cream of the crate: album review #119 – curved air: airconditioning
cream of the crate: album review #119 – curved air: airconditioning
Album Cover – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

  This review was originally posted on the first Toorak Times web site where publications ceased on that site in March 2017. The old site will be permanently closed in 2020 and these reviews are being re-published in order to preserve them on the current Toorak Times/Tagg site.

 

 

 

"Curved Air made a sensational debut with Air Conditioning." - (Progrock) . . . "This is groundbreaking stuff that deserves to be remembered." - (Sputnick Music)

This is album retro-review number 119 in the series of retro-reviews of both vinyl and Cd albums in my collection.

The series is called
“Cream of The Crate” and each review represents an album that I believe is of significant musical value, either because of it’s rarity, because it represents the best of a style or styles of music or because there is something unique about the group or the music.

The first fifty reviews were vinyl only, and the second fifty reviews were CD’s only. Links to these reviews can be found at the bottom of this page. From review 101 onward I have mixed vinyl and CD albums and, try and present an Australian album every fifth review!

Dipping into the vinyl section of my crate, I bought out an album that was literally played to death in my shared house in the early 1970’s.

This album by Curved Air and the album is titled – Airconditioning. It was released on the Warner Bros. Record label in November of 1970 and its label code is WS 11903.

It was the debut album by this group and consisted of ten tracks, five per side. The release of this album helped to herald in two revolutionary aspects of the 1970’s in regard to the mainstream of the popular music scene.

The first was the sound of the electric violin as played brilliantly by Darryl Way. Now you need to remember that The Electric Light Orchestra would not come along until the following year, and although Frank Zappa had used electric violin on some of his album tracks, this was the first mainstream attempt, and what an attempt!

cream of the crate: album review #119 – curved air: airconditioning
Album label – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

The second aspect was the advent of the mass-produced picture disc, which I don’t have. Imprinted on the vinyl disk was an image that reflected the album cover.

cream of the crate: album review #119 – curved air: airconditioning
The printed disk

 

The picture album version was developed at the time by Metronome Records GmbH (a subsidiary of Polydor Records).  These “new” picture discs were made by creating a five-layer lamination, consisting of a core of black vinyl with kiln dried paper decals on either side, and then outer skins of clear vinyl film (manufactured by 3M) on the outsides.

The pressing process was plagued by air bubbles being trapped in the layers, resulting in an inferior but acceptable sound quality.

The picture disc has come a long way since and it’s a shame that Curved Air didn’t have today’s disc technologies when they released this. However, the standard “green-label” release that came shortly after the picture disc release, whilst not having the “trippy” effect on the eyes when played, had an infinitely superior sound.

Now, the album I have was one of the first pressings post the initial 10,000 coloured vinyl releases and it was put out ahead of the traditional vinyl release.

It has the “green label” which indicates it is one of the original pressings. Copies of this pressing will bring in excess of $100Au if in reasonable condition.

cream of the crate: album review #119 – curved air: airconditioning
Rear Cover: Track Listing – [CLICK to enlarge]

Track List

Side 1:
1. It Happened Today* (4:55)
2. Stretch (4:05)
3. Screw* (4:03)
4. Blind Man (3:32)
5. Vivaldi (7:26)

Side 2:
6. Hide and Seek* (6:15)
7. Propositions (3:04)
8. Rob One (3:22)
9. Situations (6:17)
10. Vivaldi with Cannons (1:35)

Total Time: 44:34
* Lyrics by Sonja Christina

 

Line-up / Musicians
Sonja Kristina / lead vocal
Darryl Way / electric violin, vocal
Francis Monkman / lead guitar, organ, piano, Mellotron, electric Harpsicord, special effects equipment and VCS3 synthesizer
Robert Martin / bass guitar *
Florian Pilkington-Miksa / drums

* Although the album credits Martin as playing bass on the album, he was in fact replaced by Ian Eyre just prior to recording commencing.

cream of the crate: album review #119 – curved air: airconditioning
Curved Air – 1969 lineup – [CLICK to enlarge]

 

A few words about the group prior to getting ourselves involved in some mighty good music.

