for closer links to the debut will certainly find solace in ‘Young Mother’ (nee ‘Young Mother In Style’), a number that’s rich in heavy keyboard lines, distorted bursts of guitar and a general disregard for the linear. It jumps from an obviously hoary prog rock intro, into jerky rhythms over which Sonja cries at full volume as she adds melodies that blend musical theatre with folk tradition, before everything heads for an instrumental break where futuristic keys and a floating violin predate Hawkwind’s similar sounding ‘Wind of Change’. It’s the kind of track that needs a long time to embed itself, but once it does, it will eventually become a favourite.
From a more proggy angle, the album contains one of Curved Air’s most experimental and lengthy pieces in Monkman’s ‘Piece of Mind’. Across a sprawling twelve minutes, the number moves effortlessly from jazz fusion with soaring vocals into a string-led classical piano piece and bursts of harpsichord noise, before bouncing back to its main rock-ish refrain where a repetitious groove and hook from Way intercuts a great vocal. During parts of this track, you’ll certainly hear how Renaissance would soon become Curved Air’s closest peers with their 1972 LP ‘Ashes Are Burning’, but there’s still a sense of adventure that truly sets Sonja and her band apart. This becomes especially obvious once Sonja begins reciting TS Eliot under a keyboard solo on loan from Caravan, before Monkman morphs everything into heavier prog pre-figuring a couple of passages from Vangelis’s ‘Heaven and Hell’. The whole thing bows out with several bars of a sombre bolero, with no connection at all to its original musical root. This, in many ways, captures the very essence of Curved Air’s disdain for musical rules.
Beating all of those in terms of all round appeal is the unexpected hit single ‘Back Street Luv’, a tune which wastes no time in setting up an ominously dark groove that sounds like almost nothing else in the Curved Air catalogue (or even anything else from 1971). The heavy electric piano brings such a cool sound; a heavy drum line reinforces a definite groove and an especially haunting vocal impacts the dark edge. Switching to a de facto chorus, the melodic root changes completely and Curved Air launch into an upbeat rock-pop tune with a shuffling rhythm and a folky vocal meter. With these two contrasting moods alternating throughout – right up until the early fade at 3:30 – the listener is pulled back and forth, and the effect is thrilling even so many years on. It’s still a mystery as to how and why this became such a massive hit, but to hear it once is to love it forever.
Even with a massive hit single and two UK top 20 albums under their collective belts, Curved Air weren’t going to rest on their laurels and 1972’s ‘Phantasmagoria’ is, at least in a few places, as different again as its two predecessors had been from each other. Their third album with their third line up kicks off with an easy sound that seems to pre-figure Christopher Cross’s yacht rock by several years, before stretching into a prog-pop hybrid that allows the opening track ‘Marie Antoinette’ to act as a great show piece for all concerned. Monkman’s lead guitar work is especially pointed; new boy Mike Wedgwood adds a full on jazz funk bassline that lifts everything and Sonja offers a very natural performance where she mixes Sandy Denny’s trad folk tones with the complex operatics of Annie Haslam and sounds like one of the era’s strongest talents in the process. Moving through a rockier section, the rhythm section flexes some serious muscles before taking a brief detour into an odd jam that could be drawn from an early Chicago or Stoneground influence. Everything about this seems designed to appeal to their existing fans, taking them to places both familiar and new. For first time listeners, it can be daunting and thrilling at once, but in many ways – should you somehow get to hear this before ‘Young Mother’ or ‘Back Street Luv’ it’s certainly wouldn’t create an entirely unrepresentative first impression.
Although that opener appears to fall into the same vein of earlier Curved Air pieces in that, perhaps, the band tries to wedge too many different elements into the one number, ‘Phantasmagoria’ is at its best when it’s trying less hard. As a whole, the album still takes in various moods, but three albums in, the band now seem more relaxed about letting some of their work breathe more naturally. ‘Melinda (More or Less)’ explores some beautiful folk strains where Sonja’s light touch is augmented by some fine strings; ‘Cheetah’ hits a rich vein of jazz rock where Way and Wedgwood indulge in some great interplay, but whereas before, complexity would have won out, this instrumental piece seems happy to let Way take the lead with some shrill, melodic strains. Elsewhere, the title track explores a similar sinister groove to ‘Back Street Luv’, but there’s a lot in the way it plays to suggest more of a confidence in its folk rock elements which, in this case, appear to mirror the oft-overlooked Trees. For a Curved Air novice, this is another track that could provide a useful entry point; it certainly ranks among the best of their early material.
