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Curved Air - Phantasmagoria CD (album) cover


Curved Air


Eclectic Prog

3.81 | 256 ratings

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Psychedelic Paul
4 stars CURVED AIR arrived on the English Progressive Rock scene like a fresh sea breeze in 1970. They're a classic band from the Golden Age of Prog, long before angry young oiks came along to spoil it all in 1977 by forming "bands", and then causing Anarchy in the U.K by snorting Harpic up their nostrils and then going on to make a godawful racket on Radio Riot FM by banging bits of furniture together - which is about as exciting to listen to as tuning into the Shipping Forecast on BBC Radio 4 to find out the state of the sea at Dogger Bank. Curved Air were a REAL band featuring the striking vocals of Sonja Kristina, who was actually from the unremarkable town of Brentwood in Essex, despite her exotic-sounding name. The line-up also included violinist and keyboard player extraordinaire, Darryl Way. His maniacal violin-playing was a major part of what gave Curved Air such a unique sound, and he also co-wrote the band's only hit single "Back Street Luv", which featured on their second album in 1971. He later went on to form his own wild and untamed band, Darryl Way's Wolf in 1973. Another key member of the early line-up was Francis Monkman on guitars and keyboards, who later achieved great success with the Classical Rock Fusion band, Sky. The rhythm section of Curved Air featured a revolving door line-up of bass players with the powerhouse presence of Florian Pilkington-Miksa on drums and percussion for their first three studio albums. Curved Air's cleverly- titled first album "Airconditioning" (1970) featured "Vivaldi", one of their best-known signature songs, allowing Darryl Way to go off on an unrestrained free flight of fancy with his vivacious violin. Seemingly running out of inspiration for album titles, Curved Air's second album was simply titled "Second Album" (1971). It's their third album though, "Phantasmagoria" (1972), which is generally regarded as their finest album, and that's the album we're focusing on here for this review. The band were given a breath of fresh air with a change of line-up for their amusingly-titled "Air Cut" (1973) album. A Live album followed in 1975 and the band released two further studio albums in the mid-70's, "Midnight Wire" (1975) and "Airborne" (1976) which failed to really take off. Curved Air then took a VERY long extended break on the island of Hiatus and made a long-awaited return with Sonja Kristina still on vocals for two comeback albums in the new millennium, "Reborn" (2008) and "North Star" (2014), followed by an instrumental double album, "Curved Space & Infinity" (2016), bringing us right up to date. It's time now to find out what phantasmagorical musical delights Curved Air have managed to conjure up for their third album.

Scaramouche, Scaramouche, can you do the fandango? No, it's not THAT Queen. It's "Marie Antoinette", the first song on the album and the tragic last Queen of France before the French Revolution, who was very unfairly executed for "high treason" by guillotine. Not that being executed by guillotine can ever be considered "fair", but that's the French Revolutionaries for you, where the normal rulebook which governed law and order was thrown out the French window and trodden on. Anyway, back to the music, and what we have here is a simply stunning Symphonic Prog masterpiece in the best traditions of Annie Haslam's Renaissance. Sonja Kristina's hauntingly beautiful siren-song vocals really lift this historic song up into prog heaven and beyond on a soaring wave of passionate intensity and raw emotion. Just take a look at these flag-waving nationalistic lyrics in the dramatic fervour of the first verse:- "Marie Antoinette, Your name's a legend, In this land, Treasure for your pleasure, Bestowed on favoured gentleman, The people are in arms, Marching on the town, They rise - Changing revolution! Vive la Nation!" ..... And that's just the beginning, with five more verses to come! It's enough to make you come over all patriotic and stand up for a rousing rendition of the French national anthem, especially if you happen to be French. "Marie Antoinette" is a real masterclass in songwriting, and when the powerful lyrics are combined with surging symphonic splendour, the end result is simply sublime! It's enough to make you go all weak at the knees and leave you with a delicious warm and fuzzy feeling inside. You know the feeling. This orgiastic aural delight will take you as Close to the Edge of experiencing the Big "O" as you can possibly get without even taking your clothes off.