Curved Air were an anomaly in the world of British progressive-rock because of Sonja Kristina’s sensual vocals (a veteran of the “Hair” musical play) and Darryl Way’s romantic violin.

In addition there was Francis Monkman’s synthesizer (some say the real genius behind many of their compositions).

Finally there was Sonja Kristina. Despite her Swedish sounding name she was born in Essex England, in 1949.

In fact her mother was Swedish and she was born with the name Sonja Christina Shaw. By the age of thirteen was appearing on stage in folk clubs. In 1968 she successfully auditioned for the part of “Crissy” in the London stage production of “Hair“.

She had performed for a short time with the Strawbs and then it was suggested that she should become the lead singer for a four piece group, called Curved Air.

Curved Air had been providing the music for the stage show – “Who The Murderer Was”. Now there are various accounts of how this actually came about but what is critical is that the guys in the group knew they were onto someone special when she auditioned.

To her surprise, she was accepted immediately becoming the fifth member of the group.

Sonja Kristina was in fact what could be considered as the “key-stone” of the lineup. The four guys were all excellent musicians with Way and Monkman bordering on genius’ – but with Kristina out front not only did she bring a uniquely powerful voice to the music but, she played a full creative role bringing with it a powerful female sexuality.

cream of the crate: album review #119 – curved air: airconditioning
Sonja Kristina

 

Daryl Way was born in England in 1948 and began his musical training at Dartington College of Arts, and later, studied at the Royal College of Music.

When he met Francis Monkman, they formed the band Sisyphus, which evolved into Curved Air.

Way is an excellent keyboard player but his electric violin playing ability shot him up into the upper echelons of talented musicians. In addition to Curved Air he formed a number of other groups and played on the Jethro Tull album – “Heavy Horses”, which was released 1978.

He has released a number of solo albums including Concerto for Electric Violin, which premiered on the South Bank Show with the Royal Philharmonia Orchestra in 1978. In November 1996 his own opera, The Russian Opera, was premiered at The Place Theater in London.

 

cream of the crate: album review #119 – curved air: airconditioning
Daryl Way

 

Francis Monkman was also born in England, in 1949.

He studied organ and harpsichord, later studying at the Royal College of Music, (along with Daryl Way) winning the Raymond Russell prize for virtuosity on the harpsichord. He became a member of the Academy of St. Martin in the Fields and along with Daryl Way he formed both Sisyphus and Curved Air.

Not only known for his then “traditional” keyboard abilities, he was one of the fist of his contemporaries to “master” the minimoog and in fact he he was invited to play both the minimoog and harpsichord on Elton Johns second album.

He worked with an impressive array of artists including The Shadows, Phil Manzanera, Brian Eno, Brian Bennett and, along with John Williams founded the group Sky in 1980.

Thereafter he resumed classical performances and recordings including the soundtrack to the British film, The Long Good Friday.

cream of the crate: album review #119 – curved air: airconditioning
Francis Monkman



Robert Martin was the original bass player of the group but for reasons not disclosed, was replaced on bass just prior to this album being recorded.

He was the first to leave in the many line-up changes to come but he was replaced at this time by Ian Eyre.

Florian Pilkington-Miksa, was the first and last drummer with the group.

He was born in 1950 in London and most of his illustrious drumming career has been with Curved Air.

He was in the band supporting Police and this performance consisted of Sting on bass, Andy Summers and Kim Turner on guitars and himself on drums – all wearing masks to hide their identity.

 

cream of the crate: album review #119 – curved air: airconditioning
Ian Eyre

cream of the crate: album review #119 – curved air: airconditioning
Florian Pilkington-Miksa

 

cream of the crate: album review #119 – curved air: airconditioning
Pilkington-Miksa, Eyre, Kristina, Way & Monkman



OK, time to look at the album, and so to side 1, track number 1 It Happened Today.

Written by Francis Monkman it really is an excellent track to kick the album off as it showcases all that is good about the group.