Another highlight, ‘Once A Ghost, Always A Ghost’ flaunts vibraphones, mariachi horns, busy vocal passages and rhythmic shuffling to create something that sounds like Renaissance jamming with Pierre Moerlen’s Gong. For those who demand their prog to always sound like Genesis and Yes circa 1972, there’s every chance that this could be dismissed as maddening jazz fusion, but from a performance perspective, it’s absolutely terrific. In a little over four minutes, Curved Air show off more genre-bending invention as most bands from that era and in half the time. The eight minute ‘Over & Above’, meanwhile, drops into unashamed prog, where Curved Air’s jazz experiments run rampant. Its ominous moods and narratives mix the cinematic with the wantonly quirky, eventually sounding like a bizarre hybrid of Colosseum and ELP. From a musician’s perspective, it’s full of interest; from a listener’s viewpoint, ‘Once A Ghost’ serves up as much brilliance in half the time. Combined, they lend ‘Phantasmagoria’ a strong musical heart.
It took Curved Air three albums to perfect their hybrid sound, but it came at a cost. Following the release of ‘Phantasmagoria’, the band suffered a major blow when various members departed, including two musicians integral to their success. Darryl Way quickly formed a new band, Wolf, and Francis Monkman – via a couple of session jobs and some TV soundtrack work – eventually founded Sky, a classical/rock hybrid band with John Williams. Not one to throw in the towel, Sonja soldiered on with an all but new line up.
1973’s amusingly titled ‘Air Cut’ relies heavily on the new talents of violinist Eddie Jobson and guitarist Kirby Gregory. Although both incredibly talented men (Jobson, in particular would later show great skills as a member of UK and Roxy Music), neither were quite up to filling the boots of Way and Monkman respectively. Naturally, different musicians bring a different sound and the album – although still quite arty – often leans a little more towards 70s hard rock. ‘U.H.F.’, in particular, showcases a huge guitar sound from Kirby before dropping into quieter sounds allowing Sonja to deliver a soft cry against much floatier, prog-ish sounds – good stuff, but far from classic – and ‘Two-Three-Two’ occasionally sounds like a track that owes more to Uriah Heep than the jazz and classical worlds that helped create ‘Air Conditioning’, but taken at face value, both present a taut band with a pleasing sound.
That isn’t to say the album is always more simplistic: ‘Easy’ harks back to the funky, slightly jazzy pop rock of ‘Back Street Luv’, but in a case of diminishing returns isn’t as good as either the track that inspired it (or ‘Cheetah’), and the ten minute prog wig-out ‘Metamorphosis’ offer enough interest to pull in the prog fans. The latter, in particular, is an album highlight. It features some beautiful classically tinged piano work from Jobson before exploring musical passage that sounds a lot like someone had been listening to ‘Supper’s Ready’ by Genesis and Camel’s ‘Snow Goose’. Sonja’s vocal dictates a further shift into a verse that sounds far more like “typical” Curved Air, but it isn’t long before an extended piano arrangement – augmented by voice – suggests something more in the Renaissance mould. Closing with a bombastic and almost dreary melody, more comparisons can be drawn with the ‘72 Genesis: Wedgwood’s bass is particularly notable for carrying the same weighty tone as the young Michael Rutherford and the militaristic drums are certainly a call back to ‘Supper’s Ready’. With a coda applied that sounds like a jaunty Music Hall knees-up, it’s clear there’s time enough for a final twist. Looking at the number as a whole, this is definitely one of the era’s most overlooked prog workouts. In many ways, it’s complicated, ever shifting mood deserves more attention.
There are at least three or four strong tracks at the heart of the middling ‘Air Cut, but it’s hard to imagine it’d ever become anyone’s favourite release. With a once truly unafraid band sort of going through the motions and feeling their way, the Kristina-Jobson-Wedgwood-Kirby Curved Air rarely sounds genuinely at ease. ‘Air Cut’s inclusion within an anthology such as this might allow it to be reappraised in some quarters, but it’s very much an album that falls into the “good but inessential” category.
This box set not always easy going and if you’re the kind of person who expects music to be neatly pigeon-holed, some of these recordings will possibly infuriate you. Occasionally – and particularly on the first two (and best) albums – you’ll be confronted with pieces of music where three band members appear to be working from different genres and styles at the same time. What this means, of course, is that a lot of patience is needed from a listener’s perspective. Curved Air were almost out there on their own – musicians’ musicians whom, for their first three releases, were streets ahead of their proggy would-be contemporaries. ‘Curved Air: The Albums – 1970-1973’ shows the band’s growth from weird psychedelic folk, through funky rock experiments, into a world where prog rock and jazz fusion flow boundlessly and, finally, ends up teetering on the brink of arty hard rock. If you’re able to get your head around their constant need for change, this is the kind of anthology collection that’ll offer lots of thoughtful listening. As hit and miss as it may be, as a crash course in the work of one of the 70s most overlooked bands, you’ll find nothing more useful.
December 2020/January 2021