Esoteric Recordings are hitting another home run for me, this time with a reissue of Curved Air’s third studio album, Phantasmagoria. Originally released on the Warner Bros. label, Curved Air were riding high at the time with the original line-up from their first two studio albums, but during that period there were some issues.
Bassist Ian Eyre was clashing on personal issues and not communicating properly. He also fell ill and couldn’t carry on with the tour, so the band put an advert in the Melody Maker for a new bassist; enter Mike Wedgwood. Sonja Kristina talked about the problems behind Second Album and Phantasmagoria in an interview for Cherry Red TV with Mark Powell on 14th September 2008. She mentioned that the band wrote the material and went into the studio to record them without going over the compositions. She sang them as best she could, but they did it live and it took time to grow and become more powerful. There were also creative differences between Francis Monkman and Darryl Way over the direction that the band should move in next, as both felt they had taken the music as far as they could.
But despite the differences, Phantasmagoria, the name taken from the poetry of Lewis Carroll which Monkman grew up with, is a step beyond their Air Conditioning debut, heading towards a classical, folky, and electronic sound. Using both the VCS3 Synthesizer, which was used on the debut album, and the EMS Synthi 100, it was a leap forward for the band. With ties to the Carroll’s Alice stories, the album cover, by John Gorham, features the caterpillar smoking a hookah.
Whose Shoulder Are You Looking Over Anyway? features Curved Air’s take on an avant-experimental sound with a Canterbury twist. With frantic keyboards and the EMS going into some dark and insane corridors as Sonja’s spoken dialogue moves from normal to robotic and crazy scenarios, the sound goes left and right while bringing in aspects of Egg’s The Polite Force, David Bedford, Terry Riley and Soft Machine’s Mike Ratledge. It then segues into Over and Above with a Jazz-Rock orientation that is part Colosseum, part Frank Zappa, and part George Gershwin.
There are both classical and theatrical elements in the song while the opening track, Marie Antoinette, sets out the downfall of the last pre-Revolution Queen of France. Sonja always wanted to write a song about her, and she gives us the story of not just Marie herself but also her fall from grace and her being her own worst enemy. There’s a tiny section between the piano and synth setting up the destruction while the next part gives us some twists and turns, Monkman seeming to pre-empt Rush’s Alex Lifeson during his pre-Fly By Night era.
Listening to the title-track, Sonja gives some lyrical details of a person’s paranoia on being watched. It’s a bizarre composition warning the listener to avoid taxis, policemen, doctors and others who could easily scam you. Be very careful on who you trust, you never know what might happen next.
With Melinda (More or Less), Curved Air delve back into the sound of Folk-Rock with a dreamy sign of hope. You have the Melinda character waking up from a dream to find that she’s back at square one of not finding anyone to help her. I felt that Kristina was using the approach of Joni Mitchell and Traffic’s Steve Winwood in this song.
The EMS synth used on Ultra-Vivaldi gives Darryl Way a chance to switch gears, moving from violin to synth as the sound escalates from calm to an incredible ramming speed, reminiscent of Wendy Carlos’s classical interpretations using the electronic sounds of the Moog. The three bonus tracks contains the Italian language version of Melinda (More or Less) and the French language Marie Antoinette.
Sarah’s Concern, originally released as an A-side in 1972, has an eruptive power from the Hammond Organ, dashing guitars, and drums. The darker section heads into the forest thanks to eerie keyboards that have a Caravan-esque sound for a brief second before heading back into broad daylight for a chance to escape in a hay-wiring electronic finale.
The DVD contains two TV appearances, one for Pop Shop on Belgium’s RTBF TV in April 1972, the same show that Genesis did that same year on 20th March during their Nursery Cryme phase, and one on Austria’s ORF-TV from 22nd October on a show called Spotlight. Watching these high quality performances, it’s a rare treat to see Curved Air at their finest.
The DVD main menu begins with a swirling kaleidoscope of the album cover. From the staggering versions of Propositions, featuring some animal clips, including an eagle eating a field mice, to Sonja’s incredible scream as the band gives her the ammunition to bring the volume up to maximum pitch. Darryl adds a blaze of glory on Vivaldi. The mournful organs from Monkman allows Way to create a waking-up scenario by channeling Terry Riley and Itzhak Perlman, centre stage in full control of the delay and reverb effects. He’s a master, going into some dramatic experimental shrieking thunder as Sonja’s vocals return before Francis adds some crazy effects on the VCS3.
Sonja dances and mimes to the title-track, adding some mysterious moves for the Austrian TV show. It shows her theatrical roots, the light shining on her as she plays acoustic guitar and sings Melinda (More or Less) while Francis’ flute and Darryl’s violin play the melody together. The Austrian show ends with Ultra-Vivaldi and you can see the band’s sense of humour, Sonja and Florian Pilkington-Miksa playing patty-cake while Monkman plays organ, Way and Wedgwood duelling each other on their instruments.
The 24-page booklet contains liner notes by Malcolm Dome with interviews with Sonja, Francis, and Darryl about the making of the album. It includes ads, bills of supporting acts, including ones with Deep Purple, Buddy Miles Band, and Yes. Some of the ads I’ve never seen before, including a biography from Warner Bros and, inside the packaging, an ad from the Village Voice in August 1972.
Phantasmagoria is another classic from Curved Air. As I mentioned earlier, Esoteric Recordings have hit another home run and I can’t wait for the reissue of Second Album which comes out at the end of August. In the words of Lewis Carroll, “This is a ‘one-ghost’ house, and you, when you arrived last summer, may have remarked a Spectre who was doing all that ghosts can do to welcome the new-comer”.
Disc One – Original Album Remastered
01. Marie Antoinette (6:20)
02. Melinda (More or Less) (3:27)
03. Not Quite the Same (3:45)
04. Cheetah (3:32)
05. Ultra-Vivaldi (1:24)
06. Phantasmagoria (3:15)
07. Whose Shoulder Are You Looking Over Anyway? (3:24)
08. Over and Above (8:38)
09. Once a Ghost, Always a Ghost (4:30)
10. Sarah’s Concern (A-Side) (3:31)
11. Marie Antoinette (French Lyrics Version) (3:49)
12. Melinda (More or Less) (Italian Lyrics Version) (3:29)
Total Time – 49:13
Disc Two – DVD
(“Pop Shop” – RTBF Television, Belgium, Recorded in April 1972)
01. Marie Antoinette
03. Melinda (More or Less)
(“Spotlight” – ORF TV Austria, 22nd October 1972)
05. Melinda (More or Less)
Sonja Kristina – Lead Vocals, Acoustic Guitar
Darryl Way – Violin
Francis Monkman – Guitar, Keyboards, Gong, Tubular Bells
Mike Wedgwood – Bass Guitar
Florian Pilkington-Miksa – Drums
Annie Stewart – Flute (track 2)
Crispian Steele Perkins – Trumpet (tracks 3,8 & 9)
Paul Cosh – Trumpet (tracks 3,8 & 9)
Jim Watson – Trumpet (tracks 3,8 & 9)
George Parnaby – Trumpet (tracks 3,8 & 9)
Frank Ricotti – Vibes, Xylophone (tracks 8 & 9)
Alan Gout – Trombone (tracks 3 & 8)
David Purser – Trombone (tracks 3 & 8)
Chris Pyne – Trombone (track 3)
Mal Linwood-Ross – Percussion, Noises (track 9)
Jean Akers – Percussion (track 9)
Colin Caldwell – Percussion (track 9)
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Catalogue Number: PECLEC 22638
Date of Release: 27th July 2018