Back in 2017, it was announced that Esoteric had picked up the rights to part of the vast Warner Music back catalogue, and the first fruits of this (with plenty of really exciting re-issues including Barclay James Harvest, Be-Bop Deluxe and Chris Squire) were the remasters of the Curved Air back catalogue from the early 1970s. Those special edition remasters of the first four albums are condensed into a 4-disc clamshell box containing Air Conditioning (1970), Second Album (1971), Phantasmagoria (1972) and Air Cut (1973).
This set loses a large chunk of the bonus tracks from the individual releases (Air Conditioning for instance loses its second disc of live sessions and alternative cuts, Second Album and Phantasmagoria lose all their bonus tracks and accompanying DVDs), however you do still get the in-depth sleeve notes and recording history, which are a vital part of archive sets like this.
Formed out of the ashes of the band Sisyphus by Darryl Way and Francis Monkman (who later went on to form Darryl Way’s Wolves and Sky respectively) the band was completed by Rob Martin on bass and Florian Pilkington-Miksa on drums, with the pre-eminent female prog vocalist of the 1970s, the sublime and incredibly influential Sonja Kristina upfront.
The melting pot of Way’s violin, Monkman’s guitar and keyboard sounds, Sonja’s voice and the bands compositional and musical chops made them a massive live draw, and a record signing to Warner Brothers, championed by John Peel and the novelty of the debut album released on picture disc (the first in the UK) is all well and good, but the biggest question is, how good is it?
As a record that is aptly described as ‘influential’ and ‘ground-breaking’, Air Conditioning is one of the definitive albums of 1970. From the opener It Happened Today, the band set out their stall with the duelling violin of Way and keyboards of Monkman providing a driving sound for the sensual and quite frankly amazing vocals of Kristina to weave her magic. With strong compositional skills across the band, and intelligent lyrics, this album also had the benefit of being honed on the road, so by the time it was recorded it became a practically perfect debut album.
With Way’s mix of classical and rock comes the albums defining instrumental, Vivaldi, which is still as stirring and powerful now as it was then, and in a musical twist they revisited it at the end in Vivaldi (with Cannons) where Monkman and Way give the track a tweak and kick.
Tracks like Hide and Seek and Blind Man showcase Sonja’s amazing vocal skills, and it’s no wonder with the band this honed and tracks this refined and powerful that Air Conditioning was such an influential and successful album.
The imaginatively titled Second Album, on which Ian Ayre replaced Rob Martin on bass, reflected the origins of the band’s name featuring a rainbow on the cover art (in reference to Terry Riley’s minimalistic masterpiece A Rainbow in Curved Air) and, buoyed by the Top 5 success of lead single Back Street Luv, hit the dizzy heights of 11 in the UK album charts on release in October 1971.
The signs of the original band’s split were apparent here, with the tracks on side one being mostly composed or co-composed by Daryl Way, whilst side two were composed by Francis Monkman, stretching compositional skills which would ultimately come to fruition in Sky. This edition, in a clamshell box, sees the original album in its entirety, but with no additional tracks.
Picking up where they left off with the driving sound of opener Young Mother is dominated by some fine virtuoso violin from Way (in fact, he’s so prominent that it sounds like a female-fronted ELO), Monkman’s synths providing appropriately atmospheric backing, and it’s the musicians that dominate, the musical power of Way, Monkman and Florian Pilkington-Miksa’s drums driving the track, whilst Ian Eyre slots perfectly into the group.
Eyre also takes co-composer credits on probably the band’s best-known hits, and one that is instantly familiar, dominated by the superb vocals of Kristina. The main riff of Back Street Luv played on piano, the story of a lady of the night rightly deserving its place in rock history books. The superbly dynamic performance of the band married to the vocals create the same thing the Beach Boys were trying to achieve, a three-minute symphony.
The mood slows slightly on the third track, Jumbo, the band’s symphonic leanings coming to the fore with an orchestrated piece that is more inspired by traditionally classical music than rock, and is far more in tune with the classical oeuvre than the OTT posturing of ELP.
