It is now 48 years since the formation of Curved Air, their debut album, Air Conditioning, being originally released on the Warner Brothers label in November 1970. This year Esoteric Recordings have put together a great 2-CD reissue
Taking their name from Terry Riley’s third release, A Rainbow in Curved Air, I first heard Curved Air’s music back in the fall of 2005 on the Prog Archives website, and the following year my Mom got me the 1995 Rhino 5-CD box set, Supernatural Fairy Tales: The Progressive Rock Era. I was blown away by tracks like It Happened Today and Back Street Luv the moment I listened to them; the mixture of melodic lines between violinist Darryl Way and guitarist/keyboardist Francis Monkman, the classical music structures, and the mysterious yet beautiful vocal arrangements of Sonja Kristina, it was all there, and I became hooked into their music.
After nearly 12 years of listening to Air Conditioning, the album is still with me. Even though it came out in 1970 I still take the time to listen to it from start to finish, while sometimes just picking some of my favourite tracks. There are some incredible moments here, including the nightmarish Situations, which features electric piano, guitars and Sonja singing in Gnidrolog style…
“Though I am no longer alone
Everybody seems to take my mind away
I love you but it isn’t as I planned
I promise you I’ve done the best I can
Haven’t touched any other man
Situations seem to have been kind to you”
…before moving like a tidal wave through an instrumental section with Mellotron strings. There’s a dripping water effect, thanks to the cavernous sounds of Monkman’s guitar, then Sonja and the Mellotron head skywards, Monkman catching them up with Florian Pilkington-Miksa’s drums following suit, as if the light at the end of the tunnel offers a sign of hope.
The 7-minute Vivaldi is one of Darryl Way’s most mind-blowing compositions, honouring the composer with eruptive explosions. Darryl’s violin work takes it all up a notch, moving on from Vivaldi to briefly visit the haunting yet ominous style of Camille Saint-Saëns’ Danse Macabre three minutes in. The reverb effects suggest that he is playing two notes at the same time before hitting the metallic tone and raising the tempo more and more. He’s not just an incredible violinist, he can also make his violin sound like a beast ready to attack its prey, heading to the highest level with a roaring twist and then returning again to Vivaldi, bringing in the big guns with Moog synthesizer, timpani and cannon-like blasts, almost as if he’s telling the listener “Wait a minute, I’m not done yet.” There’s a funereal arrangement with bells, explosions and organ before the piece heads to a chilling conclusion.
It Happened Today, which opens the album, is a great introduction. I love how it starts with Monkman and Way, as if they are in a duel before Sonja takes over, adding the final pieces of the puzzle until the full picture emerges of what is happening, who this person is and why exactly they’re in this new location under a new identity.
Hide And Seek begins with a jazzy-blues smoky night time section with a slowed-down drum section and piano, as if it was recorded inside an abandoned jazz club. The mood suddenly transforms into the style of Spirit’s sole self-titled debut album as the riffs between Rob Martin’s bass, Darryl Way’s violin and Francis Monkman’s guitar riff with a nod to a haunting version of Fresh Garbage.
You can hear some of the aspects of the sound of 1971’s Second Album as there are elements of Back Street Luv on Air Conditioning. The bonus tracks on Disc One feature a song called Thinking On The Floor which they recorded during the sessions at Island Studios in August of 1970. The studio version is more interesting than the one included on the BBC sessions Air Waves album, recorded in 1971 and released in 2012. It has a catchy rhythm followed by a paced section, as if the race is on. Way takes his violin to a futuristic structure before the Terry Riley-esque synth comes in, along with Monkman’s guitar and Martin’s bass towards the end.
The second disc contains six BBC sessions that the band did for the late great John Peel, who championed the band in his review of their concert at Pop Proms in April 1970. It contains the ninth take and single version of It Happened Today, the second take of Rob One, and the B-side What Happens When You Blow Yourself Up with a jazz keyboard intro from Monkman, as if the night sky has come out of the blue, he and Darryl sharing a melody before walking into the groove. Francis takes a wah-wah style improvisation on the electric keyboards to take us on a strange journey that amazes at what he can do. It shows that Francis is more than just a guitar player, taking the notes through the locations by following Sonja’s melodic lead. I love the BBC version of It Happened Today. It’s faster than the studio version, but you can feel the vibe on the sessions as the band are alive.
You can imagine yourself closing your eyes and seeing the band during the peak of the release of this debut album, showing your support for them to turn the opening song into an unbelievable rocking version. The twisted Moog intro after Brian Matthew’s introduction of the band on Young Mother In Style delves into a swirling Carousel-like and dystopian opening for a song that would later appear on Second Album under the title Young Mother. The BBC session of the song features different lyrics, which would be changed for the official release. It features vocals which I might believe to be Darryl Way, singing the first verse before Sonja comes in. I love how they take turns on the vocals, as if to give the band a chance to come forth. When you listen to Stretch from the session on 27th January 1971, you can feel the band’s rhythmic and rocking blues shuffle.
The 16-page booklet contains liner notes by Malcolm Dome about the history of the band, interviews with Sonja, Darryl, and Francis, along with a news article about the band in Dutch, promo posters, and concert bills. This is a very interesting release from Esoteric and I hope that they continue to do more during 2018. Let’s see what they have in store for us, hopefully reissues of Second Album and Phantasmagoria…
01. It Happened Today (4:57)
02. Stretch (4:05)
03. Screw (4:03)
04. Blind Man (3:35)
05. Vivaldi (7:32)
06. Hide and Seek (6:19)
07. Propositions (3:08)
08. Rob One (3:26)
09. Situations (6:19)
10. Vivaldi with Cannons (1:43)
11. Thinking on the Floor (Bonus Track) (3:06)
Time – 48:19
01. It Happened Today (Single Version) (3:50)
02. What Happens When You Blow Yourself Up (3:35)
03. It Happened Today (Take 9) (4:17)
04. Rob One (Take 2) (3:21)
05. Propositions (BBC John Peel Session November 10, 1971) (5:30)
06. Vivaldi (BBC John Peel Session November 10, 1971) (6:31)
07. It Happened Today (BBC John Peel Session November 10, 1971) (4:44)
08. Young Mother in Style (BBC John Peel Session January 5, 1971) (4:06)
09. Situations (BBC John Peel Session January 5, 1971) (4:58)
10. Stretch (BBC John Peel Session January 27, 1971) (4:38)
Time – 45:38
Total Time – 93:57
Sonja Kristina – Lead Vocals
Darryl Way – Violin & Backing Vocals
Francis Monkman – Guitar & Keyboards
Rob Martin – Bass
Florian Pilkington-Miksa – Drums
Ian Eyre – Bass (Disc 2: tracks 8,9 & 10)
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue#: PECLEC 22616
Date of Release: 26th January 2018