Having been lifted to the heights of aural ecstasy and beyond with the stunning opening number, it's time now for the melancholic haunting refrain of "Melinda (More or Less)", a gentle Folk song that's so sweet, you can almost taste the honey. The warm and tender music glides softly over the listener like a light zephyr breeze, sounding as soft and gentle as the gossamer wings of an angel. This lovely song reminds one of the Uriah Heep classic "Come Away Melinda", although Uriah Heep didn't have Sonja Kristina's sweet angelic voice to carry you up to prog heaven on a pleasure-wave of blissful sweet dreams. "Melinda (More or Less)" is truly beautiful with a disposition as gentle and unthreatening as a Golden Labrador puppy playing with a roll of Andrex toilet tissue - if you can still buy a roll of Andrex in the shops. The title of the third song on the album "Not Quite the Same" is a bit of a misnomer, because it represents a complete departure from the first two superlative songs. It's an offbeat and slightly freakish tune, arriving with a fanfare of trumpets and sounding somewhat akin to Curved Air's one and only hit song "Back Street Luv", only quirkier. The kooky song is as eccentric and unexpected as the sight of Arnold Schwarzeneggar ballet dancing to Swan Lake, in a pink tutu. Yes, this bizarre tune might sound as crazy and demented as a box of frogs at times, but if variety is the spice that makes for a great album, Curved Air have scored a hat trick with the first three unique songs on this phantasmagorical feast for the ears. Not only does each song arrive like a breath of fresh (Curved) Air, but the band have also managed to carve out their own distinctive niche of prog that's instantly recognisable to every ardent "progaholic". The fourth song on the album, "Cheetah", is a manic instrumental violin-fest, sounding as fast and nimble as Usain Bolt being chased across the Serengeti by a hungry lion, and finally, closing out Side One comes "Ultra-Vivaldi", which is exactly what it says on the label. It's a brief, ultra-ramped-up version of the original Curved Air classic, only this time it's a crazy synthesiser that's on the rampage intead of a violin, and sounding like Rick Wakeman on steroids!

And now for something completely different, as we arrive at the title track, "Phantasmagoria", another strange and quirky tune, but that's no less than what you'd expect from a song called "Phantasmagoria", an off-kilter song which conjures up spooky images of ghosts and ghoulies going through walls in a haunted mansion at midnight, during a thunderstorm. A brief sample of the creepy lyrics gives you a foretaste of what you can expect to hear:- "You run upstairs to lie there, Waiting for the floor to creak and, And something goes bumpity bumpity bump up the stairs, The time has come to wonder, Who could be the owner of that cold clammy hand that's exploring the end of the bed." ..... It's still not safe to come out from under the bed yet though with the seventh "song", "Whose Shoulder Are You Looking Over Anyway?", which is not really a song at all, but a very unsettling series of scary nightmare images and sounds you might experience in a bad dream, or your worst nightmare. There's no escape from the nightmare either as Curved Air unleash Merry Hell with "Over and Above", a manic Looney Tune that sounds like it belongs in a straitjacket, although it's also rather wonderful too. The band constantly blur the lines between fantasy and reality here and enter a surreal Twilight Zone world, embarking on a wild excursion into the Outer Limits of Prog with unrestrained gay abandon. Finally, it's time to get off the Crazy Train with the funky sound of "Once a Ghost, Always a Ghost", a syncopated funky gibbon groove featuring African tribal rhythms and a vibrant vibraphone too!

Curved Air's extraordinary third album is a towering cumulonimbus thunderhead amongst classic prog albums. When you have a band with such a talented line-up as Curved Air, combined with a prog album from the golden year of 1972, you know you have an album that's just as dependable and reliable as a German automobile with a Sat Nav that always points Fritz in the direction of Poland as he's heading down the autobahn. Curved Air's "Phantasmagoria" is quite literally an album of two halves, with Side One featuring some outstanding and memorable prog classics, before going completely off the rails for Side Two, which takes you on a dark descent into madness in a terrifying world of phantasmagorical dreams and nightmares which still sounds crazy after all these years, but only in a good way. It's prog, but not as we know it. If ever an album deserved a place in the Eclectic Prog section of ProgArchives, then it's this offbeat but superb album, which takes prog to new extremes of eclecticism. Choosing not to listen to this fine album would be a bit like having Kate Winslet in your bed and choosing to sleep on the couch instead, and if you only decide to buy one Curved Air album, buying this album is as easy a choice to make as deciding between a holiday on the sunny French Riviera or the permafrost wasteland of Yakutsk in Siberia.

Psychedelic Paul | 4/5 |


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