The fact that the lead instruments are Monkman’s keyboards and Way’s violin give a quite different sound to Curved Air than those bands who rely solely on guitar, and this is part of what makes the Curved Air sound work, the intelligent arrangements by the band still managing to rock out (or have a funky overtone, like on You Know, with its rare guitar solo performed by Monkman) whilst taking all the disparate influences and marrying them into a coherent progressive whole.
Puppets, again with a perfect vocal from Sonja Kristina, closes out the old side one, and its lyrics about people pulling someone else’s strings, with an almost metronomic beat by Pilkington-Miksa, allows the rest of the band to build the sound around the vocals, which are to the fore. Whilst side one is full of collaboration with Way, side 2 is all about Francis Monkman, who is credited as the sole composer of all three tracks.
1972’s Phantasmagoria saw Mike Wedgewood replace Ian Ayre (a choice that would heavily influence the next album) and was the last studio album for many years to feature Daryl Way, Francis Monkman and Florian Pilkington-Misa. Following the Second Album template, side one was mainly written by Daryl Way, with Sonja Kristina on the opening track, the epic (and self-explanatory) Marie Antoinette, whilst Sonja’s Melinda (More or Less) is a far sparser and folkier arrangement, with some sublime violin work from Way as the main accompaniment to Sonja’s soft vocals.
Not Quite the Same is a heavily brass-driven piece of jazz rock, with an incredibly ‘Swinging London’ sound and vibe and some great vocals. Way’s violin dominates the first side, and it’s obvious in how the band imploded after this album that the dynamic tensions that had worked previously finally snapped, pushing the band apart. Side one finishes with the heavily synthesised and treated Ultra Vivaldi, the only Way/Monkman composition since the debut album, a very brief collaboration spinning off into the ether after only 1:22.
Building on what had gone before, Phantasmagoria is definitely an evolution rather than a revolution of the sound, and the songwriting and performances have honed the Curved Air style to perfection. The title track is dominated by Monkman’s synths and that crystal clear voice of Kristina, whilst the rest of side two features some interesting processed vocals using the EMS Synthi 100 to alter Kristina’s vocals, a quite innovative move at the time. The album’s ‘epic’, Over and Above, sees the return of the brass section (not dissimilar to the sound achieved by Pink Floyd on the Atom Heart Mother suite) and mixes Monkman’s classical influences with the band’s jazzier moods, with great success.
The only bonus track here is Sarah’s Concern, a single released with Phantasmagoria as the B-side. It sees the band trying to replicate their chart success of Back Street Luv, but isn’t as memorable.
By 1973, the only remaining founder member was Sonja Kristina, and she was joined by Mike Wedgewood on bass, the only remnants of the band that had made Phantasmagoria. Unphased at having to put together a new band, they recruited the young Eddie Jobson, whose electric violin playing and keyboard skills could replace both Monkman and Way, getting Kirby Gregory in on guitar and vocals with Jim Russell on drums. The result was 1973’s Air Cut, the bands fourth album. The difference between this release and its predecessors is obvious. Hung together on Kristina’s vocals, this is undoubtedly Curved Air, but a vastly different beast with the change of guitarist and the skills of Jobson. The band push the boundaries and add a more rocking element.
Of the four albums featured here, Air Conditioning is presented exactly the same as the remastered stand-alone edition, with that set having no additional bonus tracks or DVDs to accompany the package.
Losing Way’s improvisational skills and Monkman’s precision could have damaged the band, and whilst it didn’t, it’s noticeably clear that the compositional style is very different, from the rock-tinged opener The Purple Speed Queen followed by the pared down Elfin Boy, where the star of the show is Sonja’s vocals.
