That Curved Air took its name from a minimalist composition (Terry Riley’s A Rainbow in Curved Air) was quite the canard considering the layers upon layers of utter maximalism that made up the British prog-jazz-rock-fusion ensemble’s sonic and lyrical palette. Together between 1970 and 1977, then not, until committing to reunions throughout the 21st century, they had fallen somewhere between the jazzy blue complexities of Soft Machine and Gentle Giant ever since violinist Darryl Way, a Royal College of Music graduate, welcomed warbling vocalist/refrigerator-magnet poet Sonja Kristina to the fold.
Now, the first four frantically flamboyant Curved Air albums, recorded between 1970 and 1973, with buoyant bonus cuts (e.g., altogether uncommercial “singles” such as “What Happens When You Blow Yourself Up” and “Sarah’s Concern”), have been re-released together in one set as a long-overdue tribute to this wildly windy band.
Curved Air’s debut, Air Conditioning, was opulent, warmly produced, razor-edged, and classically inspired, a genuine innovation in the still-burgeoning “progressive rock” genre of the moment, with experimental keyboardist Francis Monkman taking the lead on side two and making it a nesting place for free jazz and misty, creepy folk. It was onto that often-menacing sound that Way and Kristina grafted their equally electric violins and vocals. By the time of the literal-minded Second Album, Kristina was given more of a roaring role; the jarring track “Back Street Luv” became a banshee-howling chart hit (!), but only the 13-minute suite “Piece of Mind” allowed Monkman and his flyaway rhythm section the chance for eerie jazz experimentalism.
Luckily, the psychedelic and future-forward Phantasmagoria brought the entire ensemble back to fine form, with Kristina turning into something of a protest lyricist, Way topping Jean-Luc Ponty in the manic electric violin stakes, and Monkman guiding the side-long, four-part title track into something worthy of the band’s avant namesake with elements of spacy jazz, mariachi, musique concrete, and more. Sadly, 1973’s Air Cut was often as rote as Phantasmagoria was amazing. Way and Monkman had departed Curved Air at the end of 1972; Kristina was left to brood and make her own brand of theatrical jazzy rock with help from Eddie Jobson, the wild-eyed boy violinist and synthesizer player who would shortly make his name and reputation by replacing Brian Eno in Roxy Music. The subsequent (1975-77) version of the group, which featured Kristina, Way, and future Police drummer Stewart Copeland, is beyond the scope of this set.
The Albums 1970-1973 is uneven—two epic albums, two less so, though still interesting in spots—but overall worth the trip and the price.