On the earlier version of this album Kristina was credited as the vocalist/lyricist but she later explained that the track was actually conceptualised by Monkman who actually wrote the music and lyrics, which she later made some modifications to.

She also warned of not looking for any deep meanings to the lyrics, which fans often tried to do, as there were none.

This track was released as a single to promote the album and although the album reached a very respectable number 8 on the British charts, the single failed to chart at all.

In retrospect I am amazed.

It manages to feature the skills of each member of the group with the piano playing of Francis Monkman being more than adequately supported by his excellent guitar playing.

Certainly most listeners are immediately captivated by Kristina’s voice however it is the playing of the electric violin by Daryl Way that stands out to me. It takes over half the track before it is introduced, but his playing really stands the hair on my neck up

The blending of it with the VCS3 Synth utterly sets the mood for the whole album.

cream of the crate: album review #119 – curved air: airconditioning
Monkman with his VCS3 synth

 

It Happened Today

 

If you want to cut to the chase and listen to the epitome of what the group could do and why they utterly grabbed me when this album was released, go no further than the final track on side number one.

This is Vivaldi.

It is an instrumental improvisation loosely based upon the work of the Italian composer – Vivaldi. The track jumps straight into the most amazing violin work that gently but surely builds up for over a minute.

Some reviewers claimed it took to long to get to the climax – well I thought the longer it takes to climax the better for all parties, and this is a beauty!

Yes it takes a while to get going but once it does you realise why it needed so long to build up.

This is one of the most beautifully composed songs by the group, with the music “composed”, or composed/modified by Way.

I get the feeling that each member was encouraged to put their own spin on the piece and there was the danger of it becoming disjointed, but it doesn’t!

Personally, and despite a number of negative reviews, I think every track on this album has been lovingly crafted and it’s hard to imagine how much time and how much love went into putting this piece together.

It has been said that no matter how well the ingredients are prepared, no matter how well the cake is baked, it’s the icing on the top that gives a beautiful cake its finish – and this track has its icing, and, its played by Daryl Way with his violin.

After building up, it slows back down and a calmer section takes over. Then the group continues to play around with various ideas and all the time the violin is dancing around in the background.

There were a lot of good things said about the string playing on the ELO records, but I tell you, Daryl Way’s playing make the string players in ELO sound like good hardworking, well trained artisans.

He and his playing set him up in comparison, as the “Master”!

It might best be described as Vivaldi in a spaceship! Oh, I don’t think I mentioned that the track runs for about 7 minutes and thirty seconds!

Vivaldi

 

cream of the crate: album review #119 – curved air: airconditioning
Curved Air promo picture: 1970

 

Turn the album over and track number one is Hide and Seek.

This is another Daryl Way composition with lyrics by Kristina. A straight 4/4 drum beat, a simple piano line and a distorted guitar it has a simple and straightforward opening.

Then the pace picks up with a clean guitar and a simple violin accompaniment before the tempo undergoes a subtle change and Sonja Kristina comes in with powerful lead vocals, while she and Way sings the harmony vocals. “Shadows forming where the night begins . . .”

The girl is alone, calling out for her man, and as we listen to the story the pace picks up once again and there is a sense of urgency.

Then it becomes a scary nighttime horror/nighttime terrors, bordering on on panic, smashed by a menacing thunderous electric guitar and cascading drums.

Now if that’s not enough there’s a pretty awesome coda toward the end when some powerful but exhausted drums dance with crystalline piano glissando’s and, there is an undertow of energy created by a nice distorted guitar line.

Very emotional and cathartic.

I really enjoyed Kristina’s vocals she demonstrates some amazing mid ranged vocal lines and some soaring high vocals to beautifully supplement the energy of the music.

(Try to doubt the unknown)
*Walk in the streets
A call your name
And no one comes
Running through the town
I call your name
I know no one here

Shadows forming where the night begins
(Just the breeze comes in)
Doors all closed and window curtains drawn
(All the people are gone)
(* Repeat)

Doors all closed and window curtains drown
(All the people are gone)
Streets deserted and I am here alone
(Try to doubt the unknown)

Hide and Seek

 

Track 4 on side 2 is a fabulous track – Situations.