This is 1973, so there’s an obligatory prog epic, Metamorphosis, which makes the most use of Eddie Jobson’s keyboard and piano skills. This is more him than Sonja, and listening to how adept he is and how he weaves mood changes and soundscapes out of his instruments, it’s astonishing to believe he was only 17 at the time. This is a truly democratic album, with all members contributing to the writing. It certainly sounds fresh and vibrant, and showed how the band had been rebuilt. The energy that the nineteen-year-old Gregory and seventeen-year-old Jobson brought adds so much to the album, from the epic Metamorphosis to Mike Wedgewood’s bluesy World and the violin driven Armin, Jobson putting his musical stamp all over it. The closing Easy encapsulates the power of this line-up, and the beauty and grace in Sonja’s voice. A satisfyingly wonderful conclusion to this set, one which seemed to pass fans by at the time yet has so much to offer the listener.
For anyone new to Curved Air, this is a great budget-priced introduction, however, if you’ve already bought the previously issued remastered individual discs with the myriad bonus tracks and accompanying second disc or DVDs, then this set is superfluous to your requirements.
Disc One: Air Conditioning (1970)
01. It Happened Today (4:55)
02. Stretch (4:05)
03. Screw (4:03)
04. Blind Man (3:32)
05. Vivaldi (7:26)
06. Hide and Seek (6:15)
07. Propositions (3:04)
08. Rob One (3:22)
09. Situations (6:17)
10. Vivaldi (With Cannons) (1:35)
~ Bonus Tracks:
11. It Happened Today (Single Version) (3:50)
12. What Happens When You Blow Yourself Up (3:34)
Time – 51:58
Disc Two: Second Album (1971)
01. Young Mother (5:55)
02. Back Street Luv (3:38)
03. Jumbo (4:11)
04. You Know (4:11)
05. Puppets (5:26)
06. Everdance (3:08)
07. Bright Summer’s Day ’68 (2:54)
08. Piece of Mind (12:52)
Time – 42:15
Disc Three: Phantasmagoria (1972)
01. Marie Antoinette (6:20)
02. Melinda (3:25)
03. Not Quite the Same (3:44)
04. Cheetah (3:33)
05. Ultra-Vivaldi (1:22)
06. Phantasmagoria (3:15)
07. Whose Shoulder Are You Looking Over Anyway? (3:24)
08. Over and Above (8:36)
09. Once a Ghost, Always a Ghost (4:25)
~ Bonus Track:
10. Sarah’s Concern (3:20)
Time – 41:24
Disc Four: Air Cut (1973)
01. The Purple Speed Queen (3:20)
02. Elfin Boy (4:20)
03. Metamorphosis (10:30)
04. World (1:32)
05. Armin (3:16)
06. U.H.F. (6:06)
07. Two-Three-Two (4:10)
08. Easy (6:45)
Time – 39:39
Total Time – 175:16
Sonja Kristina – Lead & Backing Vocals, Acoustic Guitar (disc 3 track 2 & disc 4 track 2)
Darryl Way – Violin, Keyboards, Tubular Bells, Melon, Backing Vocals (discs 1-3)
Francis Monkman – Guitars, Keyboards, Percussion (discs 1-3)
Rob Martin – Bass Guitar (disc 1)
Florian Pilkington-Miksa – Drums & Percussion (discs 1-3)
Ian Eyre – Bass Guitar (disc 2)
Mike Wedgwood – Bass, Acoustic & Electric Guitars, Percussion, Lead & Backing Vocals (discs 3 & 4)
Eddie Jobson – Electric Violin, Backing Vocals, Keyboards (disc 4)
Kirby Gregory – Electric Guitar, Bass Guitar, Backing Vocals (disc 4)
Jim Russell – Drums (disc 4)
Annie Stewart – Flute (disc 3 track 2)
Crispian Steele-Perkins, Paul Cosh, James Watson, George Parnaby – Trumpets (disc 3)
Chris Pyne, Alan Gout, David Purser, Steve Saunders – Trombone (disc 3)
Frank Ricotti – Xylophone, Vibes (disc 3)
Mal Linwood-Ross, Colin Caldwell, Jean Akers – Percussion (disc 3)
Doris the Cheetah — Vocals (disc 3 track 4)
Record Label: Esoteric Recordings
Country of Origin: U.K.
Date of Release: 29th January 2021