Monday, June 29, 2015

Curved Air - 1972 - Phantasmagoria

Curved Air

01. Marie Antoinette (6:20)
02. Melinda (More or Less) (3:25)
03. Not quite the Same (3:44)
04. Cheetah (3:33)
05. Ultra-Vivaldi (2:22)
06. Phantasmagoria (3:15)
07. Whose Shoulder are You Looking Over Anyway? (3:24)
08. Over and Above (8:36)
09. One a Ghost, Always a Ghost (4:25)

 - Sonja Kristina / vocals, acoustic guitar
- Francis Monkman / guitars, keyboards, Tubular Bells, Gong, percussion
- Florian Pilkington-Miksa / drums, percussion
- Darryl Way / violin, keyboards, vocals, Tubular Bells, Mellotron on “Marie Antoinette”
- Mike Wedgwood / bass, acoustic guitar, vocals

The sound of Sonja Kristina’s heavily accented vocals singing “Fire in their hands/Steel in their eyes, they rise chanting “Revolution, Vive le Nation!” remains my abiding memory of Curved Air’s outstanding album Phantasmagoria. This follow-up to The Second Album, which spawned a great single Back Street Luv, contains many of Curved Air’s finest compositions and most progressive moments. I heartily recommend it.
Of course, the bloodthirsty, (ahem) majestic Marie Antoinette is one of those essential art-rock songs, with rollicking piano, chants, fuzz guitar from Francis Monkman and eerie synths from Darryl Way, and Sonja Kristina presiding over it all. The beautiful folk ballad Melinda (More Or Less) is also unforgettable. With Kristina on acoustic guitar (let’s not forget that this former folkie initially replaced Sandy Denny in The Strawbs!), Way’s violin, Monkman’s harpsichord, Mike Wedgwood’s understated bass and a notable guest flute appearance from one Annie Stewart, also succeed in transporting listeners back a couple of centuries.
As great as both songs are, neither is the album-defining classic, an honour that belongs to Monkman’s classic Over And Above. Outstanding moments abound in this song that resembles some of the work that Annie Haslam and Renaissance would craft in subsequent years. A swirling, multi-dimensional mini-epic, it’s fuelled by astounding guest performances from vibraphonists/xylophonists Crispian Steel-Perkins, Paul Cosh and Jim Watson and also features stellar contributions from Way and Monkman, both with an otherworldly synth solo and some earthier wah-wah guitar (which is largely absent on this record) to close off the piece. With symphonic dashes, jazzy runs and even the yet-to-be-sacred tubular bells, it is arguably the most progressive song Curved Air ever recorded.
The rest of the album is not quite in the same league as this masterpiece, but is generally very strong. Not Quite The Same begins with medieval brassy sounds before evolving into a bouncy folk-jazz with a melancholic chorus, and an unusual Canterbury- influenced synth solo (both Way and Monkman play synth on this one). Cheetah is an upbeat Darryl Way instrumental sees him starring on violin, with just enough unpredictable changes to keep the piece fresh. The title track is another one of those eerie, theatrical Curved Air cuts, although I don’t really like the chorus.
The one real downer is Ultra-Vivaldi, a speed up sequenced version of a song that has already been performed twice before by the group on Air Conditioning). The sequencer idea may have seemed worthwhile back in 1972, but it really stinks now. Of the three Curved Air Vivaldi pieces (Vivaldi, Vivaldi With Cannons and Ultra-Vivaldi) the original Vivaldi track is the only one I consider worth listening to. Luckily the damage is over in just 1:24! Whose Shoulder Are You Looking Over Anyway? is another experiment that sounds cool but ain’t entirely convincing. The track consists of Kristina vocal tracks fed through a “PDP8/L computer and a Synthi 100 Synthesizer”, and it’s all edited to create a ghostly atmosphere. It’s not as tacky as Ultra-Vivaldi, but does go some way towards making the album feel dated.
The totally wild, unpredictable feel of the album is emphasized by the concluding track Once A Ghost, Always A Ghost, a strange brassy cabaret song that isn’t a personal favourite, but does end the album on an offbeat, yet stimulating note, thanks in part to another incredible vibraphone solo. You have to give this album and its creators marks for not resting on the laurels of the previous year’s hit single, and going on to craft a daring album despite the increasing friction that developed between the group’s two main songwriters.
Unfortunately, the band imploded after this excellent album, losing both Way and Monkman … and things were never the same. But should you ever need to convince anyone of Curved Air’s greatness, kindly direct them here. This is something else.



  2. Mucho Gracias!