Without wishing to sound like a broken record (or even acknowledging that pun), I have to again recognize Esoteric’s admirable dedication and meticulous attention to detail with their tireless reissue campaign over the years. Dusting off ancient back catalogues of countless bands and artists and propelling them back into the spotlight is top priority, and with so many of these recordings long out of print and commanding absurd secondhand prices, it’s a welcome sight to see them boxed up and presented in glossy (and reasonably priced) deluxe editions. The newest of these sees the light of day on 29 January in the form of Curved Air: The Albums 1970-1973… and what a beauty it is.
Surely a prime candidate for such treatment, the fiercely unique Curved Air were responsible for a quartet of influential albums that are unfairly overlooked by historical revisionists when ruminating on the finer works of the early 1970s. Every ounce the innovators that Yes, ELP and Renaissance were, it is the cause of much eye-rolling when they are omitted from such laudation in favour of the same ‘biggies’ time and time again. Perhaps in 2021 their due credit will be restored with this sparkling new compilation.
Newly remastered from the original master tapes, the band’s first four albums Air Conditioning, Second Album, Phantasmagoria, and Air Cut have fresh sonic life breathed into them, considerably improving the all-too-common muddy recordings of fifty years hence. Three tracks originally released as singles are also included, as well as a 48-page booklet crammed with photos, information, quotes and a thoroughly-researched essay and band history. For anyone (like me) who appreciates such companion reading during listening sessions, this one is a gem.
My own favourite aspect of the collection, however, was the rediscovery of this remarkable catalogue as I followed the band’s chronological evolution for the first time ever. Air Conditioning, for any naiveté or flaws that may float to its surface, was a spirited debut with violin maestro Darryl Way gliding his away above its heavily classical leanings, and the enigmatic Sonja Kristina’s tuneful vocals weaving around the unorthodox arrangements. The 1960s had only just ended (literally… Kristina got the call to join the band on 1 January 1970) and although that decade’s influence on popular music would be profound for years to come, Curved Air stood at the dawn of a bold new decade, poised to incorporate new ideas and absorb new inspiration. The album remains a fascinating snapshot of a young band ready to take a giant leap forward, and its strongest moments – like the ferocious classical-rock hybrid Vivaldi – still dazzle with a blinding radiance.
The unimaginative title of 1971’s Second Album was its only real weakness. Right from the keyboard-drenched Young Mother (re-worked from its original form in Way and guitarist/keyboardist Francis Monkman’s previous band Sisyphus), the album was a substantial advance in sound and songwriting from the debut, and the confidence level soars throughout. Classic tracks like Back Street Luv, You Know and Everdance showcase a tight, newfound groove, while the orchestrated ballad Jumbo and the closing epic Piece Of Mind were among the finest pieces the band had recorded to date.
Further development came with fan favourite album Phantasmagoria, released a mere seven months later. By now, the band were at the top of their game, increasing the role of synths and composing a string of top-notch pieces that rivaled those of their contemporaries. Melinda (More Or Less), Cheetah and the title track are prime Curved Air, but there’s not a misstep to be found on the platter, which deserves mention alongside any other first-rate release from 1972. It’s still the one many fans cite as the definitive Curved Air album, and it’s never sounded better than on this set.
Finally, the decidedly rockier Air Cut saw not the first, but certainly the biggest change in personnel, including the addition of whiz kid Eddie Jobson, a simultaneous replacement for the departed Way and Monkman. Jobson’s swagger and virtuosity shifted the band into new areas, but Air Cut remains an authentic Curved Air album, as essential as the previous three, if not a tremendous step forward from Phantasmagoria. There’s a noteworthy finesse to tracks like Metamorphosis and Armin, while U.H.F and Easy exude a ballsier guitar-based approach that wouldn’t have been quite as at home on the earlier albums.
Curved Air would go on to produce several more albums that garnered less acclaim among fans and critics as the sounds of the decade began to dictate inevitable change. But these four initial volumes exhibit a gifted, innovative band composing vital and exciting works that resemble one long ‘Best Of’ entry when compiled as such. Ultimately, The Albums 1970-1973 serves as a reminder that the history of such pioneering bands of the early 70s was about more than just a handful of giants – a lot more. Kudos to Esoteric for not only reminding us older fellas of that fact, but for their efforts in getting this rich, compelling and timeless music into the hearts and minds of a new generation of listeners.