❉ Curved Air combined rock with an experimental side, and the results are here for all to enjoy.
It seems unfair to think of Curved Air as an also ran of prog, but they feel like they’re always just off the list of the biggest hitters of the genre but also just above the weirder cult favourites. In essence they’d be getting a five-page article in MOJO but wouldn’t have the bit where modern fans give their soundbites about their favourite bits and no sidebar of “deep cuts”. Which is both a shame but also something of a relief, because listening to their first four albums in the context of this box set without any real preconceptions is quietly revelatory.
I suspect what prevents them from being considered with bands like Yes or ELP or King Crimson is that they don’t have a definable sound that you can associate with the band. This is partly because for the first three records have a relatively stable line up (except for a revolving series of bassists) of Darry Way on guitar and violin, Francis Monkman on guitar and keyboards, the amazingly named Florian Pilkington-Miksa on drums and Sonja Kristina as vocalist (and frequent lyricist). This leads to musicians with very different skill sets and talents developing through collaboration, resulting in a kind of tension between all those that leads to really interesting music. Way seems to have a slightly poppier instinct to his song writing where Monkman is more somewhat more exploratory. That these instincts seem for the first three albums to coalesce so well is a testament to the band’s skills.
The debut, one of the first picture discs of all time (and also the first band from the UK to be signed to Warner Bros) gallops out with a couple of storming pop songs, Way’s violin and Monkman’s guitar interweaving nicely but propelled along by Kristina’s vocals. She’s not what you would call a restrained vocalist, but that’s what makes her so interesting: frequently her voice is multitracked with itself which gives it a really unusual quality. And she’s as adept at the rock songs as she is with the quieter and more exploratory numbers – Screw is the first of these, a song where Monkman’s keyboards and Way’s violin seem to be exploring the song more than just performing it.
The highlight of the debut is absolutely Vivaldi (and the slight return, Vivaldi with Cannons). Way plays a quotation from The Four Seasons on his violin, Monkman joins in on guitar and – frankly – it knocks all previous attempts to fuse classical and rock into the proverbial cocked hat. This is partly because their instinct seems to be to treat Vivaldi as how jazz musicians would. Other prog bands have tried to perform classical pieces like they were showing off their skills, kind of like a bunch of maestro musicians trying to outdo each other (the reason I can never be doing with ELP is because all three seem to be actively trying to outdo each other constantly and it’s exhausting to listen to). Curved Air treat the source material as a standard to poke around, explore and ultimately bend the shape into new and interesting directions. It’s incredibly dynamic and, more importantly, it never falls into that easy trap of prog: self-indulgence. There’s a real instinct to know when to stop as befits Way and Monkman’s origins as classically trained musicians.
Despite the band taking their name from a Terry Riley album (Monkman played during the first performance of Riley’s iconic In C in the UK), which suggests a slightly more wayward band than the one we get, Curved Air’s instincts always seem to be to combine pop with an experimental side. Even on Vivaldi they crucially know when to stop, and it’s placed in the middle of the record as if to keep the more approachable songs around it (although it ends with an even more bonkers rendition as if to let you never forget the performance). Kristina says in the sleevenotes that her view is that “progressive rock was a collage” which is obviously the approach to the first three albums. It’s a carefully constructed and structured mosaic of a record.
In many ways the second album (also just called Second Album) suffers from the problems of most second albums – most of the best material that they had worked up playing live has been used, so you have to start from scratch. But it’s also incredibly confident for all that: the first song – Young Mother – stretches out nicely, has some mellotron flourishes (I’m a sucker for a mellotron horn section, and these are just a notch below Spirogyra’s use of them) and rolls happily along before we get to what was for the band The Big Hit. Frankly I was expecting something a bit filthier from a title like Back Street Luv, but apart from the salacious squelch of the bass noises from the keyboard it’s a surprisingly melancholy lyric for what became such a signature song for them. It also doesn’t mess about in terms of length and quits after three and a half minutes.