Written by Daryl Way and bassist Robert Martin, it kicks off with some very gentle bass and violin tracking the same notes and we are cajoled into a dream state by Kristina’s voice where she sings of her love and her pain for a love gone wrong.

Then, “break-out”!

Just as we begin to get into a groove the pace drops back with Sonja opening her heart to us and has Daryl Way providing harmonies.

This beautiful piece of music is reinforced with some beautiful bell tree and delightful keyboard glissando’s. It is creatively used to lull us into relaxing, but then Francis Monkman just breaks loose on wah whah guitar and his playing is added to a solid wall of sound from the keyboards and assorted synths.

Phil Spector would have approved.

It really is an anguished yet exciting atmosphere and as it all comes to crescendo, the guitar is crying, wave after wave of synth washes add to the solidity of the piece less we get lost in the moment.

Then in comes the bell tree and the pace drops back and it breaks up with Kristina’s vocals again becoming the centrepiece.

I love her whispered line – sometimes it just takes one word, but in some ways we don’t really get enough of it.

Incidentally Daryl Way’s harmonies are spot on.

Situations

 

The fact I haven’t discussed the other tracks is by no means any indicator that they may be the weaker tracks. Far from it.

Track number two on side 1 (Stretch) is one “far-out” track, with a pace that would keep any active dancer on their feet and in fact demonstrates the excellent production and engineering that went into this album.

The following track, Screw, is a beautiful down-tempo ballad style which was written by Sonja Kristina and has a beautiful and haunting violin moving through it.

On side two we have the track Rob One which is strictly an instrumental based around piano and violin and fits nicely into the tracks before and after it.

The line up of Curved Air would change many times over the years, in fact it changed four times in the groups first three years of existence.

However Kristina, Way and Pilkington-Miksa stayed throughout the first 14 incarnations, with “key-man” Darryl Way leaving the group in 2009.

The group continues today.

In summary this album is near flawless.

Reviews on the album done at the time of its release were critical of the overall sound, declaring is was distorted at worse and messy at best.

We now know that this was entirely due to the poor technology associated with the attempt to produce a “picture album”, and the second more conventional “black vinyl” release has an infinitely better quality sound.

It was groundbreaking largely due to their sound being a mix of British Psych Rock with Folk Rock and strong Classical overtones, mostly coming out of Way’s violin and due largely to his classical music education.

While the tracks are at times not particularly complex, the constant use of violins, the discreet Mellotron and synth parts and the psychedelic guitars, definitely complete an attractive Art Rock combination of sound that while groundbreaking at the time, still stands the test of time.

With Sonja Kristina’s powerful but delightful vocals just blowing people out, singing as though there there was to be no tomorrow, this was absolutely their most powerful album.

Future albums would move in interesting directions, but somehow despite the improvement in the lyric writing, they never recaptured the raw energy of Airconditioning.

cream of the crate: album review #119 – curved air: airconditioning
Daryl Way, Sonja Kristina & Florian Pilkington-Miksa (2008)

 

There are many versions of this album now on the market.

I have discovered many reviews that suggest that at least one of the later CD releases sounded as though they had used the original picture album as a master, and the sound was trashy.

I also believe that the producers of the CD releases failed to provide any form of fold-out or booklet, and that is a crime as really so little is known by the general public of this group and you would think that re-releasing digitally would provide a perfect opportunity of getting more info out.

So, all I can do is too commend to you the green labeled black vinyl LP, which is a shame as I know some readers/listeners only use CD’s and MP3’s, despite the fact that there may be decent vinyl versions.

Certainly the album was re-released fairly recently on vinyl and while i have not heard it, let’s hope it was cut from master tapes and not that picture LP.

However, it can be downloaded from the iTunes store which will at least give to you on the better Apple proprietary format.


VIDEOS:

Happily I found the following live performances by this version of Curved Air for your entertainment and “education”.

 

Propositions

 

Vivaldi

 

It Happened Today