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Curved Air Curved Air
Album: Air Conditioning
Label: Esoteric
Tracks: 11+10

Curved Air was one of the early-70s bands that arose out of the developing prog scene, whose sound was quite literally unique. Here their legendary status is celebrated with fresh reissues of their first two albums, newly remastered from the original master tapes, and (in the case of Air Conditioning) expanded to a two-disc edition of their debut album, which was first unleashed in November 1970 by the Warner Brothers label – in a groundbreaking, attention-grabbing picture-disc format (which was notoriously problematic in terms of sound quality). The band Curved Air took its name from A Rainbow In Curved Air, a landmark experimental composition by American minimalist Terry Riley – although that piece’s musical idiom and soundscape was audibly more in keeping with some of the work of the Canterbury bands, especially Soft Machine. Curved Air had its genesis in the band Sisyphus, formed by two music graduates, violinist Darryl Way and keyboard player Francis Monkman; the actual name change was confirmed following the recruitment of amazing vocalist Sonja Kristina (who at that time was performing in the musical Hair).

The band’s debut album showcased the special capabilities of its members in a more consciously integrated manner that whilst not short on clear technical virtuosity was never just a vehicle for a procession of solos like many early prog albums of the time. Its song structures didn’t readily conform to contemporary conventions, and there was no sense of predictability about the group sound, highly distinctive though its individual elements were. What was abundantly clear, though, was the high degree of genuine musicianship on display, not least in that in anyone’s book Darryl could be regarded a stunning violinist, Francis a spectacular master of both an array of keyboards (piano, mellotron and VCS3 synth) and electric guitar, and Sonja an outstanding and intensely charismatic singer. In terms of musical content and idiom, Air Conditioning ranged widely without seeming a thrown-together ragbag. Stall-setting opening track It Happened Today innovatively marries a rock song with a lyrical violin postlude, and its importance within the Curved Air repertoire is reflected by the inclusion, as bonus tracks on this set, of the version released as a single together with a studio outtake and a well-honed radio session version. This radio session is the first of two from which are culled bonus tracks for the set. The January 1971 session premières impressive new song Young Mother In Style, while the November 1970 date delivers a notably tough rendition of Propositions (which on the album itself seems a touch complex for its three-minute span) and a rather quirky, partly jokey account of Vivaldi that despite the incorporation of a vocal section clocks in at just over a minute less than its LP counterpart. The latter, of course, was the LP’s intentional major opus, ear-shattering in all the right ways, with creative use of electronics and sporting an epic solo violin cadenza. However, the LP’s closing track, Vivaldi With Cannons, rather spoils the disc’s overall stature, being a “reprise” consisting of just 1 minute 43 seconds of disposable sonic “splendour” (i.e. total studio overkill) that I still find unlistenable and ultimately skippable. Between these points though, the LP contains so much that is brilliantly innovative and satisfying, from the swaggering Stretch with its boogie riff, guitar solo and Grace Slick-meets-Judy Dyble vocal sound to the frugging Hide And Seek via the classic Situations and ballad Blind Man and dreamy slow instrumental Rob One with its florid classical overtones.

The two-disc edition of Air Conditioning includes the entire original album and all the aforementioned bonus material plus single B-side and sought-after obscure studio outtake Thinking On The Floor – a definitive edition for sure.

Let’s hope it’s planned to follow this with remastered editions of albums two and three (Curved Air and Phantasmagoria) in due course.

David Kidman