The first half of the album is mostly dominated by Way’s poppier songs, the second half by Monkman’s increasingly wayward contributions: Everdance is poppy enough, but Piece of Mind is the real highlight, a proper epic which allows the bands’ skills to stretch out fully (and feels pretty democratic in terms of how it allows something for each member of the band to work with without feeling wildly indulgent). The big epic side two song has a long and varied tradition in the annals of prog rock, with some feeling like Abbey Road: using up lots of snatches of songs to make one big song (I’m particularly thinking of Nine Feet Underground by Caravan, which I love but does feel at times like an exercise in trying to weave disparate styles together into a whole). This feels more organic and better structured and is a band highlight.
The third album – Phantasmagoria – is by far my favourite because it’s the one that leans most into my favourite subgenre of prog, the pastoral. To me it feels like the culmination of everything gone before, with the songs frequently starting out quite poppy but resolving into something more exploratory. Kristina has a more dominant role this time round – Second Album featured a great deal of her lyrics, but we have her first song contribution to the band here in the gorgeous Melinda.
It all pootles along prettily until we get to Ultra Vivaldi, which takes the versions on the debut to an even more bonkers extreme. But this is basically buttering you up for the gonzo vocoder and keyboard freak out of Whose Shoulder Are You Looking Over Anyway? The album then ends in the wonderfully jazzy Over and Above. And I really do mean jazzy because there’s a flipping xylophone and horn section and everything. The vibes bloke hangs about for the final song Once a Ghost as well. It’s amazing.
The bonus track is a contemporaneous single and it’s a tragedy that Sarah’s Concern shows a band at the peak of their abilities, but due to a slight friction in Way’s and Monkman’s different approaches to songwriting and production and the toll of live performances, the band split and Kristina created – with the blessing of the departing musicians – a wholly new line up save for bassist Wedgwood. And from the off, the somewhat self-parodic The Purple Speed Queen, you can tell this is a very different band. It’s not a bad band and for many it’s their best, but I would argue it’s the most conventionally proggy: so even when the record gets experimental you still kind of know what you’re getting.
It’s not a bad record though, and it sounds gorgeous (because, surprisingly, the producer was a very young Martin Rushent). Elfin Boy is a particularly beautiful little song and Armin seems a nice opportunity for the new instrumentalists to gel together. But Two Three Two suffers from having the bassist as vocalist and feels a bit blandly characterless compared to what went before. We see off this phase of the band with another song by Kristina alone, and it’s fine but again just feels like the product of a slightly safer and more predictable band.
The remaining years of Curved Air are out of the remit of this box, but new line ups would beckon – Eddie Jobson’s post Curved Air career involves stints in Roxy Music, Jethro Tull, Yes and even work with Zappa. Francis Monkman would go on to perform in the first line up of eighties classical prog band Sky for their first two – and best – albums, still pushing boundaries even in a slightly more restrained context. One of the nicest things about the booklet is how polite and pleasant the band seem to be despite some line up turmoil: everyone seems to have nice things to say about each other and even when things are a little more fractious, they’re obviously tremendously polite about it and don’t want to upset anyone.
As ever with Esoteric Records, the quality of the boxset and sleeve notes is exceptional: Cherry Red is always good at this sort of reissue, but Esoteric seem to extraordinarily good at balancing a need for big populist projects like this with more cult concerns. You feel that a collection like this exists to bankroll the smaller projects, and as such this is the absolute ideal of a reissue label: desired records, in beautifully remastered and presented forms that allow the label to keep shining a light on neglected classics. It’s a lovely collection.
❉ Curved Air: The Albums 1970-1973, 4CD Clamshell Box Set (Esoteric Recordings PECLEC42749) released by Cherry Red Records, January 22, 2021. RRP £23.99. Click here to order directly from Cherry Red Records.
Header image: Sonja Kristina (Image credit: Getty Images)